Gentle parenting: Allow a child to experience unfairness in certain situations, rather than shielding them from everything, to prepare them for real life

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When you engage your child in conversation as part of your parenting process, you empower them, believes UAE-based Pakistani-Canadian mum Farida Khalil. However, she explains: “It’s tough to balance things because you are trying to be their friend but whatever you are saying as a friend might contradict what you believe as a parent. It gets tough sometimes.”

Meanwhile, Aussie mum Mel Craven, who spent 12 years in Dubai before heading Down Under, explains that gentle parenting – which focuses on child’s choices and preferences and is what she and Khalil practice – also leads to a lot of mum guilt and, at least in the beginning, societal judgement. “The hardest thing is, we’re all brought up in certain ways. So the way that you’re brought up and parented you think is the right way. It’s kind of more natural [for you] and you just repeat the pattern.

“[When I started gentle parenting] there were a lot of doubts – ‘Am I like spoiling them and creating problems? Will they not be able to respect authority, if I start to change the way I interact?’ By the time I got into the swing of it with the third one, I didn’t care what anybody thought, because I could see that my relationship and the father’s relationship with the kids was so much better,” she says.

A shift in thought

When she had her third child and decided to do things in a more ‘unconventional’ way, Craven withdrew her children from school, preferring to teach them based on their own aptitudes, abilities and interests. The result was the crippling anxiety and negative self-talk that had knocked the boys’ self-esteem over years turned to distant echo and then switched to silence.

And while Craven saw the benefits of the ‘unschooling’ method, it had many detractors, who could – and sometimes did – call it a permissive or ‘anything goes’ kind of style of parenting.

Shonali Lihala, Chief Play Officer at Katie Jane Dubai sensory classes centre, says: “It’s is a common misconception about gentle parenting – that it is permissive. Gentle parenting has clear boundaries that are upheld, the difference is the way a parent supports a child and communicates that boundary.

It’s is a common misconception about gentle parenting – that it is permissive.

– Shonali Lihala

“Let’s give the example of a child who doesn’t want to turn off the iPad. A permissive parent would let the child have more time or say yes after the child gets upset. A gentle parent would say something like, ‘iPad time is over, we can go make a fort if you like’. Then if the child gets upset and starts crying, the gentle parent would stay near the child, uphold the boundary (not give the iPad) , and say, ‘It is upsetting when something is over, I would be upset too!’ (Empathise).”

Forty-five-year-old British mum Becki Wallace says she and her husband grew up in the 70s and 80s and there wasn’t as much information on parenting styles and their impact on young developing brains. But, she adds, “We want our daughter (now five) to experience something different and more life affirming!”

My belief is that you need to do the psychological work on yourself, and it starts to get a lot easier – you need to clear your own traumas and habitual behaviours so the triggers get less.

– Becki Wallace

This means a lot of introspection though, she admits. “In all honesty, regardless of how much you love your child, you definitely don’t feel like a calm and kind leader all the time – especially when you’re bone shatteringly sleep deprived and struggling with everything new, including a different relationship with your husband ….

“My belief is that you need to do the psychological work on yourself, and it starts to get a lot easier – you need to clear your own traumas and habitual behaviours so the triggers get less.” She also recommends honing your own communication skills and finding the right resources including:

  • Books or data on parenting style, what works, what does not and how to make a situation work for you.
  • Find a community, or at least one friend who is following a similar path. The more you feel like you aren’t alone, the better your (unconventional) choices will seem.

Authors to keep an eye out for

Pinky McKay,
Sarah Ockwell Smith,
Janet Lansbury,
Shefali Tsilbury, and
Maggie Dent.

This is also a style of engagement that calls for constant check-ins with yourself, explain parents. Sometimes, when one is triggered, they may behave in a certain way that’s incongruent with their belief system, “Sometimes, parents might be afraid of making the kids upset. We’re afraid of other people not liking us. So we tend to allow them certain things, or allow them to behave in whichever way they want. This is not gentle parenting,” says Russian expat and mum-of-two Svetlana Svetova.

Which is why the founder of PlayMatters Dubai recommends that parents also read up on mindful parenting and attachment parenting.

Svetlana Svetova
Svetlana Svetova with her baby
Image Credit: Supplied

Mindful parenting calls for a caregiver to be present during each interaction they have with a child. Joanne Jewell, therapist at UAE-based Mindful Parenting, adds: “Mindful parenting which is intentionally gentle and also allows us to be conscious about the way we parent rather than simply copying the way we were parented or trying to do the opposite.

“Parents tell me that being more mindful and present with their children allows them to focus on what is behind the behaviour rather than focusing on behaviour management.”

Attachment parenting meanwhile is all about parental emotional responsiveness.

Svetova says that when it comes to agitation over something a child did, a parent must consider:

  • Is this behaviour really a problem or is it just a rule without reason?
  • Is something else bothering me?
  • Is it something that’s my problem or is there an issue with my child’s behaviour?
  • Taking note of these things will help you forge your path ahead, she says.

It’s tough to balance things because you are trying to be their friend but whatever you are saying as a friend might contradict what you believe as a parent.

