A while ago I reflected on how differently I parented my firstborn compared to how I’m raising my fourth and final child. I’m intrigued by the changes in my own parenting style over the past decade. Most notably, it’s taken me this long to learn to relax: I no longer have to pep talk myself to take a chill pill.
Perhaps it’s fatigue, maybe it’s confidence that it will all turn out okay in the end (or more likely: “this too shall pass”), or maybe, just maybe, it’s learning to let go.
I recall an incident when my eldest (now 10) was three. It was a horrid year of constant battles, tears and frustration on all sides. He was attempting to put on his jacket but the sleeve was inside out. We were in a hurry and he was struggling to get the sleeve out, but he refused to accept my offers of help. Eventually I took over and fixed the sleeve so he could push his arm through. In his mind, my action was intolerable. He completely lost his ... composure. Loudly, aggressively and embarrassingly. My mother, possibly the least judgemental person in the entire universe, was the only other witness, but I was mortified by my son’s behaviour. I packed my screaming three-year-old into the car and lectured him all the way home. Once home, I called my mum, put my son on the phone and made him apologise for his atrocious behaviour. My mum was now the one mortified - I had mistakenly turned her into the baddie. After raising four children of her own, and having seen every tantrum under the sun, she in no way expected a call of apology from a three-year-old.
My thinking at the time? If this behaviour isn't nipped in the bud, if I don’t demonstrate consequences for poor behaviour, if I don’t consistently follow-through, he'll grow into an out-of-control-knife-wielding-cat-drowning-terror. Yes, they call me the over-thinker.
I now look back horrified that I made my poor little son do that. He was attempting to assert independence and practise a skill (dressing himself) - then I stepped in unannounced, disregarding his determination to complete the task autonomously.
I’d love to say that now, with my fourth three–year-old in full-blown tantrum territory, we experience less of these hysterical outbursts because I allow much more freedom. Not so. She has plenty more opportunities to demonstrate independence - in fact, it's become an expectation, thanks to the chaotic reality of a busy household. However, she can tantrum with the best of them. If the Winter Olympics offered some kind of medal for aerial screaming, she’d snap gold every time.
When she does unleash the inner “screamon”, I’ve enlisted a completely new approach. I like to call it “ignoring”.
If she’s keen to lie down in the middle of the lolly aisle and bellow about how unfair her life is because I refuse to purchase a sugary treat, she can knock herself out (no, not literally). I’m relaxed, possibly indifferent to her maniacal interpretations. If an old biddy wants to tell me I’m cruel, or a bad parent, well, bring it on. My care factor for other people’s opinions of my parenting hovers around zero.
Ignoring tantrums is partly my own coping mechanism for avoiding insanity, but it’s also my way of disengaging from emotional toddler outbursts. If my child hurts another child, then I certainly intervene; they’re taught their actions hurt someone else, and they are to apologise. However, I don’t take their inability to moderate their behaviour on board the guilt train. No longer do I feel judged for my response to sticky situations. A decade ago I would’ve probably rocked in a corner sobbing if someone told me I was a bad parent; now you could erect a neon sign outside my house with an arrow pointing to my face on a billboard and I’d shrug and turn the other way (well, the neon could be a tad over the top).
With my first child I attached so much of myself to my child’s behaviour: my identity, my quality and success as a parent. I thought I would be assessed on my son’s reactions, his tantrums and his general behaviour, that if he misbehaved, how I handled the situation would be on show as a test for all to evaluate. It was self-sabotage and a parenting approach that made us all miserable.
Now, I’ve learnt to separate my own identity from the behaviour of my child. I’m confident my husband and I instill values that are meaningful to us, and our family unit, by setting boundaries and limitations. We give love and affection and show concern and empathy through our everyday lives, so I feel we’re doing the best job we can.
I’ve also learnt that every dog has their day. Each and every child will pass through a stage – maybe you had a biter, a hitter, a tantrum thrower, a non-speaker, a shy guy, a contrary Mary, a pants-pooer, a daycare-refuser – whichever stage they are in, know that it will pass. I’ve clocked up enough experience raising young children to know there is no such thing as a perfect child or perfect parent. What one child responds to another completely rejects. And while, at times, we’ve failed dismally at toilet training and sleep progression, our children seem to be fairly well-adjusted and well-behaved.
There’s plenty of time for that to go haywire, though. When this happens, hopefully I’ll have enough fuel in the tank to guide my children safely back to the shore of reason, and let the dictatorship approach sail away, with the guilt and judgement from others on deck.
What’s changed in your parenting? How/why? Comment below or in the Essential Baby forum.