I remember when my boys were young, I had this image of a mama pig with all her piglets nursing. The way they utterly (no pun intended) take over the mother pig. She serves their hunger, their need, selflessly. Then she tires of it, shakes them off, lumbers to standing, sending them squealing, thinking “enough already,” I imagine. Or is it more just a biological response, a sudden physical desire to move, to be free?
Raising young children can feel like this — a stream of never ending needs to be met. It can take on epic proportions and sensations inside of us. “Endless hunger.” “Endless needs.” Conflicting feelings can arise –both wanting to meet their every need and sudden bouts of frustration, aversion and overwhelm. “I’ve got to get out of here!” “When will this end?”
These feelings can be unbearable. And lurking under them, fueling them, are a set of thoughts that don’t always make it to the light of day. They sound something like this:
“You are responsible for your child’s every need!”
“To be a good mother/father, you must meet your child’s every need immediately.”
“Do something now- they are suffering!”
Now, this is genuinely true when our children are infants and toddlers, their needs are immediate and we as good parents are there to meet them. But sometimes are software needs updating. You see this in parents of preschoolers and kindergarteners. They are still in “do everything” parenting mode and its making them crazy and its making their children overly dependent.
This new phase calls for a new version of need-meeting software. Especially since their new level of verbal abilities can make their need expression quite specific, loud and undeniable.
Many times our nervous systems are still recovering from the heightened state of dealing with infants/toddlers. So, the first step is to notice how you feel. Really feel in your body. Sensations. Are you tensing up? Bracing? Tightening your jaw?
Take a moment to notice if this particular need being expressed is urgent, or is it more of a desire, or possibly even a whim that will pass through quickly.
If you feel any aversion or bracing, see if you can catch any of the underlying thoughts that are compounding the sense of inner pressure, “I have to do something. Now.”
This can lead us as parents to want to ignore the need expression, to look away, not respond, or even get angry — “I hear your need, but I have needs too right now!”
Here is where I would like to propose the radical upgrade in your software.
The acknowledgment is as important as meeting the need.
Let me say that in another way. Many needs that get expressed by young children, when acknowledged, lessen in intensity and get met with ease, either by you or by them.
Imagine you are laying down the framework for their future selves. Imagine that they feel as teenagers that of course they can express any and all needs, that their assumption (based on childhood experience) is that their need will be heard and met.
So here is the next critical change in parenting behavior as your child moves out of infancy and toddlerhood: how and who meets the need broadens. Now is the time to begin helping your children problem solve and meet their own needs when possible.
The pressure is off, and believe me they will love being in charge of themselves. The birth of self-reliance.
Imagine they are 10 years old, and they have a need. Instead of feeling completely dependent on the people around them they also have an inner knowing, a resource internally that says, I am a problem-solver, there are many ways I can meet my needs, and I am the creator of those solutions.
To build this self-reliance muscle, you can first acknowledge the request/needs expression, then ask them “what could we do?” Often their need and your need might be in conflict, so state both needs and then ask, what could we do?
I can’t tell you how often adults rush in to answer the question. You can’t imagine the powers of creativity that start to turn inside a child when an adult makes room for them.
You would be amazed at the solutions children come up with- they are infinitely creative! This is your chance to empower them to be self-determined.
Of course, some of their solutions might not be practical, or involve you doing everything for them. So, as the adult, you can always start with an acknowledgement. Of course, all ideas are good ideas! “Yes, that is one way we could do it. And also let them know why that won’t work right now, “however right now that is not possible because….” Then ask again, “What else could we do?”
Welcome to laying the foundation for a lifetime of collaborative parenting. A model where you no longer have to do all the work, where the synergy of your collective brilliance aligns with the will of your child and everyone wins.
Modeling and practicing collaborative decision making will lay a foundation for more easeful parenting in the years to come. Believe me, when it comes to the teen years, you won’t regret taking these early steps to building a team approach to parenting.