We’ve recently returned from traveling for 10 weeks as a family, which was mostly wonderful but along the way, there was something that started nagging me—a deep emotion that I didn’t have time to sit with and reflect on until now.
We tend to exist mostly in our own little bubble, so traveling so much was unique in that we were often surrounded by others: people we didn’t know in public spaces. What I realized is that our little world is magical and it is not the norm. As we observed other children on our journey, it became apparent that many of them do not have the basic permission from their adult caregivers to just be human.
The adults in their lives have the best of intentions and are constantly trying to mold them into what the world deems as acceptable. Because of this, they are often not empowered to make their own choices.
To cry. To make mistakes. To go to the bathroom. To have a hard time. To feel heard. To be excited. To be scared. To feel safe. To struggle. To say hello or not say hello. To say thank you or not say thank you. To share or to play with their favorite toy. To not be threatened. It’s so clear to me that in the mainstream parenting culture, children are consistently made to feel like they haven’t earned the right to be treated as the full-fledged humans that they are.
I hear parents raising their voices, avoiding connection, and emotionally or physically punishing their children for being human and having a reaction to a choice that is not theirs. Some examples that I often hear include:
“Don’t cry, you’re okay.”
“He would like to play with that, you need to share.”
“You can eat dinner or go hungry, your choice.”
“If you don’t do ‘X’ then there will be no ‘Y’.”
“Say thank you.”
“Give him/her a kiss.”
“You can go to the bathroom later.”
“We’ll sit here all day until you eat this.”
“That’s not a pretty face. Smile.”
“This is what you’re wearing today. No arguing.”
How have we arrived in a modern culture where it’s socially unacceptable for children to have a say in their own feelings and decisions? Why are so many parents choosing to battle their children into submission and then wondering why their family life feels so stressful and unenjoyable?
The thing is, when we’re continuously trying to shape our children, it’s easy to inadvertently become their adversary verses the single person in this world they can always count on to be in their corner and on their team. It’s no wonder so many children begin to dish the disrespect back out to their parents as soon as they become teens and are old enough to challenge us.
The resounding belief in this parenting paradigm is that kids need to be controlled in order to learn the ropes, and that when they get older and become adults, then they can begin to make choices about their own lives. Yet our relationship with our children and, even more importantly, their relationship with themselves begins from day one, not from age 18.
My belief is that this parenting culture has led us to a place where many children are full of both resentment and fear and become adults who are unable to listen to their inner voice, are afraid to make their own choices, and are constantly seeking validation and permission.
But it doesn't have to be this way. We can reject the notion that our job as parents is to control little humans who came as unique individuals and emphatically resist control. We can choose not to be authoritarian parents but to instead love from a place of compassion and respect. Our children are born into this world with a limitless sense of possibility and confidence, and I believe our role as parents is to nurture, not to break this remarkable and innate sense of self.
Everything our children learn, they learn from watching us. They learn to respect others and to deal with conflict, big emotions, difficulty, and how to make proper choices by watching us and the way we personally model our family’s values.
When we let go of our own need for control and consider instead the benefits of raising children who feel heard, understood, and supported, and who are encouraged to play the role of creator in their own lives, we consciously give them the empowering opportunity to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and we completely change the dynamic within the home. It’s critical to remember that children are not adults in training or waiting to live their lives—they are living their lives at this very moment.
Many of us are recovering from the parental “kool-aid” that was bestowed on us as children. We have the power to rewrite the script and encourage our children to own their lives and their decisions as we guide and support them.
Consider these alternative possibilities for shifting into a place where you can support your child in choosing to feel their feelings and explore their options. Instead of the first option, try the second and see how it feels for you.
“Don’t cry, you’re okay.” vs. "That must have been scary. I am here for you.”
“He would like to play with that, you need to share” vs. “I know it’s your special toy and you are in the middle of playing with it. Do you think he could have a turn once you’re done? If not, that’s ok.”
“You can eat dinner or go hungry, your choice.” vs. “I know you would rather play than eat right now but it is dinner time and I’m afraid you’ll be hungry later. Perhaps you can come to a stopping point in the next 5 minutes to eat and then continue playing after? If not, it’s ok but I will have to put the food away and if you get hungry later, we’ll only have apples and nuts.”
“Say thank you.” vs. “When someone does something really nice for me, I like to say thank you. You don’t have to, but you can if you want.”
