Parents and Experts: how far have we come?

David Beckham and his daughter Harper. http://bit.ly/1L3bfl1 photo from: Guardian

I visited my grandma today, together with my mum and my 6 months old son. We were chatting a lot about children and two comments stayed with me. One was my 87 years old grandma’s recollection: ’ we had to feed babies to a strict time schedule, it was the most horrible thing ever”. Then, later my mum said: ‘And then, there was this most horrible thing ever: parents were not allowed to stay with their ill babies on a hospital ward’.

Both memories made me think about the significance of experts back in early 1960s and 1980s There was no discussion with parents, doctors and nurses decided the regime of feeding and care and it would be dangerous to question them as they had total power over your child’s welfare.

Can you imagine the trauma of a child being fed at certain time against his or her will? Can you imagine the stress of a parents who felt that they are doing something against what they knew was right for their child, but they were under such a pressure that they proceeded with what they have been told to do? My grandma and my mother until this day hold these memories as ‘The most horrible things ever’.
This leads me to question, what is the role of experts today? Clearly a lot has changed and the brutal and total power regimes have changed, but there is still a huge power imbalance even if it’s more subtle.  

Are we able to say ‘no’ to Dr’s, teachers, psychologists or other ‘experts’ when we know that their advice is not right for our child? Do experts really listen to the parents who know the child best, who know their children’s needs, and have the direct experience of that child and their own expertise? Does it need a lot of courage to question the experts today? 

Experts’ advice are omnipresent in every space: online, at GP’S, in parenting books. David Beckham reacted recently to a newspaper that got an “Expert” to criticise his parenting when he gave his child a dummy (pacifier), he hit back and said “Why do people feel they have the right to criticize a parent about their own children without having any facts ?”
The trouble gets worse when our child is ill or not doing well at school, and as a parent we feel worried and vulnerable. Then it’s harder to be confident and to trust yourself against the experts, or even if you know you are right, to stand up to their power. 
Experts often cite science and research to support their advice, but it’s worth remembering that so often they offer conflicting advice, each claiming their own scientific proof. It is also worth remembering that experts used to claim many truths that have since been proven very wrong, such as blood letting and claims that smoking was a healthy habit. 
Let’s learn from it and don’t let our own parenting voice to be under-heard. Of course we should listen to experts and try to find out what’s best for our child, and of course experts should listen to us. There is still a lot of room for improvement for ‘experts listening to parents’, and part of that is taking responsibility ourselves and developing as more confident parents. 

Breastmilk or formula: what’s behind your choice?

 

I can’t fully describe the experience of becoming a parent. Intensive mixture of images and emotions which I’ve never experienced before came to me within first few days of having a baby and this changed me as a person. One of the most powerful impacts on me was the sudden realisation that from now on I am responsible for another human being’s life. And first of all it means I need to make sure the baby eats well to maintain herself and thrive. This is very basic and primitive experience. Here I am – stripped of all everyday life selves and faces, coping mechanisms and routines – faced with tiny baby who simply needs milk.

At some point, most parents to be are presented with the choice: breastmilk or formula?
Often an earlier decision is exercised and verified by reality – it’s impossible to foresee all circumstances which will influence the way we do things after the baby arrives.

In some circumstances the choice is made by parents – for example in case of some health conditions breastmilk is affected by the condition itself or by the drugs which need to be taken.

The breast versus formula discussion, is fuelled by emotions, judgemental voices and over simplification. It would come close to the top of the list of those things that can evoke parental guilt. 
It’s difficult to discuss this delicate matter; to be broad enough to avoid unhelpful polarisations of opinions, and careful enough not to offend anyone. It’s very important to acknowledge that we are talking about other people’s choices and circumstances, which they face in a very special moment in their lives. It makes them vulnerable and high emotions are aroused. 

