No matter how we approach raising our children, there are times we’ll feel physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted. Maybe all of the above. We’re only human, of course, but it may also be that we’re taking on more than we need to — depleting our energy with roles and tasks that are better left to our child. In this episode, Janet offers ideas for lightening our workload by recognizing and trusting our children’s intrinsic abilities. Janet’s job description reframe can help save our energy, nurture self-confidence, and at the same time foster a flourishing parent-child relationship.
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. So today I wanted to address an issue that many of us have as parents. I certainly did when I first became a parent, and that is I was wasting my energy working at parenting in ways that were actually getting in my way and certainly could have been cut out of my job description. We all know that we need every bit of energy we can get as parents, so I’m going to offer a little edit to what many of us might believe is our job description. And this edit not only benefits us by freeing up our energy and making our job a little less tiresome, it also benefits our children in many ways.
Okay, so I just want to start out by acknowledging that, as with everything that I share, these are my opinions based on my research, training and experience. And you may not agree with everything I share here, and that’s okay. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments wherever you want to share them. This is just an offering, food for thought. As parents, we get to make our own decisions on what we believe and what works for us.
So before I get into the things that we might consider cutting out of our job description, I want to talk about what I believe to be the areas that we do need to put energy into. And I call these areas where we “lead” as opposed to the areas we can take off our list and just “trust.”
So in the LEAD column, the first one is to, 1) Attend to our child’s basic needs, creating an atmosphere that fills their needs and we’re responsive to their communication. I guess that one’s pretty obvious for most people.
The second one, and this is maybe particularly a Magda Gerber inspired idea. I know a lot of people say that they don’t have time for this or they don’t want tp do this, but she recommended, and I have found it so helpful because of all the things we teach while doing this, to have, 2) Attentive, connected caregiving. Meaning, when we’re picking up our baby, when we’re feeding our baby, whether that’s breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, or when they start eating solids, that we are present with them. We may not be eye to eye, that’s okay, but that we are present and available and that we perceive these as times of connection. This won’t be possible every single time. Life happens. We have other children. But it’s something to consider trying for. So feeding, mealtimes, bath time, bedtime rituals. As children get older, maybe it’s helping them comb up their hair or putting that bandaid on.
And then with infants, especially changing diapers or engaging with our baby, we’re not sort of going off into our own world, distracting them and then doing things without telling them what we’re doing. When we care, we’re putting our energy into giving full attention. And through that, we’re able to offer respectful communication and gentle touch because the way that we touch our baby from the beginning, I believe it was Pikler who said, “Our hands are what welcome our child into the world.” Giving them messages about how we see them, if they are valued, if they are respected. So all of that can be done along with attentive, connected caregiving.
And some of the other huge benefits to offering this kind of attention… Well, the biggest one really for the purpose of this episode is that when we give that attention periodically, then they don’t need us to pay attention to them all day long, because they’re getting this 100% from time to time. So it makes it easier for them to let go of us and play independently, and therefore we have a less constantly needy child.
Then the third point. 3) Developing a consistent daily routine. This is another one that not everybody believes in, because for some people it’s really boring to have a predictable routine in their day. But this is not on the clock. It’s a sequence of events that helps our child learn: oh, this comes after that. And what that does is helps them to feel a little more empowered in their world, therefore safer and more a part of. Along with the connected caregiving, they’re feeling like they’re participating in a relationship with us, that they can know things besides just that we’re there taking them around doing whatever we do with them. They also know, even on their own, oh, I know what’s going to happen next. It’s a very confidence-building way that we can try to arrange our life with children, especially in the early years or in times of stress. They can rely on the sequence of events that usually happens in the day.
And counter to the perception some people have had that this will make them less adaptable and more rigid, it actually does the opposite. It gives them this sense of confidence that makes it easier for them to adapt to changes in their routine because they’re going into that with that confidence they’ve built, knowing their world, knowing that they matter enough to be a part of it, and that we’re communicating with them that way as well about the changes. Whatever’s changed in their routine, we’re letting them know.
