Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Family Centered Parenting?

I've been thinking . . . I know these are famous last words for me (apparently second only to "I have a theory about that . . . "), but bear with me. I've been thinking and reading a lot about parenting since I've had children. This is not really a surprise, since I don't work and I must think about something all day. I am also the kind of person who likes to do things based on an underlying philosophy. So, as I was saying, I've been thinking and reading a lot about parenting.

One of the reasons I decided to have children, after many years of waiting (10 to be precise) was becuase I met some people who parented differently. The way they raised their children seemed to be humane and respectful and generally good. They wore their babies in slings. They breastfed for a long time. They took their kids outside to run when they got squirrely instead of trying to get them to calm down by yelling at them. Their households seemed to have a harmony and peace in them that I was not familliar with. Yes, they were people practicing attatchment parenting. Their kids were generally calm, self- assured and good humoured. Most of all, they seemed comfortable in their skin, and comfortable with the world around them, and comfortable in their family. Their parents valued and respected them, but also seemed to manage to discipline them.

When I was pregnant, my friend Pat suggested that I check out "The Baby Book" by Dr Sears. She said "Of course, its from the perspective of attachment parenting, but its also just a really helpful book". That was all she said.

When Andrew was born I had not read the book, but I had read about Attachment parenting, and I had a sling, and I was determined to breatfeed and sleep with my baby. But after two weeks of hell, I decided I needed to actually read the book, not just have some vague idea of what I was doing from what people on the internet were saying about it. So I bought the book, and I was sold. Andrew was the model high-needs baby, and is a very high-needs child. Aside from that, what I loved about the book was the whole premise that my parenting should be guided by a balance of the child's need and my own needs. Of course, when they were a tiny newborn, their needs would win out most of the time. But as they got older, I should consider when my needs (for sleep, for example) outweighed their peceived needs (to nurse all night, for example), and even further along, when they were out growing something and needed to be gently moved along to a more appropriate behavoir.

When I went online, however, I discovered that a lot of women were only hearing the message "listen to your baby's needs" and never hearing the message "take care of yourself so you can meet your baby's needs". I, too, went through stages where I allowed myself to become utterly exhausted, frustrated and tapped out because I was becoming a martyr; I was allowing my child's perceived need for my constant, undivided attention, to overcome my real need for things like sleep, showers and excersise. Even worse, as Andrew grew, I began to become guilty when I disciplined him. I would think, "Is this undermining his attachment to me? Is this going to harm his self-image later?".

I realized that I had fallen into child-centered parenting. The concept that your child should be the centre and guide of your parenting choices. If they say they need it, then they do. I spent a lot of time agonizing about how to meet my child's need to go out every day while still getting my house clean. I wondered how I could possibly have a shower when my child needed Richard Scaryy's Best Numbers Book Ever read to him for the tenth time in a row. How could I get supper made when he needed to go ouside and play? If I denied him these things, how could he possibly become a secure, confident individual?

Then we had a second child. All was well at first. I could read to Andrew while Aaron was nursing. I could carry Aaron in the sling while I got Andrew whatever he needed. I could play with both boys at the same time, mostly, becuase Aaron was pretty amused by his brother, and was mostly in my arms anyway. But as Aaron grew, he started to have more compliated needs. Needs that sometimes conflicted with Andrew's. What do I do when my 3 year old wants to be by my side reading a book but my baby needs to be walked in relative quiet to fall asleep? What do I do when my older child is having a tantrum and my younger child needs a diaper change? What do I do when I have finally got my baby to sleep and I really need 10 min. and a cup of coffee to be able to be sane all day, and my son wants to sit on my lap and read another book?

Around Christmas time, I realized things were not as they should be. Something had gone amiss. Aaron had started walking, and Andrew was a disaster. He screamed, whined and cajoled to get his own way. He was never happy, even when he did have my undivided attention. He knocked down his brother every chance he got. I felt like I was powerless, held in the tyranical grip of a three year old.

Some of the books I had read made things even worse. Books that said that I should just try to stay out of the way of sibling conflict, simply giving them negotion tools to put into action. I should allow them the unfettered right to express their feeling towards one another so that nothing was submerged or festering. I was setting up bad patterns and systems that would haunt my children throughout their adult life. I was terrified of raising children who would have to spend their entire adult hood in therapy, talking about how badly I had messed them up, and how they could have acheived so much more, if only their mother had played with them more . . . and then suddenly, I realized that this was getting ridiculous.