What can be helpful in opening up and broadening the discussion is trying to understand various reasons and motives behind our choices. I analyse social media coverage on breast/formula feed and draw on my own experience as a mother, who meets many other mums. I came up with the idea of ‘Scripts’ which describe complex reasons for which we choose to breast or formula feed. 
I invite you to engage in describing the main scripts which stand behind the way we feed our babies. Some of our reasons are conscious – we are fully aware of them and can easily name them (i.e.: ‘I formula feed my child, because I can combine it with my working life’). Other reasons might be unconscious – our behaviours and decisions are guided by our own motives and social forces that we are not always aware of (i.e. ‘I formula feed, because the responsibility for the child overwhelms me, and I want to share it with my partner). Moreover, our choices always have a healthy side and a shadow side, which is present despite our honest positive intentions.

I want to make clear, that I stand for deeper understanding of feeding the babies, not for judging any choices. 

By exploring our scripts that guide our infant feeding choices, we can address some of social pressures, and personal dilemmas that we face, and by doing so be more honest with ourselves and others without feeling guilty or pressurised. This discussion needs to take place free from the judgemental attitudes on both sides that make mothers (and fathers) feel insecure, anxious and very often guilty.  

Therefore I invite you to look at your scripts and especially focus on those hidden, not obvious reasons and motives which stand behind your choices..
The way to identify your script is to complete three following sentences. If you are willing to share your script, please do so in comments below this post:
‘I breastfeed (breastfed)/ I formula feed (fed) because… ‘

The healthy side is this…

The shadow side is this…

When identifying my own script I came up with the following:

I breastfeed because this is the obvious thing to do in my family and my circle of friends – it’s a norm within my social background and I accept this norm and simply believe it’s a right thing to do. 
HEALTHY SIDE: By making a choice acceptable to my social network and family, I get support from them. The baby gets fed from a confident parent who is familiar and supported with the way their child is fed.
SHADOW SIDE: As the baby is exclusively breastfed, it doesn’t allow my husband to engage in baby’s feeding, which ties the baby to me. If he wants to take the baby out, there is a two hour time limit. This makes the baby completely dependent on me, in terms of feeding, so I do get a lot of control which can be difficult to let go when the time is right (when the baby needs that).
Feel free to share your thoughts and discover new ways of looking at your motives and circumstances. Tell us about your scripts. This can be enriching for all of us!
P.S. Publish your answers below the post or to keep your privacy write to me: agatawestern@gmail.com

*photo: http://www.sienceofrelationships.com 

What sort of parent are you?

 
Parent ‘tag’ is very popular in media. It’s easy to join or at least follow many conversations about parenting going on in social media. I read or scan so many information directed to me as a parent not because I’m parenting blogger but because I am a mother breastfeeding the baby and wanting to occupy my mind with something during that process. Or a mother having half an hour break for myself and being too tired to read the book. Or a mother searching for input on a particular issue which worries me. As a parent of small children I also find parenting the most interesting subject at the moment.
What I look for in those all numerous articles, advices and opinions is a consolation – a comfort of someone else saying something close to my view on breastfeeding or praising the way parents manage children’s screen time, which happens to be similar to mine. I also get excited when some opinion appears to be totally opposite to my view: I criticise it and I go mad: ‘it’s wrong’ I think ‘you can’t say that! it’s not a right way of bringing up children!’

Right – Wrong, Right – Wrong. This is a good way, this is The Way to start a spoon feed, this is The Way to breastfeed in public, the way to deal with siblings rivalry etc. etc.

Parenting world of opinions is completely polarised and it sucks people into thinking in these black – and white categories.
This creates a world where any real reflection or discussion which could enrich people with different views is practically impossible. The comfort becomes a distant dream too.

I lately read an article about letting children to fall asleep on a breast when the night time comes. The author was pro breastfeeding to sleep and critiqued the other article in which a psychologist was warning mothers that this is a bad habit, that breast is for feed not for comfort and that a child will have trouble falling asleep when gets older.

At first I was reading and thinking: ‘oh, great, the woman is talking sense – I am in fact breastfeeding my child to sleep now.’

But then the detailed explanation came and I started to feel bad: ‘ the child is unable to separate herself from the mother until 18 months old’ says specialist. ‘Every attempt to break the mother – baby fusion before 18 months is against nature, is wrong, unfair, can be damaging for a child’. 

‘Oh dear’ – I thought – ‘I do break the fusion…Sometimes it’s my husband putting children to sleep…Oh no, I left my daughter for a week with her father when she was only 14 months, have I done something wrong?’

