Podcast: To Parent Or Not To Parent
In this season of the podcast, my goal is to give you a chance to pause and consider ways to improve the experience of learning in your home and in your family by answering questions you’ve sent to me.
One theme is clear as I glance through the list of growing topics: parenting!
You want to know
- how to get your kids to cooperate with the plan or the lack of a plan,
- how to prepare them for their futures when they don’t seem to imagine life past age 15, and
- how to help them fall in love with learning, and you want to do it without provoking resistance or anger or boredom or lethargy.
So often we believe that the issue we are facing in our homeschools is about learning itself or the subject area (like math, writing, or science). What we are facing, though, is more universal in nature. Even parents of kids who attend traditional schools struggle to get their children to finish homework or to care about their grades or to feed the dog or to brush their teeth and make their beds.
Effective parenting—that’s the skill we want to gain.
But what is parenting?
We know so well that we assume we know what it means. Parenting has been presented in many ways to us: the strict disciplinarian, the coach, the best buddy, the wise adult leader…
The term itself is problematic in my opinion. Parenting implies “doing something” to our kids (we “parent” them—turning that noun into a verb with an object of its action—our unwitting children!).
We ARE parents. But the question I want us to consider is: do we do an action called “parenting?” Do I do an action that can be described as “parenting?”
Listen to the Podcast
Parenting is different from other relationships we have because it implies an enormous responsibility. Not only are we charged with the two primary duties related to raising children (keep ‘em busy, keep ‘em alive) we’re also expected to civilize those children — to show them the ropes of how to behave in groups, as friends, and eventually as students — so we want our kids to be self-sufficient, kind, brave adults. We feel morally clear and justified in our actions that require our kids to cooperate with our goals — parenting is our duty. It’s a duty to perform on behalf of our children.
What is the child’s experience of all this parenting, though?
We resist being told how to live and that resistance starts at a very young age. I have a three-week-old granddaughter, Lavender. She’s tongue-tied so she is currently being bottle-fed with pumped breast milk until they can do surgery this coming week. I watched her while Noah was feeding her. I watched her literally refuse to close her mouth around the nipple of the bottle once she felt full of milk (even though supposedly she needed to drink all two ounces). It cracked me up. She simply stopped closing her lips around the nipple and nothing Noah could do would entice her to drink another drop.
Our need for self-determination is one of the essential building blocks of our eventual autonomy as adults. Children practice self-determination and self-sufficiency every day of their lives. Pause and think about that. Every day they are practicing self-determination and self-sufficiency. Do we call it that? Or do we call it laziness, or hyperactivity, or temper tantrums?
A lot of the time, how kids show up is advocacy for themselves, but it looks like misbehavior to us. Does that change how you see your recalcitrant child a bit? When a child says to you, “I don’t need math. I’m never going to use it,” that’s a declaration of independence! That’s “don’t give me retirement investment advice over mashed potatoes.” Your child is saying to you: “You, mother, can’t tell me I need math. I have yet to discover its value in my life. Stop managing me!”
The concept of “parenting,” however, gives us tacit permission inside ourselves to override that child’s declaration of independence. We say to ourselves, “I am making you do math for your own good. I know better than you do about what you need.” Once you assert your parental authority in that way, you start down the parenting path: parental insistence followed by child’s resistance. See what I mean? “Parenting”—the verb—turns our role of “parent” into an act that is easily resented. Let me say that again:
Parenting, the verb, turns our role of parent, the noun, into an act that is easily resented.
So what can be done? There are items on the “raise your kids to adulthood” list that we expect to impart to our kids and that we hope will be received with love, goodwill, and open-heartedness. This reminds me of an experience I had a couple of decades ago.
Back in the late 1990s, I lived in California. A friend of mine asked me to help her teach her kids to write. She was feeling all of that “parental pressure” to ensure that her children would be competent writers, that they’d get into college. That’s always our justification for everything.
Her thought process was: “Is this a good curriculum? Is this program teaching writing the right way?”
