I’ve been chatting with many parents and teachers recently about the pressure and angst which many of us feel about making the ‘right decisions’ and doing what ‘is right’ for our children.
There is still a strong sense of competitive parenting in our communities and many mums particularly are still striving to be perfect parents, which puts stress and pressure on children to also be perfect. Be reassured there is no perfect.
There can be days when our intentions and honourable expectations line up with the stars and we can feel that we’ve had a good day and that positive outcomes have occurred. We also need to recognise we can do exactly the same things the next day and have a really crappy day where very few positive outcomes occur. This is normal. When you have one of those crappy days you are not a bad parent.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO RAISE THE PERFECT CHILD, BUT WHAT WE CAN DO IS HELP OUR CHILDREN BE THE BEST EXPRESSION OF THEIR UNIQUE SELF.
Meltdowns, night terrors, sibling arguments, fussy eating, sleepless nights, lipstick drawings, and small bumps and bruises are all biologically normal occurrences when raising children. Every single stage of your child’s development will have a gift and a challenge.
Do you remember when you couldn’t wait until they could walk? And then you couldn’t find them and they ran away from you in shopping centres? Do you remember when they couldn’t talk? And now there are seriously times where you wish they would talk less?
Parents are our children’s number one teacher even after our children have begun schooling. I firmly believe every parent wants their children to grow up to be happy, healthy, capable, strong, kind and resilient. And that is a noble and fabulous intention. Remembering that every single child is born a one-off miracle, I believe we need to also hold a strong intention to nurture the uniqueness of every child.
We need to embrace that every child has come with a unique blend of genetics, temperament, neurological possibilities and physical capacities that makes them who they are.
I often chat with parents who have children with extra challenges who instead of being seen as children with disabilities — they get frustrated because their children can be seen by some as ‘less than’ — they see them as they should be: as children with unique needs, wants and desires.
Our biggest challenge I believe as parents is to help our children become the best expression of themselves regardless of what they look like, how they stack up on the endless standard tests available, what gender they are, what culture they belong to and all the other diverse ways that we categorise people and children. Every single child has potential and our focus should be on supporting every one of them to realise that.
So, what can help us raise our kids to be the best (or close to it) expression of their unique self?
FIND OR CREATE A CARING SUPPORTIVE VILLAGE
Have other family, friends or community folks around who accept our kids as they are — not just as they could be. I know of such a circle where the mammas meet each week for a long play in a park on Fridays. One of the village’s boys has some delays in self-regulation and he is prone to impulsive behaviours that can accidentally hurt other kids. All these mammas help him and his frazzled mum to guide him to make better choices. They welcome him and his mum regardless of his unique way of navigating the world as a little boy.
EXPOSE YOUR CHILD TO A WIDE VARIETY OF EXPERIENCES
As wide as possible. We never know what may become a preferred pastime or favourite activity. I have met grownups who grew up in suburbia yet discovered a love of the great outdoors on a camping holiday and have ended up becoming environmental warriors and some have even become farmers!
IDENTIFY CHALLENGES EARLY AND HELP OUR KIDS TO BUILD CAPACITY AND AWARENESS
No matter what the challenge may be — under-developed gross motor skills, speech challenges, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and low social awareness as many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have — we need to ensure we see our need to increase capacity rather than needing to ‘fix our kids’. These challenges can often be the beginning of a life purpose. I have met adults who had hearing problems who went on to work with children with speech and hearing challenges. I have also met many grownups who had a serious childhood illness or experienced a serious accident who later become nurses or doctors.
NAME AND NURTURE YOUR KID’S STRENGTHS
Even as toddlers you can often start to see some innate strengths in your kids. One of my granddaughters has fantastic upper body strength — she can climb really high! Her parents and I identified this upper body strength. The moment was when she threw herself out of her cot at 14 months of age with her sleeping bag on! For other toddlers they can remember all the words to songs, or they seem to be fascinated by building things, or have a fascination for bugs and grubs. Do your best to encourage these strengths and nurture them. I know of kids who have turned a love of frogs into a life-long career as a frog-amphibian biologist. Many kids who learn to cook with their grandmother have gone on to become passionate, capable cooks and chefs.
