Raising Free Range Chickadees: Questioning How We Parent as a Culture
Last night my husband and I had dinner with great friends, one happens to be a colleague and a dead-on psychologist, and the other is her amazing husband. For the record, I am also a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and stress management. On some generic cultural rating system, the four of us would be deemed relatively successful adults (never been to jail, have jobs, try to do the right thing, yada yada yada) although we all bore the well-earned bumps and bruises from growing up in times when we were allowed to fumble our way through childhood. We had loving, well-intentioned parents and came from 'decent families' (whatever that means) and were also given the opportunity to explore the world without intense parental restriction. I spent many a day frantically biking around on my baby-blue banana seat, trolling the neighborhood, and having ink berry fights with the boys down the street. My dinner guests' experiences were not dissimilar. The interesting part is that we all came of age in different decades. We spanned the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's. We laughed and connected over the crazy things we did, and survived. Our stories were pretty similar although the times and culture in which we lived were different. We talked a lot about how parenting today is different. Dare I say - worse. More restrictive and anxiety provoking. In our business, my colleague and I often see the result of anxious parents and anxious family systems, which is understandably anxious kids. I think most parents would not define themselves as anxious but the way we currently parent as a society is absolutely anxious and avoidant of distress or discomfort - the dreaded helicopter parent. Anyway, as Mark and I work to raise our own three children, we wrestle over the 'right' way to parent. Mark errs on the interventionist side and I on the free-range, but we somehow have come to agree about what works best for our family. Being a psychologist and a lover of mommy blogs, our style is a blend of psychological theory and pop-cultural research. We are not perfect. Our kids are not perfect. We all are flawed, human, and works in progress. I write this piece to open the discussion about modern day parenting and whether or not it is actually working for our children and our families. These are some ideas that guide our parental approach. Take it for what it is worth. A snapshot of a few things we prioritize as parents include: 1) Promoting a healthy sense of self (also known as helping our kids develop solid self esteem), 2) Letting go. Allowing our children the freedom to learn from their own experiences, and, 3) The Cadre. The balance between hard, basic structure with loads of freedom.
Promoting a healthy sense of self is of utmost importance to Mark and me as parents, allowing our children to develop a strong ego, stoking a solid self-esteem. Obviously, every parent wants this for their child but in my clinical work, I often see parents getting in their own way. So, the question is- how do kids develop a strong sense of self? I often refer to Heinz Kohut who is the founder of the field of Self Psychology. He believes that if parental figures are attuned to their children's needs for nurturance and soothing, and are responsive to these needs, they ultimately promote a healthy development of the child's ego. In very basic terms, the goal is for parents to have a deep understanding of their children, love them, and reflect this back to them; the child then internalizes self-worth. It is like holding a mirror up to your child so they can see their own wonder and greatness. You can also think about your child as a bottle that will get filled up with feelings and thoughts about them self. Parents can help their children genuinely see their strengths and goodness or fill them with judgment and criticism. I am doing Kohut a disservice with this brief and partial explanation but there is too much to his theory to quickly write about on a blog. I would suggest looking him up yourself. The take home note is that being empathically attuned to our children and helping them see their beauty will last a life time in terms of their experience of themselves and others.
Moving on to a less complicated idea - The Cadre, as taken from the pop-culture book, Bringing Up Bebe. In reading this French parenting book, I absolutely identified and found language for our style, which we naturally came to on our own. We employ the French Cadre Parental Model, if that is such a thing. Anyway, the idea is that our kids have a general structure of what is right and wrong. They absolutely know they cannot cross the street without an adult and know that hitting will get them sent straight to their room, but everything within the framework is generally fair game. Having two boys, there is a lot of rambunctious wrestling, jostling, potty-talk, teasing of each other...all things I am not thrilled with, but those are the battles I am willing to give up in the name of letting kids be kids. Pamela Drukerman used the example of the playground to exemplify this. French children know they cannot leave the playground, and don't generally try, but are free to run ruckus within the parameters of the park. With that said, we are okay with the controlled chaos but they are often asked to take it to the playroom or outside as it is just too loud for a non-chickadee, such as myself. This style grants us space to back off our kids and let them be developmentally-appropriately nuts, while removing the nagging element from the dynamic. We all know nagging does not work. It tortures the nagger and the naggee. I do feel like when I say something with certainty, the kids listen because they know I mean business and will follow through with a consequence. I have earned their respect by respecting their individuality and need for space.
Lastly (for today) I want to focus on independence in the name of self-efficacy. We believe in giving our kids space to discover what works and what doesn't on their own. This helps them learn in a deeper way than just being told what to do and it also allows for optimal frustration (another Kohutian idea), which states children learn self-soothing skills by experiencing tolerable disappointments. These experiences help build their internal psychological makeup and prepare them for a world where there are normal and expected disappointments. It might be a tad premature but I am already picturing these little guys in high school and really want them to be independent and self-efficacious so they can navigate their worlds with some success and without needing to check in with us about every decision. The reality is, we are not going to be there when they are offered alcohol, drugs or a ride with a drunk friend. They need to be able to think about it and respond. Obviously, my hope would be that they could talk to us about these difficult decisions but realistically, when push comes to shove, it is going to be outside of my control at a time and place when I am not there. I need to do the front end work now (while I have a captive audience), allowing them space to learn what is right and wrong for them. No, I am not often directly talking about drugs and alcohol with my kids yet (although it does come up when we have wine and when Uncle smokes) but I am consciously laying the groundwork for these conversations later. We also very consciously let our kids go out and play without us. Cam is 6 and Tyler is 4 and they spend most of their time in the yard. Granted, I am always peeking out a window and know where they are and what they are up to, but they have internalized a sense of being okay without us right beside them. I have learned to trust them and hopefully in turn they are trusting themselves and the world around them.
All and all, we are learning as we go. But, thankfully, I have the opportunity to work with many amazing people who share their deepest secrets with me. I am privy to personal narratives that people do not share in most other settings. Through this work, research, and my own experience as a mother, I am very clear about some basic tenets of parenting my children (today). They need space. The need us to empathize and validate their experience as new-ish, developing people in this sometimesharsh world. They also need clear and distinct boundaries to guide their path. Some things are off limits and they need to know Mark and I are in charge. This actually makes them feel safe, cared for, and loved. I sit here with a 6 year old, 4 year old, and 1 year old and although I feel good about where we are today, their stories are not fully written. I have a sense of how we want to parent now but this could change over time although I believe these basic tenets hold true for any age. So, in response to the current cultural pressure to be a helicopter parent (to more or less degree), I encourage caregivers to step back and honestly ask themselves if this feels right. Is this how we want to raise our children? This is a new cultural phenomena. Why has there been this shift? And, although there are different dangers out there today, I believe people are responding to their own fears rather than a true increased threat to our children and at the cost of our children's mental health. What is your parenting model and why?