Her thought process was not: “What value does writing have in my child’s life today? How is my child already connected to writing? What can I do to help my child see writing as valuable enough to learn to do it well?”
See what I’m saying?
When we’re in “parenting” mode, the questions we ask have to do with how to “get” our kids to do what they don’t want to do, or know how to do, or aren’t good at yet. We are the experts and they are the novices, the novitiates.
What is an alternate way of seeing our relationship to our children—a different term—that avoids the pitfalls of the term “parenting”?
There are so many ideas available to us if we resist using the loaded term “parenting.” So if we thought about writing, how different is it to shop for a curriculum if your goal is to nurture your children, or to coach them, or to accompany them? Let’s say I thought of myself not as parenting my child but accompanying my child. Would a program that provided set of instructions that you handed your children to do alone at the table be the best program? What a parent is saying is, “I can enforce my child’s cooperation with those sets of instructions.” That’s me parenting my child into writing.
If we’re trying to support, escort, steer, lead, nurture, accompany, or coach our children, wouldn’t we want a program, or guidance from a program, that helps us establish that dynamic in a healthy, friendly, kind way? And it’s not just writing! It’s true for math, for learning to read, for exploring the big beautiful mysteries of the universe!
There are so many ways to lead our children that avoid the pitfalls of the word “parenting.”
Back when I wrote The Writer’s Jungle in 1999, I ran into this brick wall of “parenting” as writing instruction methodology. I had been asked by a pretty well known curriculum company for homeschoolers to write a writing manual for them. When I began, I started with the question, “What is a paragraph?” Within two of my own paragraphs, not only was I bored, but I realized that all the information I was writing felt false. It felt like a rehash of all the information already out there that was failing to support parents who wanted to teach writing.
And so I turned inward and shifted my gaze away from what it feels like to be a responsible parent just trying to get my kid to write a paragraph and I put myself behind the eyes of a child. I asked: “What is the issue for a child?”
I realized immediately that there are no children asking “how to write a paragraph.” They need to be interested in writing before the notion of a paragraph even becomes relevant. So often we say things like: “You need to learn fractions because someday you will learn algebra and you need algebra because someday you will go to college.” Your children have not even asked the question yet that would lead them to be curious about fractions, let alone at age 8 to be concerned about going to college at age 18.
When we start from a parental or parenting point of view, we’re looking at the other end of childhood, getting them ready for something they can’t imagine yet. But if we use these other words—guiding, supporting, encouraging, leading, steering—what we’re doing is we are joining the child where they are today and creating an opportunity for that child to make the notion we want to give them relevant for today. We do it for potty training. We do it for tying shoes. We don’t say, “You need to be potty trained so you can go to college and use a toilet.” It has to be relevant right now.
The issue isn’t “how to write a paragraph, here are good instructions.” The issue is “why is writing powerful?” or “what can writing do for me?” I knew that children already spoke naturally in paragraphs. I had children. They are fluent native speakers by age 5. Their thoughts spill out with surprising clarity and cogence, even if sometimes a little long-winded or they get a little more detailed than the adult in me and you have time for. What they don’t know is that writing can be a tool that serves them and their aims for their own lives.
So I began again writing this book again, which I eventually self-published. I realized quickly that what parents needed was a different vision of the parent-child relationship when learning to write. We don’t “parent” a child into being a writer. We provide guidance, support, modeling, and affirmation. The writer lives inside the child. We don’t get it out through a big set of instructions. We have to value a child’s natural right to self-expression more than our compulsion to create a college-ready writer.
When we shift from seeing writing as something a child has to do to seeing it as a tool to express the marvel that is our child, our demeanor shifts. Our kids notice and they are much more willing to rise to the occasion, to express more, to hear your tips and tricks, to be invested with you.