HONOUR YOUR KIDS’ NEED FOR FREEDOM AND AUTONOMY
This can be difficult, to learn to both trust and respect your child’s need to make their own choices. Thankfully, unstructured play is a fabulous way to ensure we avoid over-directing our kid’s lives. Prioritising this as much as possible in the first 10 years of life will give this biological need plenty of time to evolve and grow.
BUILDING EMOTIONAL AND SOCIAL AWARENESS
Human relationships are more than simply important; they are biologically essential for wellbeing and survival. The digital landscape has displaced much of the time that children played with other children. We have since seen an increase in kids’ anxiety and bullying. We must prioritise human conversation between humans, because the ability to feel connected needs it. Later in life, intimate relationships need humans to be able to communicate needs, wants and to be able to share joy and delight as well as to share moments of adversity.
FOCUS ON BUILDING RESILIENCE
Resilient kids and adults do better in life on all levels. They have more grit, persistence and they recover from adversity better and sooner. We cannot learn emotional buoyancy without experiencing moments of challenge. Embrace moments of failure and unexpected setbacks as teachable moments, not signs of something being wrong or bad. I have written about ways for building resilience for over a decade. Parents can really give their children an expectation that while life can throw a curved ball at times. I can tell you now, it’s what you do with it that matters. You can read more about building resilience in your child here.
PRACTICE IMPROVES PERFORMANCE
This message needs to be frequently alluded to in our homes. Make it the norm when a new hobby, or sporting pursuit or life passion presents itself. You may notice there is a strong innate passion when a child discovers something. That may be a ‘spark’ of possibility that may become a life-long interest or career pathway. As a child I loved to write and often wrote poems and stories as a way to entertain myself. But, I never wrote my first book until I was 47!
NEVER CRUSH DREAMS
Our kids may tell us they hope they can grow up to be a dog, Elsa from Frozen, an astronaut or the next Serena Williams. Just smile and allow that to be OK. When we use logic to explain why these dreams are impossible, we can stop them from dreaming altogether.
SHARE AND CELEBRATE THE SUCCESS STORIES FROM INSPIRED KIDS
Especially those who have experienced extra challenge and diverse life journeys. To start with there is Campbell Remess, who as a 12-year-old boy began making bears for kids in hospitals. He has since become famous for his goodwill gesture, which has now become a movement world-wide.
Just recently, I heard about Molly Steer who has become a passionate environmental warrior. Brant Garvey is a fabulous example of a boy born missing a lower leg. Has has turned his life into one of enormous purpose inspiring others to realise their best selves. Another great example is Harrison Craig who has struggled his whole life with a stutter. He went on to sing (amazingly) on The Voice and went on to win the popular music reality TV show. One of my students failed my final-year English class and failed to graduate. He went on to sell a software company for over $2 million in his early twenties. A great example of a boy who had found a way to shine in his own way. Given our often self-absorbed, self-interested and selfie-focused world, finding a way to be authentically original may be the secret to happiness and success.
FINDING A PATHWAY TO BEING OUR TRUE SELVES
Doing something that makes us feel good about ourselves while creating a life of purpose — might be something we need to ponder when raising our kids. Many university-educated people are unable to find jobs in the field of their training. Given this, we might need to reconsider the social norms about prioritising higher education over other life pathways.
Maybe we need to focus our kids in the direction of wellbeing first. Healthy people will be more effective in the working world whatever that may be. Given our incredibly exciting, ever-changing world, it may help our kids to be ready for work possibilities that have not even been created yet. Food for thought for sure.
So, good parents, maybe relax about making the ‘right choices’ and doing what’s best. Instead, just be mindful of discovering who your child really is. Celebrate their uniqueness to help them shine at being that person.
Maggie Dent is an author, educator, and parenting and resilience specialist.