I had a call from a journalist recently. She asked me,
“Have you heard of Panda parenting? It’s kind of different to Tiger Parenting. It’s a bit more like Lawnmower or Snow Plough parenting. But it’s kind of different to helicopter parenting, and closer to free-range parenting.”
I started googling the different parenting styles that are out there... You can be a positive parent, an attachment/intuitive/natural parent. Then there are unconditional (conscious) parents, gentle parents, spiritual (holistic) parents, slow parents (no, it’s not a comment about their mental acuity… they are mindful parents), and even dolphin and jellyfish parents. (Please don’t ask me… not much science going on here.) Frankly, I’m a bit over it. It’s not just the ethos of each of these parenting types.
It’s the labelling.
We teach our kids not to label each other, yet as a society, we do it all the time. Past decades have given rise to many schools of thought about parenting – from tiger parents, to helicopter parents, to tough-love parents and free-range parents. But each of these ideologies has one thing in common – they lean toward the extreme. The fact is, extremes don’t give our kids what they need to succeed in life. Instead, I recommend a more measured approach to raising our children.
The Balance Beam Approach
When I was in primary school PE class, all students had to walk across the balance beam as part of our gymnastics lessons. There were mats underneath, but it was still pretty high off the ground, and if you fell off, it could potentially hurt. In the interests of health and safety, we had two partners who walked next to us with their arms outstretched towards us. These ‘partners’ were just two students from class. They were never going to be able to catch someone if they fell! But that was never the goal.
Instead, if they saw us start to overbalance, they would just gently put their hand on our leg. They didn’t have to take much weight, just a little bit, but it was enough to steady us so that we could keep going. But that’s not how some parents raise their kids. In some situations when the going gets tough up on that balance beam, some parents believe it is their job to climb up and carry their child across. These parents will finish their child’s homework, or do a project for them. They ring the teacher to smooth out social difficulties and demand additional resources that other kids might not be getting. But is this good for our kids?
There are other parents who believe that when their kids start to wobble on that balance beam they should, ‘toughen up’. And when they fall off, they should ‘get right back up’. And when the kids cry or show they’re upset or frustrated, ‘drink some concrete and harden up’ (this one really cuts me to the core). It’s pretty clear to most of us, that’s not good for our kids either.
Research shows that kids need space to learn and grow without us hovering over them at all times. In fact, over controlling parents can negatively affect a child’s emotional wellbeing and behaviour. These kids are less able to deal with life’s challenges and this is especially noticeable within the complex school environment. At the same time, the tough love approach isn’t any better. Parents who adopt this approach often say that it’ll make their kids more resilient when actually the opposite is true. Children who have parents who react harshly to negative emotions, and refuse to comfort them, have a much more difficult time behaving in a socially competent manner. They also exhibit more anger, less ability to regulate emotions and less overall wellbeing. It certainly doesn’t increase resilience.
The Upside of Balance
As parents, it is not our job to climb up on the balance beam and carry our kids across. It’s also not our job to let them fall. It is our job to walk beside them and gently support them when they start to topple. This is how we should be parenting our kids. Our job as parents is to give a little support when our kids start to stumble. They can lean on us, reorient themselves, and with our gentle encouragement they can take another step or two – or more. When they struggle, we don’t let them fall. And we don’t fix the problem. It is our job to say, ‘Hang on, I got you. I can’t do this for you, but I’m right here. I know you can do this and if you need help, I’ll support you.’ This kind of support builds our relationship with our children and competence in our kids. And these are the foundations of resilience, and wellbeing.
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