The greatest gift you can give your children as a parent is the faith that they are growing right on schedule, that they can get the resources they need to grow in the ways appropriate to who they are, and that you are on their team — they aren’t on yours. Do you feel that shift? This isn’t about how to get my child to agree with my goals. This is about how to be on my child’s team to give them the opportunity to grow so that all the tools and resources I know about are meaningful to my child.
What’s funny is that The Writer’s Jungle and the corresponding class are tools parents use to help them discover how to do that for writing. What we hear back is that the skills they learned in that class or in the manual help them with, well, everything—all the subjects. Like how to teach math and how to drive a car and what to do about a child who has lost her love of ballet. When you shift perspectives, it changes everything.
Again and again, parents discover that when they stop “parenting” and instead align with their children—valuing them, guiding them, supporting them, helping them—they see real progress in those subjects.
So I thought I’d share the principles we use in Brave Writer here in this podcast to help you shift out of “parenting” mode and become, instead, the parent you wanted to be (the one you wish you had, or perhaps are lucky enough to have).
1. Value what your child values.
Value their thoughts, opinions, passions, current skills (not focusing on what they don’t know yet, but what they are already good at), ideas, wishes, hopes, dreams, fantasies, and senses of humor.
2. Provide the corresponding support to the presenting need.
The biggest problem with parenting is “over-parenting.” We tend to swoop in and do too much for the child or, conversely, insist on the child doing too much. Over-parenting is this belief that they need you to fix things, or that you can insist stronger and harder that they do the thing.
The goal isn’t to set a goal, your child’ hits it and you are proud of that child. It’s that your child feels the worth that comes from a personally valuable achievement.
3. Write eight pieces of writing, revise one.
In our online classes, we talk about the importance of having a lot of practice, but only revising one piece out of all that practice. In all areas of life, it’s worth it to not expect perfection on attempts.
A child learns by doing, not by lecture and especially not by criticism. Yes, pointing out a tip or trick is what coaches offer and it’s so helpful! But they will not be heard if the context feels like harsh criticism. Expecting perfect execution on all attempts leads to paralysis and resentment (and very little growth, if any). Practice a lot, then polish (or perform) once.
4. Work hard, take breaks.
Our brains need space to consolidate what was taught and learned. We need to reup energy to tackle new thinking again.
The point is this: as you are growing in a skill, performance is not the most common feature of the learning process. It is an outcome that comes once in a while after loads of preparation, practice, errors, failures, mistakes, and figuring out the tips and tricks that help you be successful.
These are the principles that we use in our classes to help parents move out of parenting mode into the guide, encourager, supporter mode.
Parenting isn’t a thing. Being a parent is.
You want to be the kind of parent who offers the companionship and expertise that enables a child to be self-determining. We want our children to feel that they have meaningful control over their lives and that their skill development isn’t a performance for you, but a milestone of achievement they value. Just because they are young doesn’t mean they don’t also have an inward cry of “stop managing me!”
My team was asking me the other day if Brave Writer has a mission statement. I have never liked mission statements. Too often they seem aspirational and vague, perhaps too flowery.
But I thought about our goals in Brave Writer and realized that I’ve had the same mission since 1997:
The transformation of the parent-child relationship through writing instruction and home education coaching.
In other words, it’s a writing company but it’s a weird writing company. The goal isn’t “college-ready writer,” even though that is our accomplishment. We want you to like each other at the end of this journey you are taking as a home educator and child. We want the writing life to be something your child values and will use for a lifetime.
We don’t have to sacrifice the warmth and camaraderie of the parent-child relationship on the altar of education. We can have both. If you want help getting there, that’s what Brave Writer is all about!
Everything is organized around the principle that you as a parent don’t have to use the tool called “parenting” to achieve your goals in your family and on behalf of your child. There is another way. It’s this coaching, companionship, exploration, guide, helper, support that gets you there.
And what’s lovely about it is that, when they finally leave at the end of high school or college, they want to come home. They solicit your advice. They are interested in sharing with you their achievements — because they know you are on their team, you’re not requiring them to be on your team.
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