And then I realise: It’s unfair to impose on us parents such a strong opinions, from arguably informed sources. No one is better informed about our children and family context then ourselves. This is very understandable that we seek reassurance about the way we do things, so yes: we’ll keep reading the stuff. But in my experience we are more likely to get doubts and worries fuelled, rather than become more confident with what we are doing.  
So I keep reminding myself: black and white world is a phantasy. There is no one magic formula to bring up children. Every child and every parent is different. 

What is in your childhood luggage?

We all were once children. Last week I came across very interesting interview (with capturing title: No one annoys me as much as my mother) which addresses relationship with parents from a perspective of grown up children undergoing psychoterapy. The interviewee is a Polish psychotherapist – Danuta Golec. 

I translated a fragment of this interview, which I found very helpful in understanding one of the most crucial parenting skill: containing difficult emotions. 

What are their [adults who talk about their parents] complaints?

It varies, but I can observe one commonality, which I would call: a lack of psychological consciousness.

Some adults think that they weren’t seen in childhood. Their difficulties and needs – emotional in particular – were pushed away. We are not talking about neglected children; they might have had great conditions – being taken to horse riding, swimming lessons, but parents didn’t know what conflicts children were struggling with and what kind of help they needed.
There was a lack of thinking parent, who would understand that child has an inner life. Lack of someone who is able to stand [contain] emotions.
To stand emotions?
Yes, we are talking about parent’s internal space, where we allow our child’s emotions – be it anxiety, sadness, anger. We can take these emotions there, look at them and change them, so as they can become less frightening. We can compare this process to digestion. Child is not able to swallow big chunks of food, we need to break them up. Some adults are not able to do so. Ten year old girl is sharing her difficulties at school and mother is getting anxious, so she sighs: if you won’t stop I am going to get crazy, (…) I’m going to hang myself. In this way mother communicates to the girl that she can harm mother with her problems, so she shouldn’t disclose them anymore, or shouldn’t even have them. Later in life, this grown up girl can hold the unconscious conviction that if she approaches someone and gets very close, she can destroy this person, and this person will lost their mind or die. Obviously, every parent may have a moment of being psychologically unconscious, unavailable, but if this becomes a repetitive pattern it causes trauma to a child.
In some adults’ experience parents were strongly focused on themselves and their own needs. For example they saw the child just in one dimension which was fulfilling their aspirations. They wanted a happy and cheerful child, who amazes everyone. So they did. But if the child tried to show his/her different side, more true version of the self, they went into panic, or just did not accept it. Child was talking to hand – I don’t have friends at school, I am sad. – When you grow up you’ll laugh at this. Go and play.

Anything else?
Sometimes adults feel that something was pushed into them in childhood years. Parents, instead of accepting and taking in child’s emotions, thrown their own unwanted emotions at a child. Psychological maturity means (among other things), that we are able to see ourselves as a range of things, not only as a pure goodness. We can see anger, guilt and envy. If a person is unable to do it, then every unwanted piece of himself/herself needs to be removed or placed in someone else. Am I envious? Never! You are! (…). We call this mechanism projection
If this is parent’s main way of functioning, a child is constantly bombarded by unwanted emotions. He/she catches a lot of content, which parent doesn’t know how to deal with. Child also doesn’t know what to do with this kind of baggage. This emotional situation can be repeated in people’s adult life problems. They constantly deal with someone else’s psychological baggage. They feel obliged to live other people’s lives. I am a luggage filled with objects, something is banging there, but I don’t know who does it belong to.’

 

Full interview by Grzegorz Sroczynski, Wyborcza.pl 20.05.2015

Ordinary Parents

Royal Mother
Kate Middleton – The Duchess of Cambridge – gave birth to her second baby. It’s not this fact itself, what brought me to write this post, but another blog which in a humorous way commented on Kate’s perfect look during child’s presentation just few hours after giving birth.