– Farida Khalil

Always equal?

Does this mean you try to always be kind? Yes. Does it mean you will always be fair? No, say both parents and experts. Khalil explains that the instant she takes ‘a side’ in an argument, she is called fair by one kid and unfair by the other; it’s a no-win situation, she laughs.

Dr May Mazen Hasan, Specialist Paediatrics at Medcare, explains that there is a dark side to being fair all the time – if you are fair all the time, you’ll be setting your child up for failure. “Teaching your child that everyone has got different needs makes them see the world from different point of views. Makes them accept the idea of being fair all the time is not a must. Eventually they will learn how to adapt and live life for their best interest,” she says.

Teaching your child that everyone has got different needs makes them see the world from different point of views. Makes them accept the idea of being fair all the time is not a must. Eventually they will learn how to adapt and live life for their best interest.

– May Mazen Hasan

Kirstan P. Lloyd, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Reverse Psychology, says: “The idea of fairness is often pivotal in my practice when working with both children and adults. I feel it is important for parents to find a balance between compassionate, child-centred parenting (where they take the children’s needs and developmental age into consideration), and preparing children for the real world. Put bluntly, the world is unfair and our children need to have the skills to survive in the real world once they are adults.”

It’s imperative they learn that no matter how much they deserve or believe they deserve a particular outcome, the reward will not always follow.

In order to do so, she suggests the following tips:

1. Setting boundaries: It is important for parents to set consistent, predictable boundaries for their children. Boundaries are essential for a happy, well-balanced development and make the child feel safe. Boundaries also help parents feel empowered and less overwhelmed. Unfortunately, boundaries are not always ‘fair’ (for example, older siblings often have a later bed time than younger children), but we should maintain them as consistently as possible.

2. Tolerating frustrations: It is important that our children experience frustrations as they mature and develop. Situations which children view as ‘unfair’ offer such experiences. It is in these moments that children learn the limits of their power. For example, children who feel omnipotent (because they lack experiences of failure and because they feel things are within their control), can feel incredible anxiety or even shame when adverse events happen (such as a divorce), because they feel they caused them.

In the real world, life is undeniably unfair. Adults who are able to navigate the unfairness of life (for instance, favouritism in the work place, serious illnesses that affect certain people and not others, bad luck, etc.) seem to be more resilient.

– Kirstan P. Lloyd

3. Coping skills for life: When children experience frustrations due to perceived lack of fairness, they are able to develop resiliency and the sense that they are able to survive messy feelings (such as anger and sadness). It is important for our emotional development that we learn that feelings do not last indefinitely, that we have the capacity to survive them and ways in which we can self-regulate (i.e. coping mechanisms). Unfair situations are fertile grounds for such experiences.

4. The real world: In the real world, life is undeniably unfair. Adults who are able to navigate the unfairness of life (for instance, favouritism in the work place, serious illnesses that affect certain people and not others, bad luck, etc.) seem to be more resilient.

When we can accept situations or people as they are with an attitude of ‘it is what it is’, we have a greater sense of peace and stability within ourselves. This is something we can help teach our children through modelling how we navigate life and also through mindful parenting. We can help our children by allowing them to experience unfairness. We can balance these difficult life lessons with compassionate parenting, which acknowledges the child’s feelings and tries to suggest healthy coping strategies.

5. Talking about grey areas: The real world is not black and white, all or nothing. When we use the lens of black and white thinking to navigate life, we are more likely to experience situations as unfair (for example, a toddler won’t be punished as harshly as an eight year old for having a tantrum because we expect different behaviours based on their different ages). Some children seem to have a tendency for black and white thinking, which can cause them distress and even feelings of outrage. While we must acknowledge their difficult feelings, it is also important that we help them learn the nuances of the grey areas of life.

6. Relationships: Individuals who expect the world to pander to their notion of fairness can often experience social isolation or rejection – in many ways, interpersonal relationships are a dance of compromise. If we do not allow our children opportunities for experiencing unfairness or provide opportunities for learning how to compromise and find a middle ground, they can struggle socially.

Gentle parenting calls for rationale, patience and practise – but that’s not to say there won’t be any issues along the way. Elida Loresca-Shahabuddin, a 39-year-old Filipino and mother to two children aged five and two, says: “As a parent, I go through a lot of challenges with my two children. Every day is different from the other. I’m far from perfect and I don’t always use the gentle parenting method, but based on my experience, it has lots of advantages.

“For me, one of the techniques is listening to your kids with full attention, which really helps a lot. They will listen to you, too. I’ll give you one example. One day, I asked my friend to pick up my five-year-old from school and look after her for a couple of hours. I told my daughter not to eat ice cream, or anything sweet or cold, even if she’s offered some. My friend told me, a few days after, that she’s in awe of my daughter for refusing the ice cream she offered her (not just once, because she felt bad that she gave a scoop to her daughter). The thing is, I also listen to her when she tells me something especially if it’s something she feels. I try not to dismiss it. We should treat them the way we hope they will treat others. Also, communicate with them to truly connect with them.”

On a boat with an anchor – that’s the sense gentle parenting gives a child, even if it means more work for mum and dad.

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