My North Stars of Parenting
In my not quite three-year-old parenting arsenal, I have little experience but a lot of passed down wisdom and principles that have deeply resonated with or challenged me. Let’s call them my North Stars — what I aim for no matter how often I fall short. I take comfort in knowing they will be as fixed, forgiving and guiding tomorrow when I try again.
Two of those North Stars seem to go hand-in-hand: 1) Giving my kids room to thrive and room to fail independently, and 2) Waiting to let them ask for my help.
When my nearly three-year-old twins get stuck — exasperated when two Lego parts just won’t smoothly adhere or when attempting to zip up their hoodies — I find my hands reaching out to solve their problems without their input. Taking over, either because I can’t tolerate their momentary discomfort and frustration or because I don’t believe they’ll figure it out independently. Neither judgment is really accurate if I take a beat to think about it before responding, but the trouble is that too often my impatient, reptilian brain doesn’t pause to reflect and observe. It presumes and assumes responsibility and then solves.
Some of the best advice my sister (who is Super Mom to five amazing kids) ever gave me was: “Let them ask for help.” Actually, coincidental to another of my inherited parenting North Stars, she didn’t give me that advice — she modeled it. She told me it was something she was working on and let me watch her do it, which I believe, more every day, is also how my kids learn. What I tell them to do is so much less powerful than what they watch me model.
My North Stars in Action
So I’m working on waiting for a few moments while they struggle and then neutrally offering, “Let me know if you feel like you want help, ok?” And then hanging around quietly to watch and celebrate with them when they so often conquer that little mountain alone. My call of “You did it!” inevitably earns the response of “I did it all by myself!” and beams of pride.
I need to have the patience to let them ask for help. And the respect to let them determine if they actually need it or if their situation is a momentary hurdle that they have the drive and desire to overcome independently.
And of course, it’s so much more than that. It’s also: let them try and succeed with a different solution than you would have installed. Let them try and fail. Let them try and go away and think on it a bit and figure it out tomorrow.
Let them know that you believe they are capable.
Let them know there is more than one answer in the world.
Let them know that they have autonomy and responsibility and they need to learn to balance both.
None of this stuff comes intuitively to me, someone whose comfort zone involves control and an adamant (if often disproved) belief that I am right.
Practice Today to Prepare for Tomorrow
For now, Uly and Junie and I are practicing today on arts and crafts and dressing ourselves, because I know that the big stuff is coming. I know too soon, they’ll be in a middle school hallway, faced with a conflict or hard decision and they’ll need to know their own ability. I won’t be there to solve every issue. I shouldn’t be there to solve every issue. I need them to not always hesitate and look around for the adult to fix it, but to reflect on what they’ve learned and observed, and then harness their own young wisdom and tenets and proceed with confidence.
In public situations, my feisty, hilarious daughter can be a bit of a cautious evaluator. While new friends rush together and declare allegiances, she can often be found bopping around the edge of the room, making up songs to herself and checking out stuffed cats or anything that can be roughly transformed into a doll (a pack of baby wipes is a popular stand-in). Watching the socialization with one eye while getting comfortable.
I love that she follows her own beat and flow — but sometimes that means by the time she is ready to play with the other kids, they don’t want to let her into their little tribe.
As a parent, it’s hard to watch. The protective primate in me wants to rush in and sell Juniper to these kids — let them know how funny and fierce and quirky and FUN she is. I want to force them all to “be nice” and “include everyone.”
But I try to stop myself, for a litany of reasons including, most powerfully: She doesn’t need me to do this for her. I’m not going to be there in every hard, complicated situation in her life and as long as it doesn’t get physical and is relatively emotionally tolerable, I need to let her learn how to process and address it herself. Because I know she can.
If I tell my kids that I believe in their endless potential — that they can be anything, do anything! … except independently solve this very developmentally appropriate and relatively small (if painful to me) standoff, what am I really telling them? That my words say, “You can do it!” But my heart and my actions and my most authentic self say, “With my help, of course. Don’t get ahead of yourself, bucko!”
Help Them Find Their Own North Stars
Years ago, Youth Frontiers’ Founder and CEO, Joe Cavanaugh, told me a story about his pre-teen daughter being treated poorly by a neighborhood kid. He said that he didn’t go out and fight the battle for his daughter, but afterward acknowledged her pain and talked about how she can avoid causing someone else that same kind of pain. His story unveiled to me the wisdom of the emotional debrief.
On the walk home from daycare, I’m learning to talk to Uly and Junie about how their play and interactions felt, and if they were bothered, how they might learn to treat someone else differently when the roles are reversed. If I can’t take away or prevent their pain, perhaps I can gently use it to help them build their own North Stars.
I am ever learning how much control and ego I have wrapped up in parenting, in my life. How much I still struggle to find the patience I regularly demand from my toddlers. I don’t have it figured out by a long shot, but I know what I believe in and what I’m working toward even if I stumble. And if that’s enough for me at middle age, I hope I can give my kids the same grace and trust to let that be enough for them in toddlerhood.
This post was written by Erica Cantoni, Youth Frontiers Manager of Corporate and Major Gift Engagement. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Erica!