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Monday, April 20, 2015

THE RE-EDUCATION OF TERI DEMARCO

I had kids late in life.  I was 39 when my twin boys were born.  Prior to their birth, I had all the conventional attitudes about raising children.  Most of these insights came from friends/family who had had children before me.

I don't know when my attitude about childrearing changed, but there were probably a few catalysts. One was when my in-laws sent us a book called The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland. This book focused on the brain science of early childhood development.  Another was the fact that I was determined to breastfeed my twins and I knew that I would not use formula.  And the third was that I was having twins and it became evident very early that the medical community had very explicit ideas about twins, when to give birth to twins, and how to give birth to twins and how quickly I could hold and breastfeed them once they were born.  The system was mostly about the dr's and the nurses, and had very little to do with the actual human beings (mom and babies) who were involved.  Suffice it to say, I realized very early on that my choices in raising my kids would have us swimming upstream.

The next book I read was Becoming Attached by Robert Karen.  Karen discusses, from a historical perspective, the genesis of Attachment Theory.  The importance of understanding our babies' cries and responding to their needs seemed a completely natural impulse.  Securely attached kids are more confident, independent and have strong self-esteem.  These were all things that I wanted to promote in my kids.

I soon picked up Alfie Kohn's  Unconditional Parenting and I have to say that I nearly put it down a few times as the ideas presented within pushed me outside of my comfort zone.  Common wisdom promoted behavior modification as its main method to "train" children - praise the behavior you want more of, and punish the behavior you'd rather eliminate.  This style of parenting is determined by something called Behaviorism or Behavior Theory.  Alfie Kohn threw water on the tenets of Behaviorism and offered a different perspective, one that suggested that children thrive when our love is not offered conditionally.  What an interesting idea.

In the end I practiced my own form of attachment parenting and responded to my kids' needs which worked great through one more pregnancy and the birth of a daughter, not quite 2 yrs after the birth of the boys.  Then my sons turned 3 and I was forced back to the well of knowledge to learn how I could continue the essence of attachment parenting with kids who were more mobile, head strong and wonderfully curious.  I've always believed that you really cannot call yourself a true parent until your kids turn 3!  Three year olds will push every button you have.  I realized, pretty quickly, that I needed more tools in my bag to maintain their unique personalities while figuring out why I was triggered by things that happened in our daily lives.

Around this time, I found a few valuable resources that changed my path forever.  Rebecca Thompson of Consciously Parenting showed me what was really happening when my son dug in and decided to become immovable when we were out and about.  Rebecca emphasizes the importance of loving connection with our kids and she now has a number of books that discuss how to create strong connection in the family.  It is really an extension of Attachment Parenting beyond the baby and toddler years and is the basis for a strong parent/child relationship.

I was also introduced to Bonnie Harris of Connective Parenting at the same time and devoured two of her books:  Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids  and When Kids Push Your Buttons and What You Can Do About It .  Bonnie Harris talks about reframing a child's misbehavior.  Instead of a child being a problem we need to look at it as a child is having a problem.  Her books really move parents to step inside their kids' shoes and look at things from their perspective.  She urges parents to realize that when we are triggered viscerally, it is usually something from our own upbringing that is coming up.  If we can identify what that might be, we can learn to respond to our kids and not react to our kids.  These ideas were life changing for our family and I have huge gratitude for Bonnie Harris and her writings. Incorporating her ideas into my parenting have made me a better mom and a better person.  I recommend her books to hundreds of moms every year!

And so we set forth on a very respectful style of parenting - when my kids were exhibiting behavior that was not so great, I went into sleuth mode to understand what was happening in their world around them and set out to see if I could help fix it.  Often presence and connection time could solve many of the ills.  I also became well-versed in repairing our connection when my reactions were less than stellar.  As parents we all have days when our patience is less available and we react poorly to our kids.  The key is to come back around later that day or the next day and apologize for our own outbursts.   Not only does this repair the relationship with our kids, it models for them the power and importance of admitting our own mistakes.

After honing my skills at connection parenting I recognized that children are full-fledged members of the family albeit slightly immature.  I often offered this insight to many moms who threaded on forums and groups on which I participated.  When you recognize your child as a valuable member of the family, this means that you offer them the same level of respect you would a spouse or an employee or friend.  It was important to me that my children recognize that their age should not determine their importance and their needs were treated equally to the needs of all the others in our family.  When those needs are in conflict we have to negotiate and communicate about how to compromise to get everyone's needs met.

Respecting kids quickly required me to evaluate the level of control and authority I exerted in the family.  I'd always been very supportive of my kids' curiosity and investigation and was willing to stand back and let my kids navigate their world with as much or as little help as they needed.  I've always been a champion of creating a world for kids where there are few no's - and making the home and environment safe for exploration.  Essentially, I never wanted to break my kids curiosity or add fear to their explorations.  Their experiences were their own and I got to enjoy the show.

But when our kids ended up in preschool and elementary school, we realized that there was very little free play or free investigation, it was all overseen by adults and kids' natural curiosity was trampled by an overarching need to "teach" an intended outcome.  Not to mention that the school environment is based on authoritarian control where kids have no rights and little respect.  It was then that the family life we had deliberately cultivated for years ended up being poisoned by forces outside of our control. It was obvious that having our kids in school ran counter to so many of the principles we felt important (you can read more about this in my previous blog post)

It was when we realized that we could no longer keep our kids in school that I was introduced to Teresa Graham Brett and her book Parenting for Social Change  If you haven't read this book, I encourage you to stop everything right now and buy it.  This was one of the most profound books I have ever read and it provided me a framework on which to hang all the research, ideas and tools I'd honed in my parenting journey.  Teresa discusses how when we exert control in parenting we are disempowering our children and setting them up for accepting the control of others in their lives. She pins much of our need for control back to our fears and disempowerment from our own upbringing and emphasizes the need to be honest with ourselves about why we feel we need to control things/people in our lives.  The book posits that if we can learn to respect children, trust them and work consensually with them, we will produce adults who are whole and who will be empowered to take on the problems of the world.  Profound thoughts in a profound book from a wonderfully visionary and loving author. Parenting for Social Change solidified all the ideas I'd captured along this parenting path and brought them to light for their higher purpose; that of creating whole children. Children who know themselves, who are empowered and empathetic and who know how to communicate and compromise because they've lived this way from the start.  These are the kids who will change the world and I am so glad that I am investing in our future in the most important way.

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