“Give him/her a kiss.” vs. “When I haven’t seen someone I love in a long time, I like to give them a kiss or a hug. You can too, if you want. Or even a high five or fist pump? If you want, it’s up to you."
“You can go to the bathroom later.” vs. “Are you sure you need to go? It’s a little difficult for me to take you now but if you need to, we will figure it out."
“We can’t go now. We just got here.” vs. “Why is it that you’d like to go? Let’s talk through our options” (for us, this answer has varied between it’s too loud and I need to go to the bathroom—thank goodness I asked!)
“Be careful. You will fall!” vs. “I just want you to see that there is a ledge there. Do you feel safe? As long as you feel safe, it’s ok but I want to make sure you know about the ledge."
“This is what you’re wearing today. No arguing.” vs. “Why is it that you don’t want to wear this one?” (I am often surprised at the answer—it’s scratchy, I don’t want to feel the wind on my arms, or I want to wear brown because I am Rudolph today, etc.) Then, you could say something like, “I understand that you only want to wear brown and long sleeves but I am afraid you will be hot. How about if we wear this now but then when we leave the house, we change to Rudolph’s summer fur and wear this short sleeve brown shirt?"
When I embrace this notion as part of everyday family life, I get to experience the magical benefits of giving my children a feeling a power over their day. Here are four that I’ve recently discovered:
1. Develop a healthy attitude about mistakes. Making choices means getting it wrong at times. And the best learning opportunities happen when mistakes are made. So when Benjamin chooses to make his own drink, I let him. I watch as he fills the cup too high and suggest that if he pours too much, it will spill. As he decides to keep pouring and the liquid does indeed spill, I let him learn to clean it up, staying present to support him and even laughing about it. Because mistakes make us better, they steer us toward change, they make us more understanding of each other, and most of all, they help us to learn so that next time, we don’t fill the cup quite so high.
2. Sow a sense of self-worth. Carl Rogers, well-known psychologist and a founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, once said: “How we think about ourselves, our feelings of self-worth, are of fundamental importance both to psychological health and to the likelihood that we can achieve goals and ambitions in life.” Wow. This realization led me to a new paradigm; my child’s choice holds as much value as mine and recognizing his choices is a profound way to cultivate his self-worth. Because each time I give a choice instead of a command, I’m letting him know, “I trust you to lead the way in your life.”
3. Allow a sense of control. Toddlers don't typically have tantrums because they're actually upset about making a drink in the orange cup instead of the purple one, but because they are feeling a lack of control. When children experience these strong emotions, they can be so overwhelming that they are forced into fight-or-flight mode, and they are unable to focus fully or think rationally. Not to mention that their rational brain is only just beginning to develop in the first place. So when he has a tantrum, it’s not a choice, and here’s the kicker: it’s his biological response to stress. And from a toddler’s point of view, figuring out the world can be very stressful, so more than anything, they need to feel we are on their team during these times of turmoil and not punished, abandoned, or verbally chastised.
Giving our children choices can help them to feel in control of their everyday lives and reduce the anxiety they feel in childhood and as they grow.
4. Cultivate creativity. When we make every decision for our children we can rob them of the opportunity to develop their creativity. I truly believe that children possess an innate ability to be creative, and their natural curiosity is the fuel on their journey to discovering who they truly are—if we can just allow the space and freedom for our children to follow what fascinates them. And I’ve found one way to cultivate creativity is to avoid managing and instead, give choices.
Just yesterday, we were driving home and had about 45 minutes left to go. Benjamin started to scream because he wanted out of the car so I said, “Ok, we can stop and let you out but how will you get home?” We proceeded to play the most fun game for the rest of the trip where we thought of creative ways he could get home and he would tell me why that would never work:
“I know, you could find a digger and drive it home.”
“I don’t have a digger.”
“You could buy one. Do you have any money?”
“No. I could rent one!”
“You still need money. I know, you could get a job and save your money and then buy a digger and then drive home.”
“But I don’t know the way to our house…”
And so on…
This game was such an example to me that he can still feel free to want what he wants even when it makes no logical sense. And in fact, based on his choices, he decided he’d like to stay in the car and go home with us. :)
Giving our children choices can reap such big rewards—both for ourselves as peaceful parents and for our children, the future leaders of our world. We’re also hearing some new phrases around here, like, “What are my options?” Cue the simultaneous pride and heart melting.
1. Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response