New Year's Resolution #2: Let Children Lead...

I've never been much on New Year's resolutions; they always seemed to me to be just another way to feel guilty when you resolve to make a positive change in your life and then you just forget all about it...days or even hours later. Still...there is a lot to be said for identifying an intention and using that energy to create some momentum towards a goal. What's silly to me is that we pick this completely arbitrary date of the first of January to do this, and that may be what makes New Year's resolutions flimsy; however,we could resolve to do better ANY time and for any reason!

I woke up yesterday morning with this idea of inviting you, the reader, to adopt some New Year's resolutions for more peaceful parenting. In fact, the blog post was writing itself as I moved from sleep to consciousness. I love when that happens. In my opinion, my best writing comes during those twilight hours.

Anyway, here's today's invitation:  Let Children Lead

Today's invitation is an outgrowth from yesterday's resolution, Take Children Seriously, and it's really along the same lines. Letting children lead is, for many people, an unthinkable concept. After all, adults have more experience and they just know better than kids! Adults should lead kids, not the other way around...right?

Well...let's think about that. There are many instances when adults...who possess more experience, worldliness, resources, and credit cards...are unequivocally the more logical choice for taking charge! Parents' experience and expertise are essential to children's well being. I am not for a second suggesting that any parent abdicate their role as their child's guardian and protector. It is, in fact, a parent's job and responsibility to protect children from their lack of experience and understanding of the way the world works. Human children are not precocious, and the parents' steadfast role is absolutely critical to children's survival! Children need their parents to be present and fully involved, and, yes, taking charge!

However, it is also true that humans are learning machines right from the get-go. Children are attracted by the most interesting thing because the most interesting thing offers so many learning opportunities. Early on, a child's parent is "the most interesting thing," and children learn a great deal from observing and interacting with their parents, provoking or stimulating their parents, listening to their parents, watching their parents, imitating their parents. It is no secret that this relationship alone yields a tremendous amount of crucial information for a child. 

As the child ages, other things in the environment will fascinate the child. For instance, how gravity works, how sound works, how things taste and feel and smell, how dogs' tails work, how cats work. Cause-and-effect is so interesting! And, imagine how much more interesting it can be when a child learns that they have a role in making these interesting things happen, which, by the way, could include your spontaneous reactions to their actions. It's all learning, all the time!

Children learn best when they are interested in what they're learning...when they pick up a scent and follow it. When children are given the space and the peace to connect the dots of their experience, that is the gold standard of learning.

Let's face it: Children's explorations can be rather inconvenient for a parent! However, rather than quash a child's inquisitive endeavors for convenience' sake, is it possible to let a child lead where they feel compelled to explore? A parent can stay close, yet out of the way, ensuring that the child is safe (they actually really want their parent to do that, even if they aren't able to articulate it). More about this in a moment. 

One of the things that could interfere with letting children lead could be a lingering story or an underlying belief that the child's actions are driven by some less-than-savory motivations, i.e., that the child is trying to manipulate the parent or get away with something or that the child is "bad" or "mean" or "spoiled" or any other negative attribution that folks in our society seem to ascribe to children. We'll get into this in greater depth in future resolutions; for the time being, consider that these stories are judgments that can lead parents down a difficult path with their kids.

Here's an exercise with a two-fold benefit of helping you understand this a little better AND heal some old wounds you may not have known you had:  

Take a few moments to reflect back on your experience as a "child-scientist." Can you recall how it felt to be attracted to something that fascinated you but you got your hand slapped (literally or metaphorically)?

If you could go back to that time, how might you advocate for yourself so that you could get the support you needed? It may be helpful to write about this memory in a journal or talk with a trusted friend or your co-parent (and, invite your co-parent to do the same).

So...what might letting a child lead look like?

Here's just one idea: Kids are fascinated and love to play with water, and with good reason! Water is fascinating, and there is a lot to be learned from playing with water. Rather than shut down water play, a parent could partner with a child to create water-play situations that don't flood the house. The parent could set things up with towels placed on the floor to prevent big messes and make for easy clean up or setting up water-play in the bathtub, meeting the child's need for learning and the parent's need for order. 

Giving kids the benefit of the doubt, we see them as doing the best they can, motivated and driven to learn about their interesting world and how it works, allowing our whole approach to change!

To a child, this new world is their laboratory, and nearly everything in it is an experiment. And, stepping into your role as their lab assistant as you let your child lead, allows both you and your child to open the door to profound learning AND deepening connection and trust between you and your child!

P.S.  It is helpful to recognize if and when you're seeing letting your child lead as a zero-sum game that only one person can "win." You could instead switch your perspective from "competition" to "collaboration" by reminding yourself that honoring your child's preferences doesn't have to mean not honoring'll take some work, but it is SO worth it. For now, practice looking at possible adversarial scenarios and ask yourself to enVision what collaboration could look like for you! And, if you're not sure, let's talk!