Raising children consciously
Parenting is a state that resides deep within the realms of both instinct and tradition. But the strongest determinant of your parenting instincts is how you mother and father parented you. Depending on your experience, you may either repeat their way of parenting or do the opposite as a reaction to your own parent-inflicted trauma.
This repetition in parenting behaviour patterns can condemn us to make the same mistakes over and over through the generations. If we don’t take responsibility for raising our children in the most enlightened manner possible, how can we expect them to take responsibility for themselves, their health, their state of mind and their ability to love?
It’s a challenge to stand apart from the ever-repeating cycle and ask yourself, “What do I want for my child in every moment?” For it’s all those moments that make up their life.
How can we apply the same level of consciousness to raising our children as we do to so many of our own issues? Here are some practical steps towards aware parenting.
The fourth trimester
The first few months of new parenthood have been referred to as “the fourth trimester” of your baby’s life. For parents, this is the most intense time, but it needn’t be the most difficult.
Of all mammals, humans are born at the earliest stage of maturation. But consider other mammals born almost as fragile and dependent as humans. A baby orang-utan, for instance, is carried almost constantly on its mother’s body until capable of dealing with life on its own.
This is a useful way to look at the early months and it helps to distinguish advice based on this premise from the stern instructions characteristic of a fast-paced, get-things-done society.
Controlled crying is an example of a common practice considered by many to be harmful and unnatural. It makes sense that keeping your baby close is what’s best for baby and your relationship with them.
You might say, “There are no predators in the nursery; my baby is safe,” but the sound of a baby’s anguished, unanswered cries does indicate a danger: as well as being distressing for the infant, being left to cry may engender a sense of abandonment in them.
The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health has expressed concern about controlled crying and doesn’t encourage the practice or variations on the theme. Essentially, controlled crying disregards the only method of communication available to your child.
Babies and young children have shorter sleep cycles, which means more episodes of waking but also more REM sleep, essential to brain development. Hence controlled crying — and other sleep training methods designed to keep children asleep for longer periods — may train infants out of these shorter cycles, robbing them of their quota of REM.
In the 1960s, English psychiatrist John Bowlby developed what’s known as “attachment theory”. This theory holds that babies thrive on having a secure, touch-oriented attachment to their parents — being constantly held rather than placed in a pram or cot.
More recently, science has detected positive benefits to babies’ immune systems when they’re held predominantly in states of physical closeness to the mother or primary carer.
When you think about it, it’s not so surprising. After a baby has been inside the womb for nine months, it’s a harsh transition to go from the security and familiarity of mother’s body to spending large parts of the day in a pram or cot, away from mum’s reassuring heartbeat.
Jean Liedloff, in her seminal 1975 book The Continuum Concept, named this vital stage in early childhood care the “in-arms phase”. Several years in the jungles of South America with a tribe of Indians had shown her an alternative, more nurturing way to raise children than the conventional Western way.
Skin-to-skin contact is a vital physical reassurance to the newborn child and this contact is part of a 2 million-year-old continuum. Strapping the baby to the mother by means of a sling or similar device, allowing the child to be part of the mother’s energy field, has been customary in numerous cultures throughout the world. Through observation, the baby is also learning about the mother’s world and her day-to-day activities.
Avoid the front-pack baby carriers in which the legs hang straight down, however, as they’re not considered good for spinal development.
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and thereafter a diet of appropriate foods and breastmilk.
Not that the WHO’s recommendation should be interpreted as an instruction to wean at six months, for longer-term breastfeeding has wonderful benefits. In fact, six months could be seen as a premature time to wean when you take into account the experience of human history, and that of much of the world’s current population.
If you can do it, the best foundation for ensuring your child’s needs are being met is to breastfeed on demand for the first year or as long as is mutually desirable. Some time in the second year, the child’s understanding of others’ needs may grow to allow you to gently begin asserting your own needs. Your own instincts and your child’s reaction are the best guides here.
The fact remains that breastmilk changes with the growing infant and is undoubtedly the most natural source of nutrition.
Toddler years and beyond
The toddler years are the beginning of individuation and very challenging for many parents and children. The child is becoming aware that they’re a separate person; their own desires are emerging and taking control of their body, mind, voice and spirit. The age of the tantrum has arrived.
How many of us have looked at or taken part in some sort of release therapy? Toddlers should be release-therapy practitioners. They are open valves of emotion, living in the moment and embodying the oneness that so many of us strive for.
To raise toddlers consciously it’s essential not to crush this exuberance while guiding them in the ways of the world via your own personal boundaries. To parent authentically is to allow your toddler to express themselves within the boundaries you are comfortable with.
There is no benefit to the toddler, though, in allowing them to climb on your head while you patiently wait for their exuberance to change to respect. You need to indicate you have personal boundaries, which they are now ready to learn.
As you teach them to respect your boundaries, they’ll learn to give respect and expect the same from others. This is the foundation of self-respect.
Gentle discipline means respecting your toddler as another human being. It doesn’t mean allowing them to walk all over you — this is not what the toddler wants or needs. Gentle discipline involves negotiation from a place of empathy with a view to a long-term goal as opposed to the short-term convenience of an obedient toddler with eyes downcast in shame.