Essentially, it seemed to me that some more extreme child-centered, gentle discipline stuff was just manipulation. Learn how to manipulate your child rather than punishing them, and they will still make your life more peaceful and grown up to be an autonomous, self- assured adult. Teach them to express and fulfill their every desire and they will have the confidence to do whatever they want to. Will we really be peaceful if I allow my children to express their every desire? Is unfettered confidence and self-assurance really going to set them up to live life well?

Most of all, I started wondering if this was really a Christian way to raise my children. Where was the part where they learned self-control, gentleness, kindness, self-sacrifice, other-centeredness? Where did they learn to respect those around them, when they were always given waht they wanted to the expense of their parents' sanity or the family's wellbeing? Where did they learn self-control, where did they learn to put away anger, wrath, envy, jealousy, lust and the rest of the gang, when I was allowing them to freely express and act on any emotion and impulse they happened to have? How exactly did child-centered parenting fit with my most basice and underlying philosophy of all -- Christian virtue?

All of this was swirling around in my head as I approached the New year, with its dire call for change and resolution. All this mixed into my desire for a life full of joy and peace and hope. All of this recombined with my desire to pass on my faith, my concept of virtue to my children. All of this was shaken together with my other desired to raise my children in a way that promoted respect and love and honour for children and adults. All this gelled into my newly hatched thoughts on parenting.

I have decided that I am not committed to child-centered, nor strictly parent-centred parenting, but rather to family-centered parenting. We are still into the whole attachment thing -- listening to our children, valuing them as unique individuals, seeking to form andearly attachment and discpline them based on communication and natural consequences. But we are also more deeply into the whole Christian thing -- a philosophy of life that in its most basic, form is expressed in the idea of confession, repentance and regeneration. In this context, I think it is important to teach children that they are part of a family -- first and foremost their own family, but also other families, including their church, their community and their world.

A family has many people. In our daily lives, we must balance the needs of all these people. One child or adult can not be the focus of everything. All the family members must work together, grow together, and learn to love one another. There are responsibilities in a family as well as rights and privildeges. We need to balance our desire for fun times with the reality that we are responsible for caring for our house and our selves. We must balance our desire to keep everything to ourselves with the responsitility to respect the other and share.

A Christian family is also one that encourages virtuous action. We must teach our sons what is right and wrong. We must let them know when they have overstepped the boundaries and help them make things right. This includes not just asking forgiveness, but also taking on the responsibility of the consequences for their behavior. This means gradually learning to control our rage or replace our laziness with action. This means being given the grace to fail and be forgiven, and the means to act better in the future.

The most amazing thing about this shift, for me, has been the freedom from the guilt of setting and enforcing limits, and from the fear of damaging my children by simply asking them to respect those around them. I have been able to parent from a more centered, authentic place, because I am parenting out of my beileifs rather than my fears and guilt. I am still a gentle disicplinarian. I beleive in teaching and guiding my children more than punishing them. Of course there are time-outs for pushing and defiance and natural consequences applied where possible. But I no longer feel afraid to tell my son, "You can not do that becuase it is wrong. That is not how we act in our family".

I hope that as our family grows and matures we will learn to do things becuase they are loving, respectful and honoring to one another and to God. Not just becuase there is a punishment waiting at the other end. Not becuase "I" said so. Also, not becuase it feels right to you. Not becuase you need to express your selfhood. But because it is to the benefit of the individual, to the betterment of the society as a whole, and to the glory of God.


beck said...

The because I said so line. I hated that as a child. I like reading your views on parenting, it makes me more resolved in how I want to eventually parent the children that me and Don will have. I have to say matter how much you try and no matter what you do, you won't make the same mistakes of your parents, but well you'll make your own mistakes as a parent. And you can't really help that, because we don't really have a book written on this is what you should do and it'll work perfectly for your child, just guide books, and like you're doing, lots of reflective thinking on what your doing.

Jilly said...

Thanks, Beck. I'm glad you find me inspiring rather than dread-inducing as a parent. I know I"ll make my own mistakes, but at least they'll be well thought out mistakes.