I often find myself writing about parenting young children. But in my day-to-day work, many of the parents I interact with are parenting older children or adolescents. The funny thing is that whether I am talking to the parents of a 2-year-old or a 12-year-old, it seems that the themes underlying the struggles are the same. The good news is that when gentle, respectful parenting strategies are the focus, there isn’t any need to change course as your child gets older. As I read through my “go-to” parenting books (like Dr. Markham’s Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids or Myla and John Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings) and my favorite blogs (like Janet Lansbury or Finding Joy or Momma Zen or Abundant Life Children), I realize that all of these became my favorites because they share fundamental parenting premises. Fundamentals that hold true across the ages and stages.
For our kids, these writers encourage us to:
- Support their emotions
- Respect their space/bodies
- Trust their intentions /ideas/abilities
- Let them climb, let them fall
- Share their journey
- Maintain expectations (boundaries) with love and support
And similarly, for ourselves, they encourage us to:
- Be aware of our own emotions
- Respect our own space/body
- Trust our own intentions/ideas/abilities
- Take some risks, understand that sometimes we will fall
- Know that this is our journey, too
- Accept and honor our own expectations
These fundamentals apply if our 1-year-old won’t sleep through the night. If our 4-year-old starts showing increased aggression towards their younger sibling. If our 9-year-old suddenly develops school anxiety. If our 15-year-old is hanging out with a sketchy crowd. If, if, if. Our kids will do all these things and more. Every stage is new, every challenge is different in the details. Every struggle is painful and confusing. But at the heart of it, it’s all the same. It’s life.
It’s big emotion. It’s difficult transitions. It’s greater autonomy and higher expectations. It’s tricky negotiations. It’s learning who we are in relation to others. And all that applies not just to the kids, but to us as parents.
So often we can’t see beyond the current struggle. And we think that if we can just figure out how to “deal” with this particular challenge, we will be home free. We will have arrived at the top. But this journey actually never ends. And when we make it through one challenge, our kids will be two steps ahead of us, starting the next one.
It’s what they are supposed to do. Challenge by challenge, they grow. Challenge by challenge, we support them in that growth.
And gentle, respectful parenting helps us do that. With ONE philosophy that spans the ages. Support, Respect, Trust, Allow, Share, Maintain. Let’s break it down:
Support: No matter what the situation or the age, we start by supporting emotion. Reflect emotion. Everyone’s emotion. No one has bigger emotions than 3-year-olds, except maybe 16-year-olds. At the heart of slamming doors and bad crowds and thrown toys are very powerful emotions. Fear, anger, anxiety. Reflect and embrace emotions, your kids’ as well as your own.
Respect: Our children deserve and are entitled to live in a world where their body and space are respected. It’s just that simple. Respect theirs and expect them to respect yours.
Trust: We are often quick to assume our kids can’t do something. Or they won’t do something. Or they don’t want to do something. In the end, that may be true, but it’s a horrible place to start. Believe in your kids. Start with trusting that they are starting with good intentions and good ideas and the ability to follow through. It won’t always work out. They will mess up. But that’s okay. We all feel much better about taking the next step when we are surrounded by people who trust us. On that note, trust yourself. You’re doing great!
Allow: Swallow your anxiety and allow them to do just a little bit more than you’re comfortable with. Let them go a little bit further. Let them climb a little higher. Let them learn to trust themselves. As they grow older, the safety bubble we put around them expands. It’s their job to push it out. It’s our job to let them. It’s a balance. Yep, they are going to fall. Or fail. Or stumble. They need to. It’s called learning. It’s painful, but necessary. As parents we take risks, too. In that way, we all grow together. One deep breath at a time.
Share: When we see this tiny person (or this humongous kid who is suddenly taller than us) as a fellow human being who we are sharing a journey with, we can suddenly let go of some of the control we tend to want to maintain over them. We need to protect them, but if we try to control their lives, we miss out, not only on their journey, but on our own as well.
Maintain: Gentle, respectful parenting is not about parenting without boundaries. In Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Markham talks about the need for maintaining high expectations paired with providing high support. Respectful parenting means that we (1) know what our expectations are, (2) have a realistic understanding of what our kids are developmentally capable of and (3) are available to support them in being successful. So, if our expectation is that our 2-year-old will clean up all the toys, we need to also make sure they have the support they need (staying with them, singing the clean up song, encouraging them, helping them move blocks….). High expectations. High support. (I recommend you read this book for more on this concept.) Likewise, if our 14-year-old cannot go to the school dance because her homework isn’t done, we need to be there to support her through the painful anger and disappointment she will feel. (Her life is likely to be over as she knows it. That feeling is real and shouldn’t be dismissed, but it doesn’t mean that the expectation has changed.)