For someone to genuinely (by their choice) follow you, they need to believe in you and your word. For someone to believe you, they need to trust you. For someone to trust you, you need to be honest.
Our children aren’t obedient. They are problem solvers, they are contributors, they are co-operative. But it is not out of obedience (nor would we want it to be), it is a choice they actively make. It is a choice I truly believe all people would make if they feel valued, heard and included. It is a choice I truly believe all people would make if they understand the why.
Conventional parenting does not work in this way. Conventional parenting communicates to a child that they will be valued, heard and included only once they “earn” it; ie. live up to the expectations of the parent (or society). It works under the assumption that children will not choose to be compassionate or helpful, they must be given an incentive to entice them rather than the information to understand. Unfortunately, the incentive they are given is something they already deserve and so the message of the adults actions conflict with their inner ideals; to reconcile, they must come to believe they do not deserve it and so are never able to truly have it (they live up to expectations but are left with a shattered self worth) or they come to resent that they must earn it and rebel (they do not live up to expectations and are left with a shattered self worth). Either way it produces a damaged person, whether they have an awareness of it or not.
One of the big roadblocks though, for a person transitioning away from this is that they realise if they cannot obtain “credibility” by force (intimidation, fear, shame, punishment, praise or reward), they are left to gain it with honesty. And a lot of their expectations and desires for a child, don’t quite hold up under the scrutiny of said other person. They’re arbitrary.
When you use force, in any sense of the word, you don’t have to have valid reasoning behind your action; because I said so, because I want so, because that’s the way it is are enough. You don’t need to convince them, whatever random external motivation you employ (the punishment or reward or whatever) takes care of that for you. When you use honesty, you are forced to face the validity of your actions because they not only have to pass in your own mind but under the microscope of others. This is valuable but it can also be scary and uncomfortable. You cannot parent on auto-pilot, you have to be intentional.
The reassuring thing is most things a child needs to continue to be (not grow into, remember) a healthy, contributing person are also easily explainable to them, they make sense. That honestly (ha) is not the difficult part. The difficult part is overriding the programming that tells you that children cannot and should not be trusted, the message you most likely received as a child (if you were parenting in a more conventional manner), the concept you may even still believe in regards to yourself and going further; including them. Including them in the deliberation phases, including them in your fears and aspirations.
As a child, I thought my parents were infallible. They were mythically majestic and epic. They were confident and collected. And they knew everything. They didn’t and don’t, of course. But this was the illusion that I had and many people have about their parents. I felt that I was constantly left chasing their heels, trying to figure out how and when I’d ever become that person.
When I became a parent, I didn’t magically transform. I wasn’t mythically majestic or epic. I was just me and not exactly in my peak form either. I was tired, I stank (like literally), I was surrounded in a chaos of nappies and existed on a diet of toast, usually cold. This is not unique I’ve come to understand but at the time it felt very much so.
One day when I just couldn’t take it anymore, I locked myself behind as many doors as possible (the front, the bedroom, the en-suit and the shower door) and cried, a lot. When Chris came home shortly after and couldn’t coax me out, he called in reinforcements; my mum. She left work and soon after was knocking her way through my barricade of doors.
And she told me that this was okay, I was doing brilliant in fact. But I continued to sob and I exclaimed how it was never like this for her, how could she even say this is okay? How could she understand? And she told me something I never knew before, she let me in on the big secret; she wasn’t mythically majestic and epic. Sometimes she had two babies (my brother and I are 15 months apart) and herself caged in a play pen so she could sleep. Sometimes she cried too. Lots of times she worried.
There is a lot of pieces I’ve borrowed from my childhood, my parents were not punishers; they supported our personal responsibility and allowed space for us to make mistakes safely. This, though, I wasn’t sure I could continue. There are valid reasoning behind why parents do not want their children to view their flawed humanity, why they want to maintain that facade of strength and ultimate knowledge, why they do not want to be completely honest but I’ve never been a great actor. And it wasn’t earth shattering to realise my parents have many sides to who they are, it wasn’t scary or upsetting at all; it was relieving. It was connecting.
It made me realise how little I knew about my parents motivations, I knew they had the best of intentions but the inner workings behind the choices they made? A complete mystery. And it made me wonder, what would happen if I was just honest with my children from the start? What would happen if I just laid everything out on the table, had them do the same and we figured out what made sense between it all together? Would that not be connecting also? The big secret started to make less and less sense.
I wanted to break the fourth wall of parenting and acknowledge that hey, I’m parenting you and this is what I’ve come up with so far, what do you think? Do you have anything to add? It felt like a valuable step before I simply played out for them what I thought to experience. Let’s build troubleshooting into the process.
When people talk about children and their need for security and consistency, it is usually always to defend the use of strict boundaries, expectations or schedules which can lead into this stoic form of a parent. But those things are not synonyms, they are not forgone conclusions. If it is to be believed that a child needs security and consistency; I thought what if the security, was me — always there for them. What if the consistency, was me — always honest with them. What if I could offer security and consistency to my child without punishment, without shame, without fear? Without arbitrary demands and expectations? Without the smoke and mirrors and string holding it all together. What if I could offer these things without muting my own deliberations, inner turmoils and feelings? My preferences, my highs, my lows? Would that not be preferable?
And I think yes. I choose honesty. And my children choose to be problem solvers, contributors, co-operative and compassionate just as I do. But it’s not about that or trusting my word, it’s about trusting yourself, it is about trusting your children. You’re not adversaries, you do not need to keep your gameplan hidden or your tells in check. So why not be honest? Why not figure it out together?