The author very accurately picks up ridiculousness of a situation when woman being inevitably damaged and exhausted after enormous effort of labour, appears in front of the world ‘done up’ and ‘dressed up’, wearing high hills.
photo from Kate Middleton facebook page

Yes, the videos and photographs of Kate Middleton reminds me that I don’t belong to royal family and after I gave birth, no wider audience cared wether I had my hair brushed or nails done (and more: if I’d like to dress up straight after labour, someone would bring me on earth and told me to just lay down). It’s fortunately not part of my task as a mother to look perfect. But is it that obvious that the whole parenting venture isn’t about being perfect in any aspect? Isn’t the underlying message from Duchess to other parents: ‘perfect’ is what we all want?

‘Perfect’ is what the photograph captured but what was left behind?
Looking at the photo of Kate Middleton I’m reflecting on big picture of parenting. I am trying to capture what really matters in being a parent and what being a good parent means. I believe that in our era of parenting, where the pressure on parents coming from many angles is very high, we tend to forget what our priorities are and we might find ourselves in a place where we never feel good enough.
Experts and Ideal Parents
In fact, these dangers were present and spoken of in early 60′ of 20th century. Dr Donald H. Winnicot, English psychoanalyst, was particularly concerned about two issues (both of them become even stronger over the years and our culture is investing in turning them into the signatures of contemporary parenting).
One of the issue is a growing role of parenting experts. The market of education and advice for parents is really massive. Parents constantly hear what they should be doing and what is best for their children. I recently saw the post on facebook, written by child psychologist, inviting parents to write their concerns on the psychologist’s facebook wall and she promised to answer each of them in few sentences. This is very vivid example of the wider issue: the ‘expert’ badge, the voice of specialist, is in our culture very powerful. The experts sound so convincing that we are inclined to trust their voice more than our own judgements. This undermines parents’ confidence and makes them feel worried that they constantly miss some skill or important bit of information. Somewhere in experts’ minds exists a perfect and right way of doing things and we, ordinary parents will never be able to fully reach that. We then sip drops of wisdom from specialists’ mouth, hoping that this will be at least good enough.
The second issue is idealisation of parents. To illustrate what it means, I recall today’s radio program, where some caller criticised mothers for returning to work instead of staying at home with children. It was a judgemental speech, claiming that most mothers do have a choice and they still prefer career than the best start in life for their children. That lady simplified the dilemma and ignored complexity of the situation. She divided the world into two: good mothers staying with children and bad ones, returning to work. Her reasoning was fuelled by emotions: she split* them into two and assigned all the good ones to good – stay at home mums and all the bad ones to the other group. This is a process which we all sometimes go through, usually not being aware of this. Black and white world with simple divisions  is a product of our phantasy and it prevents us from seeing shades of the real world. How we as a society perceive parents seems to be influenced by this mechanism of splitting. They are good or bad objects – in minds of others and in their own minds. They experience emotional pressure, the necessity to be ideal and to fulfil unreal expectations.

To be ordinary

Parenting isn’t about trying to be perfect and fulfilling unrealistic expectations.  Parenting is about ‘ordinary’. Ordinary parents are good enough to provide right care for their children. And to be clear: vast majority of parents is doing great job of loving, caring and nurturing their children.
*original concepts of splitting and good enough parents come from works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.

Parents and children on the go

image

 

Parents and children in public space

Parents with children cannot travel anonymously. They attract attention of others, whether it’s when they need help getting to the bus with a buggy or their child starts crying inconsolably. Parents know that in a public space they are watched and judged. But they judge others as well. Being responsible for a child’s safety and comfort, they carefully study every move of a stranger hanging around or trying to make contact. They keep a safe distance whenever they can. You can’t be too careful when it comes to your child’s safety.

And then there is a public space, which is an issue itself. Commuting with a child is a strategic exercise. It’s like orienteering – you need to navigate the town to be able to meet all your child’s needs, be in a right place at the right time and accomplish the task which brought you out in the first place.

How we interact in public space is strongly shaped by our culture. The same applies to the way public space is designed and organised. It reflects the attitudes we as a society hold towards different social groups – the elderly, parents with children, cyclists, etc.
I recently travelled by train with my two months old child and it was both physically challenging and emotionally difficult. Later on, when reflecting on this experience I realised that it exposes two aspects of parenting specific to our society.

