In one way of looking at parenting, we can label it as either permissive, authoritarian, or democratic:
Permissive (meeting their child’s needs and not our own) – Authoritarian (meeting our needs and not our child’s).
With Aware Parenting, we strive for something in between – finding ways to meet both our child’s needs, and our own.
Where this most often arises is in the case of setting loving limits.
In permissive parenting, we may avoid setting limits, believing that they are harmful to our child, and perhaps because we are afraid of the feelings that might emerge.
In authoritarian parenting, we may set harsh limits, which are experienced as painful by the child, and lead to less connection and trust.
With Aware Parenting, and other similar styles, we can instead choose democratic parenting.
Firstly, it helps if we see that when a toddler or child is doing something that we do not enjoy, that is for one of three reasons.
If we ascertain that it is because they have some uncomfortable feelings that they want to express, then we see how setting loving limits can help both them, and us.
If they are upset and are signaling to us that they need some help to reconnect, express their feelings, and return to presence, then we can set loving limits knowing that it is a gift to the child.
I find it helpful to remember that toddlers and children are often unable to come up to us and say, “Mum, I had three upsetting things happen to me today and I want to come and have a cry with you about them.” So, instead, they speak in a kind of code. They do things that we ask them not to do; they ask for something and then don’t want it; they speak in an agitated tone; they don’t answer us when we talk to them; they won’t cooperate; and they do things that are hurtful to others, like hitting or biting. Instead of seeing the behaviour, we can reframe these things as a cry for help, “Mum, I’m feeling really upset and I really need your help to let these uncomfortable feelings out. I’m going to pretend that I am really upset about this broken cookie, and when I cry and protest a lot about you not giving me an unbroken one, I want you to just stay with me, without trying to fix it, or distract me, or punish me. Let me pretend that I’m crying about the cookie.”
When we get down two their level, tell them in a warm tone that we will not give them that thing at that moment, or will not let them throw that thing, or hit the other child, we help give them a focus for their feelings. We hold a loving space, with no shaming, judgment, or blame, just knowing that it is our parenting gift to help them express the feelings that were behind the behaviour.
I love Patty Wipfler’s writings about this; particularly http://www.handinhandparenting.org/csArticles/articles/000000/000025.htm
For those with babies, setting loving limits might not seem relevant. However, I see a similar process reaching back into early infancy.
For example, if a baby has acquired a bit of a control pattern (see http://www.parentingwithpresence.net/index.php?pageid=901 to understand more about control patterns), say it is a breast-feeding control pattern, and he indicates he wants to feed. We observe his behaviour, (such as finishing a big feed only half an hour before, having had a very stimulating day, him avoiding eye contact, having lots of tension in his muscles, and not moulding into our arms as much as usual, waking up after a short time at his last nap, and making a particular sound that seems a bit agitated); and we may ascertain that he is not hungry, and that his deeper need, beyond his learnt behaviour to protect himself from his feelings, is for connection and the opportunity to release tension and stress.
When we lovingly explain that we are not going to feed him right at the moment, and that we are there with him, lovingly listening and wanting to know how he feels, and we are present and still as we hold him in our arms – well, I think this is the precursor to setting loving limits with toddlers and children.
In both cases, we ascertain from their behaviour what the real need is, and we are lovingly present, and instead of giving them the thing that they seem to want, which may help them feel more comfortable in the moment, (yet in the long run will accumulate and become more uncomfortable) – we stay present with them whilst they tell us how they feel.
To them, there may be less of a distinction about whether the feelings are about the event in the present, or feelings from the past, and yet, whilst we keep in mind that distinction, they are able to express the feelings freely and afterwards feel clear and calm and connected to a sense of abundance of your loving attention, which then translates to a sense of abundance.
Which is a paradox, since we helped them connect with that through not giving them what they seemed to want in the beginning!
I notice at times that this is very relevant to my parenting. Three years ago, when Lana was 7 and Sunny was 3, I noticed that I’d been avoiding the “sweet spot”, where I could go in and connect where things are a bit sticky, and instead I had been subtly distracting or avoiding deep connection. I see that I needed to connect deeply with myself first, and then have the resources to go in to those sticky and sweet spots with them.
When our children do not get the opportunity to express uncomfortable feelings, they begin to limit their world – they get “tight” around certain things that connect them with their feelings – eating certain foods, doing certain things, connecting in certain ways… gradually they acquire fears and limit their exploring of the world.
What seems like being kind as a parent, sometimes ends up sometimes with children who get easily upset and afraid, and limit their connection with other people and other things. This is the result of “permissive” parenting.
When we are willing to go with our child into the painful feelings, which get stimulated by certain experiences, then they go to the centre of the feelings and find that there was nothing to be afraid of there.
The child who refused lots of varieties of food becomes willing and interested to taste new things; the child afraid of going near the sea has a go of getting his feet wet. In this way, our child’s world opens up again and he learns a sense of inner calm and peace that pervades his day-to-day experiences. The outer world no longer has the power to stimulate painful feelings, and so becomes a friend.
His inner comfort and peace follow his daily interactions with the world and other people.
The transition from holding to setting loving limits
As a baby becomes a toddler, Aware Parenting changes from crying-in-arms to crying-in-presence. Holding is helpful at these older ages when the context is a child about to hit or bite, or about to take something from another child, or is not securely attached.
It seems there are also some children who do still need holding to release as they get older – and in those cases, they will cry easily with the holding.
Toddlers and young children start to indicate where their feelings are located by showing us in their day where they are feeling “tight” about something. Then we can move in, either with laughter games and power reversal games, or with loving limits. There might be some holding involved too, yet the physical holding isn’t so much what is stimulating the feelings; rather it is the words we use which create the balance of attention (safety plus feelings) to allow the release to come.
When I used loving limits, when my children were younger, I tended to include both the thing that Lana or Sunny seemed to be wanting, plus the limit – so it might be, “You really want to do xyz right now, and mummy says no xyz” – all said in a loving and warm voice. I enjoyed how that includes empathy, and the limit. I then repeated the combination of the two of them when the crying started to peter out. I used my intuition to follow the feelings, so that the words I used may have changed, in response to what Lana or Sunny were saying to me.
There were times when I didn’t read the code that my children were telling me, and then I got exasperated or frustrated. This was often because I had not set a loving limit early enough and had distracted them instead. This happened most often when I was involved in doing something and wanted to complete it. However, I found that taking a break from it, and giving them some warm connection and fun for a while, or setting a loving limit, meant that they returned to feeling calm and I returned to what I was doing able to concentrate on what I was doing!
Setting loving limits requires us to have a certain level of presence ourselves, and a trust that our children are whole beings who know what they need to return to this inherent essence. It is this that gives us the confidence to stay lovingly connected whilst setting the loving limit. Knowing that their feelings will flow away and their presence will return.
”You never have to worry that surrendering to love will make you a doormat. Love always has us respond lovingly to a situation, but sometimes the loving response is, “No.”” – Marianne Williamson