Letting Them Find Themselves

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There aren’t very many rules to parenting, and there are probably as many way to do it right as there are to screw it up. Who’s to say where one person plants a flag and draws a line is better than another’s (very different) spot. The mommy-wars and human nature do more than enough to stir up anxiety, but the truth is, unless we are truly depraved, we all want the best for our kids.

I don’t have many rules when it comes to how I parent, and I guess that’s good because I don’t think it’s possible to have three more different children than mine (100% of friends and teachers laughingly agree). One of my few hard and fast rules is to not impose my own preferences on them. I’ve tried very, very hard to give my children a lot of room at the margins in which to figure out who they are, and what ignites their passions. Sometimes this is harder than it would seem to be, but it’s also one of those things that gets easier the more I practice.

I protect my children’s free time with a vengeance- to the point where I will communicate to a teacher that the homework load infringes on family time, and it must be kept under 30 minutes, or my kids will not be completing it. They get my kids for more than 6 hours every day, and I will not spend every evening wrangling unhappily over busywork.

There are certain creative pathways that cannot develop if every spare moment is scripted, scheduled or filled with academics or lessons. I keep after-school activities to one per week, and while the kids have many of the electronics and gadgets their friends have, they also have screen-free time where they must entertain themselves. That’s where they figure out who they wish to be, and what they are capable of.

I like to let them solve their own problems whenever I can- if they are not in danger, I’ll hang back, let them roam a bit, find themselves in a pickle, and try to solve it without turning immediately to me or another adult to do their solving for them. Their victories belong to them, because their courage belongs to them.

I find when I want to jump in, to start to control things, it’s always (always always always) about my own issues, my own perceptions of what others might think of me, and never about what is truly right for my kids.  It’s hard biting that back sometimes, and it’s surprising how much I started out caring what other mothers thought of my parenting, and how little I care now. My kids are shockingly confident and happy. They are happier than I ever had any right to expect them to be, and despite what they have experienced.

I take no credit for this- other than for providing them with the best stage I knew how. They know that no matter what they do, how they look, what they accomplish, or how big the fail, that they are competent, that they can solve problems, that they are loved, and that they are of tremendous value. This is why they are happy. This is why it matters.

What that means is Bean sometimes goes to school looking like this:img_1042

It means Jeffrey can find a cookbook, choose a recipe, and follow the directions with absolutely zero help from me, and he succeeds:IMG_0213

It means letting him plate, ice and serve the cake to his delighted sister— yes, that’s the cake my eleven year old son made:IMG_0232

It means letting them roll the windows down on a cold January day just because they want to know what it feels like:IMG_0223

It means letting them lay around and do nothing sometimes:IMG_0168

It means making a Dalek costume even when we’d never made one, and most people didn’t know what it was:181801_10151136285030963_375699388_n

It means not caring about perfect Christmas cookies and caring more about letting the kids figure it out and enjoy the process:IMG_0029

It means letting her play with food color and glasses and straws in order for her to understand visible spectrum light, rather than just read about it:IMG_0165

It means letting them stand on the subway (even when I want to tell them to sit down) because they like holding the bar and the feel of the train under their feet.IMG_0158

It means making this kind of quiet time as important as any appointment:IMG_0210

But mostly, honestly, it means biting my tongue when my automatic response is “no”, and pausing for just a moment, and allowing “yes” to be a possibility.

13 thoughts on “Letting Them Find Themselves

  1. I love this post. I feel like I’m on the cusp of doing this, but sometimes my me-ness creeps in and tries to take control of the situation.

    That cake is amazing. Kudos to your boy.

    And I love the juxtaposition of batman and princess to your kids’ costumes. Awesome.

  2. Deena, it’s hard for me sometimes still- I don’t like bamboo, but Abby is choosing the plant she wants- I bite my tongue, because SHE likes it, and I try to constantly remind myself that they don’t have to like what I like.

    I want them to know what makes them happy, not what to do to please me (or anyone else) and associate that pleasing with love. That got me in a lot of trouble in my life, and I really hope my kids can be healthier and happier without the hard knocks their mama took.

  3. I’m glad Em, I hope it was helpful in some small way.

    I should add for everyone, how hard this is for sometimes. In each of the photos above, I had some struggle or control issue that I had to nip in myself.

    Bean’s outfits, obviously, would make me nuts, and there are times I wanted to change him so badly, but really, who is that about? He’s happy, and it’s harmless.

    In the picture of Jeffrey cooking, he was spilling and measuring with great mess- you can see cocoa all over the counter, and it was all I could do to keep from jumping in to show him “how to do it”. The thing is, he did just fine, and had I jumped in, it would have been about my control issue, and he cleaned up the spills himself anyway. I would have taken something from him had I tried to micromanage that cake. AND WHAT A CAKE IT WAS!

    It was too cold to roll the windows down. But how did I know that? By experience. And I let them have it.

    They’re lounging, and I wanted to make them hop to it, and get busy doing things- and yet, this was a priceless moment of repose.

    No one knew who they were at the Halloween Party, and THEY DIDN”T CARE. I was also worried church folks would be judgy about them watching Doctor Who.

    The cookies? OH Martha Stewart wanted to take over and show them how to do it perfectly, and put together beautiful trays of cookies that clearly no human child had touched. BUT I DIDN’T DO IT. And they had fun, instead of cried at their inability to be perfect.

    The rainbow water? I had to let her do it, even though I didn’t want the cutting board stained and she had a book she could have read. Which one do you think she will remember longer?

    On the Subway, telling them to sit would just be stupid- why? Other than control. They’re fine.

    Playing with Legos– do you see the laundry they’re sitting on? The mess? Neither do they.

    *****

    So see? The reason I started taking pictures like this is I realized so often when I overcome my desire to impose, control, or otherwise micromanage them, that what happened was actually quite beautiful and was the VERY THING that led them to self-discovery. Each of these photos is not just a snapshot of my kids being wonderful- it’s a catalog of my learning to let go as well. It’s beautiful of both sides of the lens.

  4. Every day or two I have come back to enjoy reading this and looking at the pictures again. That Cake! And the look on Batman’s face makes me laugh each time I see it.

    I’ve become familiar with a sort of letting go after my children left home as young adults and were no longer active, and I just can’t bear to enforce my desires for them with my disapproval, when they need my affirmation so much more. And they’re doing fine; not perfectly fine, but much better than I was at their age.

  5. I really loved the pictures and accompanying stories in this post. It really reminded me to slow down, step back and let my children be children. And what great smiles your kids have! I love all of their happy expressions. Brought a smile to my face. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Absolutely. Before I say no, I always think to myself, “why not?”. Too often it’s easy to get up in the “no”, “stop”, “don’t” and “we’re not doing”. I try to figure out why I am saying no… most of the time it is for MY comfort. If I do have to say no to something, I try to give an acceptable and similar alternative. If something shouldn’t be done right then, I give a time frame in which it can be done.
    My kids love having some control over their lives and we are all happier when we aren’t battling on why I am saying no. As a bonus, it often leads to me being more interactive with them and we all love that. C

  7. I thought about you this past week when we were on the Underground. My girl (age 6) wanted to stand and hold the pole, so I let her. She wanted to wrap one leg around the pole and twirl around the pole, so I let her. It was when she had one leg wrapped around the pole and arched back away from the pole that I insisted she keep both feet on the floor. :)

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