Mutual Distrust

Being a parent in our society is an isolating experience. Children are solely their parents’ responsibility and if something goes ‘wrong’ in a public space, for example the child is temperamental, becomes noisy or too busy, overtired, parents might feel as if they are invading the public space and should immediately disappear. They may experience guilt, as if disrupting someone else’s peace was their fault. As parents are made to feel accountable for their children’s’ behaviour, we as a society prefer them to hang out in places designed for them, not interfering with our quieter, grown-up lives.

Children aren’t treated as equal members of society, the same kids who will grow up to build its future. If they ‘misbehave’ in a public space it is not recognised as normal behaviour but instead a reflection of their parents’ disciplining abilities.

Also, it is not in our code of behaviour to approach a parent with a child to offer a helping  hand, i.e. hold the child for a moment when the parent is packing up.

In todays world, when we hear so much about cases of abuse, kidnapping and other harm adults do to children – everyone becomes a suspect and the wariness became our default behaviour.  It sometimes takes even the form of paranoia. In Galway, where I live, there is a Christmas Market every year. Last year I came across an appeal circulating on Facebook, written by a concerned mother who saw a man trying to catch and supposedly kidnap her daughter. The woman was advising others to be wary and have their eyes open at all times. A few days later, there was an update by the same woman ; police investigated the man and it turned out to be a grandfather mistaking the woman’s daughter for his grandchild. These days we know much more about cases of crime involving children, but the actual probability that something like this will happen to our child is still very small – as small as it was when children in my generation were walking to school by themselves.
Therefore it is very strongly felt that parents are on their own – because they are the only ones responsible for their children and also, because it is dangerous to have different social arrangements.

Showcase of Skills

The sight of others watching parents in a public space is a harsh reminder of the judging of parental skills which take place every day.

In our culture, parenting is defined as a set of skills which parents apply when interacting with their children. This is the reason why advising parents seems for so many people an obvious thing to do. It is then so easy to undermine parents’ confidence about their own way of doing things. People in social space often seem to have strong doubts about parenting skills of others.

When I was rocking my son in the buggy, a man approached me and offered a piece of advice: ‘you can interact’ – he said – ‘if you wave your hand in front of him – like this – he will react’.
I witnessed many online discussions about parents and children in social spaces – often in restaurants – and they were all soaked with judgemental discourse of ‘skilful management of child’s behaviour’. People would usually be giving out about parents, blaming parenting crises and spoiled children and comlain, that ‘a spoiled child ruined somebody’s romantic dinner because the parents dared to come to a restaurant and couldn’t properly handle their child.’

I would like to ask people bringing this to the table, how many times in their lives has their romantic dinners actually been ruined by a family coming for a meal. I think this picture just shows the hostility towards parents and children in a public space, which supposedly does belong to others – mature and grown up people.

This picture accounts for challenges which our society presents to parents and their children. This doesn’t mean that there are no positive exchanges and friendly people offering help or starting up nice conversations with parents.
I described the ‘mutual distrust’ and common definition of ‘parenting as a set of skills’ to show that these aspects of parenting in our culture can be very undermining for parents and their confidence. It’s sometimes good to realise, that if we feel inadequate or uncomfortable in certain situation it’s not because we are wrong, but because the wider context is set up to make us feel like that.

Knowing this we might be able to reject this role and follow our own path.

Home birth – what is the difference

Six weeks ago I gave birth to my second child, Albert. It was a home birth and I learnt some important lessons through this experience, that I wish to share for future parents who may find it useful when preparing for a natural birth (not necessarily at home).

Pain

I exactly remember the pain of giving birth to my first child, Lily Helena. The peak of it, when the contractions were the longest and the strongest felt like my lower back was cracking and spreading as a glacier. I expected the same pain for the second time but it didn’t happen.

Despite of it, I was really scared. Scared of the pain, scared of my reactions, of tiredness and loosing energy, scared of impossibility to escape the process. Scared of lack of the control and scared of the thought that the birthing process may take many hours.

I felt extremely vulnerable and what I needed from the outside world was reassurance, safety and as much comfort as possible. I also knew that these things are going to help my child to come to this world peacefully.