Shaming and physical punishment/solitary confinement (“time out”) have become the cornerstones of popular discipline methods. This is what psychologist and psychotherapist Robin Grille, in his book Parenting for a Peaceful World, terms “operating in socialising mode”.
The socialising mode is characterised by a preoccupation with social norms and producing children who’ll function well in society — be employable, polite and well-mannered. When operating in this mode, in order to train children, it’s usually necessary to curb their natural desires in some way.
If you see your child becoming aggressive, don’t wait for them to hit someone and then punish them. Intervene, ask if they’re feeling angry and tell them it’s not acceptable to hit people, but it is fine to feel angry. Invite them to belt a cushion to alleviate their frustration. This can be great fun.
Invite and employ negotiation. Think about the wonderful skills you’re passing on by respecting their desires enough to negotiate. Blind obedience loses its appeal somewhat after about age 10; after that, we value initiative.
If your child doesn’t want their nappy changed, but it is stinky and you need to go out, you can say, “We have to change your nappy, but would you like to bring this toy with you, or this one?” Or, “We have to change your nappy now, but would you like to do it on the change table or on the couch?”
This alleviates the monotony a toddler must feel in being powerless; it gives them a choice within your boundaries. You need to go out now — that’s your boundary. So within that, what can you offer?
Frustration abounds in the toddler years. The child is becoming independent in so many ways yet its natural exuberance is often met with opposition from parents and from the child’s own limitations.
Allow tantrums to run their course. They are the toddler’s therapy; they are valid expressions and should be honoured. If your child wants chocolate in the middle of shopping and you don’t want her to have it, fair enough. However, she’ll be upset and, though it wouldn’t distress you that much, for her it’s the end of the world. There’s no point telling her it isn’t.
So let her sit on the ground and have a tanty. Really, what’s the big deal? Be brave and weather the disapproving glances of others. Honour your child, focus on your child and you’ll be amazed at the transformation after she’s grieved over the chocolate experience that never was.
Look behind the behaviour
It’s important that you delve beneath the behaviour presented by your child and always ask, “Why?” The holistic way is to look at the whole child, not just the particular behaviour you’d like to stamp out. What’s happening with your child that’s making him react in this way? Can you help him? As we all know, it’s always better to deal with the cause than the symptom.
Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn, outlines the problems with a system of punishments and rewards. We are dealing with a child, not a rat, but a behaviourist punishment/reward system is based on studies conducted with rats and morsels of food — not humans.
Withholding love and approval sends a message to our children that they’re only lovable if they do what we want. What a worrying idea to take to the world.
It’s better to work with your child to achieve the best for all involved rather than do to them in order to have your own laws obeyed. For example, a punishment is something you do to your child. Instead, consider working out a solution that’s acceptable to both parties.
Mutual respect and authenticity
These are perhaps the most important elements that underpin all aspects of gentle discipline. When your child does something that makes you angry, tell them so, just as you would your partner.
Communicate with your child with respect, with feeling and authenticity. Your child wants to know you. Your needs are also important: a self-sacrificing parent is not being authentic and your child can feel it.
If you’ve had enough of reading Maisy after the 50th time that day, then stop. Offer another suggestion or just say “I need a break” and offer an alternative activity that doesn’t involve you. Your child can learn to respect your threshold, as you respect theirs.
The bigger picture
Are we parenting today in a manner that’s all about making things easier for parents or are we parenting for healthier, happier children? Is placing a six-month-old baby in full-time childcare in the best interests of that child? Are we relinquishing our parental responsibilities to paid professionals for purely economic reasons? Economics is, after all, about the value of things. What is the value of a well-loved child throughout their lifetime?
Robin Grille prefaces his book with: “The key to world peace and sustainability lies in the way we collectively relate to our children.” This might not be the first occasion in human history when this idea has been expressed. Today, however, groundbreaking research has confirmed it anew.
Our understanding of early childhood development has grown so rapidly in recent years, we applaud Robin Grille when he writes, “The human brain and heart that are met primarily with empathy in the critical early years cannot and will not grow to choose a violent or selfish life.”
There is a link between how we parent our children and the levels of violence and exploitation in our communities. Each moment with our children provides an opportunity to foster respect for self and others, to nurture them with the same enlightened quality of love we desire in your own lives and, above all, to allow their individual spirit to flourish.
When as a parent you are temporarily subsumed by negative emotions (rage, despair and the like), find ways to vent them away from your child. Remember, in reality, they’re just very small people, not the “Todzillas” they sometimes seem to be. As with all moments of feeling overwhelmed, remember: “This too shall pass.”
Remember, too, that there’s no quick fix. Raising children consciously is time-consuming, challenging and a true act of love.
Robin Grille, Parenting for a Peaceful World, Longueville Media 2005. www.our-emotional-health.com
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept, Penguin 2004 reissue Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, Aria Books
Jan Hunt, The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC 2001
A.J. Solter, The Aware Baby: A New Approach to Parenting, Shining Star Press, Goleta California 1998
Daniel N. Stern, The First Relationship: Infant & Mother, Harvard University Press 2002.
Suzy Barry & Sudha Hamilton are the parents of two young children.Suzy Barry was the editor of Choosing a School for your Child and is now the editor of Birthings, a homebirth magazine. Sudha Hamilton is a regular contributor to WellBeing and is also its National Sales Manager. W: www.midasword.com.au.