Relief

The haven of my own home provided the sense of security and intimacy. Home birth allowed my family to avoid separation – we stayed all together throughout the process. My husband, Simon seemed to feel much more free to take up his supportive role and act according to his intuition.
It was getting dark outside and inside Simon lightened the candles instead of turning on the strong room light. It was one of those little, subtle changes which made a big impact on labour. It wasn’t planned to have the light turned down, but midwife seemed to expect that as when it came to the second stage of labour and she needed proper light, she was using a head torch, which she brought with her.

Hormones story

What really matters during the birth is to let hormones do the right thing. Hormones are responsible for progress of the labour – oxytocin, adrenaline and endorphins are the main substances which drive the process. Their production is related to psychological condition of a mother to be and this means, for example, that too much stress can cause overproduction of adrenaline, which can inhibit the release of oxytocin.
Adrenaline is known as a ‘stress’ hormone. The more a woman is distressed the more adrenaline circulates in her body, causing trouble to oxytocin release and prolonging the labour.
Distress can be caused both by small uncomfortable stimuli – like strong light, as well as more serious issues – like fear of pain. So as labour is inevitably a stressful experience, to work through the natural birth is to minimise factors, which influence hormones in negative way and maximise those which help a woman to be relaxed (as much relaxed as possible – and I can imagine that this statement doesn’t have a limit – my friend, who was using autohypnosis techniques recalls giving birth as practically painless experience).

Interventions

In my case, the crucial role in supporting the natural course of action, played very subtle changes in my behaviour and in circumstances. They were introduced by the midwife, who attentively assisted me through the process and was giving clues and suggestions which made a huge impact on my way of experiencing the labour.
In hospital, doctors and midwives have a wide range of medical interventions to apply and they are often used. Induction of oxytocin, epidural, using of forceps, etc. – they are actions justified by the context in which the birth is happening and by the medical culture. Sometimes they are used unnecessarily, sometimes they are needed because of the hormonal process being affected by hospital environment.
What I was amazed of, was that my midwife had wide range of natural interventions to choose from and that they all made massive changes, including speeding up the action.

To list those which I remembered as being most helpful for me:

  • Relaxing the forehead. When pain was becoming more severe, I tended to frown and string the forehead. Sorcha asked me to try to relax that tension. Since then through all the labour I focused on that part of the body, remembering to have eyes wide open and have a forehead relaxed. That leaded me to make ’rounded’ noises and let me to survive through every contraction much easier.
  • Rocking. The movement played enormous role during all the labour and rocking during contraction was particularly helpful. During more difficult times, I was rocking my body resting my hands on Sorcha’s forearms, so I can say, we danced through the hard moments.
  • Changes of positions. I heard a lot about the benefit of using different positions during the labour, but I didn’t have a chance to try it when giving birth for the first time, so I didn’t really understand what does it mean. After experiencing constant changes of positions I know that this is the vital part of moving things forward and of coping with labour. That included taking few baths, and also: walking up and down the stairs, when the action slowed down. When in pain, my instinct tells me to curl up in one place, stock there and wait until the thread is gone. The key work during the labour was to resist this instinctive reaction and just move around – as much as possible. I was strongly encouraged to do so and also, Sorcha was preparing new places for me – fixing the pillows, blankets, hot water bottle, etc. Feeling free to move and being creative about it was for me the most important part of going through natural birth.
  • Avoiding screaming. When the time for pushing came I was given two pieces of advice which allowed me to push out my 4.4 kg (9.7 pound) baby very gently and with very small damage to my body. One was to switch from high pitch screaming (which again appeared as an immediate reaction on very start of the pushing stage), into making deep noises from diaphragm. That deeper voice of mine immediately guided me to find the right speed and strength of pushing (and probably also allowed our older daughter to sleep through that phase).
  • Listening to my body. It all came together when I heard these words: Listen to your body. The meaning of this sentence is very floating and almost impossible to grasp, but I didn’t have to think what does it mean. It just allowed me to follow the rhythm of contractions and let me take the control over that moment.
  • These are examples of small ‘interventions’ which I found very helpful during my labour. Some of them might be a take away for other parents preparing for birth. Above all, I would encourage mothers to be to think creatively about the process and try to anticipate what can help them to go beyond their immediate reactions for pain or fear (be it clenching teeth, frowning, getting stuck in one position, etc) and what are the subtle changes making big impact, possible to introduce in given context (whether at home, in hospital, birth centre; with partners, midwives, doulas…).At the end, I would like to pay my deep respect to the midwife – Sorcha Nic Lochlainn – for her calm, attentive, caring and beautiful presence during that special moment of my life.

    Thank you Sorcha and keep doing this fantastic work for others.*

    *In Ireland Home birth is an option available costs free for all women of low risk pregnancy.
    Sorcha Nic Lochlainn is Self-Employed Community Midwife and provides care to women who fit the HSE criteria for home birth, under the HSE home birth scheme.
    contact:
    091 648 452
    resources:
    Home Birth Association Ireland

    Community Midwives Association

Parental Authority – out of fashion?

Authority needs to be imaginative, If you become authoritarian, you loose your authority’, Simon Western.

The dirty word

There is a problem with word ‘authority’. As said in a previous post, Authority is very often associated with the Authoritarian Parenting, characterised by little warmth, huge control, and harsh, punitive discipline*. In this light authority seems to be the tool of devil and many parents would be inclined to claim authority free parenting, and set up standards for Permissive Parenting – a warm and highly accepting style, employing reason rather than force, and indifferent about applying parental discipline.

The Parental Authority figure

Whether we like it or not, a child sees their parents as an authority figure, as this is part of developmental process. Usually parents are the main point of reference for infants, the first significant ‘others’ in children’s life, their first role-model of how the world is organised. Children carry parents in their minds and use those images when engaging in all further relationships and decision-making. In this sense, our way of caring, our values and beliefs are consciously and unconsciously the strongest of influences on our children. It is not to say that we have a full control on what we pass onto our children, other social factors also occur. Yet parents are always an authority figure to the child, as the child is always influenced by the parent… they carry parental authority whether they choose it or not. The question is how do they use this authority?

The need of authority

What is also missing in the polarised picture, represented by authoritarian and permissive parenting is the notion that children need authority to feel safe when learning and exploring the world. Applying parental authority with confidence, clarity and love provides firm, safe and consistent environment, which is the basis for children to develop.
Children are their carers’ dependant, which is not an equal relationship. It involves the use of power to make things happen. This is parent’s task to make children do or not do something, draw clear boundaries, lead actions and use their power – for children’s own safety and benefit. Put in practical context of basic needs – it is parents’ responsibility to feed children, keep them safe, warm, offer emotional security and encouraging conditions for learning.
Big part of children’s learning happens through testing, pushing boundaries, through challenging parents’ power. The hope is that through this process children learn to understand the sense of boundaries, and learn to create their own boundaries, for their own safety and benefit.
For example, it is expected from the very early stage of life, that children will be trying to break the rules, do the things which they want to, regardless parents prohibition. But provided with very clear and consistent message from parents – regarding what is right and not right – they are also expected to recognise their own benefit in moving within the boundary, and be able to take care for themselves.

Authoritative Parenting

Drawing boundaries and providing a consistent discipline is part of the safe and pro-developmental environment. The other part, equally important is emotional warmth and support. There is no right and wrong way, no absolute rules, the challenge is that as parents we must find our own way, taking account of each child’s individual needs and personality. Each parent has their unique styles of applying parental authority, and different children have unique responses and needs. The task for parents is to navigate the child’s needs whilst not avoiding their parental responsibilities.

According to the Baumrind’s model of parenting styles* these are the characteristics of Authoritative Parenting, which is claimed to be the most beneficial for children. The following lists presents the main elements of the style:

  • is accepting of child; displays frequent expressions of affection
  • sets high standards for behaviour
  • maintains consistent discipline and limit setting
  • employs reason rather than force
  • listens to child’s points of view

What is your baggage?

We all differ in a way we speak from the position of power. The way we enact authority is deeply rooted in our history of relating to important others. This why, when learning to take up the authoritative role as a parents, it is important to explore some of those topics below:

    1. what emotional reactions do you notice in yourself
      when trying to set boundaries for your children or telling them to do something?
    2. how do you look and sound like when speaking from your authority as a parent (for example talking about crossed boundaries)?</
    3. who was your first or most important authority figure?
    4. what emotional reactions did this important person evoke in you when speaking from the position of power (i.e. telling you what to do, telling you off)?
    5. what similarities can you point between you and your first authority?
    6. what differences can you point between you and the authority?

*from the model of parenting styles by Baumrind, described in: Child Psychology. Development in changing society

Let the children be creative

Being a mother of a 10 month old girl, I pay attention to the messages dedicated to parents and I found myself surrounded by products, services and articles, which are suppose to boost children’s learning skills and creativity. I would say that creativity is on the top of the list of abilities which can be developed through interacting with toys, attending classes, playing specially designed games, and even – eating! I recently bought finger food, which apparently has a number of learning qualities, as the text on the bag stated. I pictured a baby, asking their parents who are looking for the signs of learning processes while the child is having a snack: ‘please, let me eat in peace.’

This obsessive attempt to influence and enhance babies’ experience introduces the pressure of competition in very early stage.
The holy Grail of our society is the underlying promise behind all the products and stream of information that as long as parents stick to the certain strategy, they will be able to develop their children in the ‘right direction’.

Lets focus here on the creativity at the early stage of children’s life. Parents want their children to be creative and they easily find the support in their quest of how to make them be more creative. I would argue that this is tackling the matter from the wrong angle and consequently, setting up wrong parental goals.

The most popular definition of creativity states, that this is the ability to generate novel outcomes that are valued in particular context. The playful way of explaining the subject is the ‘Laconic Definition of Creativity’, which focuses on the three types of spontaneous reactions for the creative outcome. These three are 1) Ah! 2) Aha!, and 3) Hahaha!, which stand for: enchantment, understanding and amusement. If we find ourselves experiencing those three reactions, that means, we are exposed to the creative outcome.

We can now recall any encounter with the toddler, playing freely with the world. Inventing words, games and jokes, making sense of the surrounding, discovering new things and giving them meaning – being endlessly imaginative. If we are just engaged with this kid, we can find ourselves with Ah! Aha! and Hahaha!, coming out of our mouth every second minute.

Creativity is the natural way of being for babies and toddlers. They engage with world creatively simply because they don’t know any other way. They don’t have schematic ways of thinking and cognitive paths which are adults’ shortcuts to solutions and quick answers. They make up the answer each time and they have fun doing it. They repeat their mile stone discoveries and they learn. The most spontaneous and obvious way of engaging with the world is play. And children’s free play is a pure creativity.

It can be inhibited though, by stress, emotional and psychological discomfort. This can have many different sources, child is affected by the difficult life events, as any other human being (even if is not able to fully comprehend the situation).
Melanie Klein, child psychoanalyst, discovered that stressed and troubled children played with toys in a very particular way, which was unimaginative, repetitive, and tense. When she named what was going on for a child (offered them her interpretation), the children came back to themselves and they were able to play more freely. We can assume what were the ‘curing’ factors, which allowed children to come back to their creative selves. It was an adult, being able to:
help them make sense of the difficult situation which affect them,
contain overwhelming emotions,
provide safety and trust.

I would draw an analogy between this difficult situation and parents’ goals in supporting children’s creativity. Parents’s objective is to provide comfort, safety, freedom and trust, which are basics for a spontaneous exploration of the world. Our task is also to help the children understanding their emotions and going through emotionally difficult times. This is how we can participate in our children’s development of creativity.

I therefore argue for changing perspective from trying to be an active agent, who provides children with tools for more efficient development, to being a good companion, ready to follow children in their creative endeavours and step in when it is needed.

I would like to make this point stronger by recalling one famous person, who was a genius student of creativity and wisely choose his teachers. Pablo Picasso was fascinated by children’s creativity and he learnt how to truly come back to this purely creative state of mind, which gets lost with time. He achieved a mastery in freeing his imagination from constrains and schemata, which force most of us to think, feel and see things in a right, acceptable by the majority way.
If we could reverse the situation and learn from children, rather then instantly attempting to teach them, both children and parents would benefit. Perhaps we resist this because we have an underlying fear, that as a side effect of creativity, we would become less conformist…. and that would force us to face ourselves in new ways…. Creativity is much sought after, but so is conformity!

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Pablo Picasso, Female Acrobat, 1930. http://www.studyblue.com