And of course it will shift. With babies it shifts all the time because they’re changing and developing, and their naps are changing and the amount of feedings they need is changing. And so it’s always sort of in a transition, but ideally it’s more of a slow evolution, rather than every day is different. Today we’re taking you to this party and tomorrow we’re doing this. And I mean that’s sometimes necessary in a family’s life. Even then, I would try as much as possible to have touch points that your child can rely on, even if it’s a bedtime routine that’s always the same or almost always the same. And this consistent daily routine will help children naturally evolve into that self-discipline that we want them to have and will help them to accept a little more easily our boundaries, because they have this structure already in their day. So it just makes it easier for them.
And towards the end of the first year, children start to seek those boundaries. Where am I allowed to be? What am I allowed to touch? What is mine to play with and examine however I wish? And what am I not able to be as free with? Will they stop me? Will there be a nest around me in which I can relax or will I have to make and keep pushing to find it all the time and to kind of control everything and make the decisions myself?
So that balance, it starts with the consistent daily routine and then it evolves into us really implementing those boundaries. So that’s number four. Children need us to put the little bit of energy we may have into, 4) Setting those boundaries as consistently as possible. They also need us to be the ones to see beyond the moment. They have this wonderful way of being in the moment that can be so inspiring for us and we can enjoy kind of drifting off into that place with them whenever possible, especially during their play when we’re just freely there to be together and we don’t have an agenda. But they need us to also see beyond those moments and know “I can’t let you have another cookie” because that will keep our child up at night.
Or: I have to take them from the playground now even though they don’t want to go because they will be too tired and then it will be even harder for them to leave. So we’re able to do that, and that’s not their job. It’s got to be our job.
And then also in this number four of “setting boundaries” is caring for our own personal boundaries. So it can be a more organic process when we are able to tune into ourselves a little bit and realize, “you know what? If I’m gonna read books, I’ve got to do it now because I’m getting too tired. So I can’t let this bath time thing go on longer. It’s time to get out.”
Or, “I’ve got to figure out dinner. And as much as I love just being here at the park, we’re all going to get too hungry and that’s not going to work.”
So I need to do this to take care of myself. Or, I can’t play with my child right now. I can’t be there with you. I’m sitting here thinking of all these other things and how much I don’t want to be here. That’s not a positive experience for our child either, right? Because they know when we’re sort of with them, but not with them.
I can’t say enough times how positive it is to say no when we feel no, when we don’t want to do it. It’s one of the great gifts we can give children, even though they won’t tell us that they won’t be all smiley and happy about it. In fact, they might scream at us. But it releases them and it teaches them important things about relationships and about us. And they want to know about us. They want to see us as clear and authentic, rather than giving mixed messages because we feel torn or maybe guilty or we’re not comfortable tuning into our own needs and prioritizing them sometimes.
So that’s another place to put our energy. You know, this is more thoughtful mind energy than it is physical energy, giving ourselves that permission. I love all these psychologists out there that say, treat yourself like you would treat your best friend or your own child. Give yourself that break. Give yourself that kindness.
No, we’re not going to be popular in the decisions that we make as parents. We’re not. We want to work on making peace with that idea rather than being tortured because we keep getting sucked into pleasing.
Number five is a more practical step we can take: 5) Establish a safe, enriching play area and opportunities for open-ended play. Just reasonably enriching. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect beautiful space. It can be very simple for children. To children almost everything is enriching because they’re new to the world, so they can find more in less. So don’t worry about it being perfect or big or stimulating. When we’re trying to be stimulating, we end up overstimulating a lot of the time. I mean, you don’t have to do minimalist either, but just don’t worry. Whatever it is will very likely be enough. So give yourself a break here. But yes, that part is our job because our child can’t really do that for themselves.
And then I have sensitive observation here as number six: 6) Sensitive observation. So that’s when we have time. And ideally it’s the time that we spend playing with our child, not playing with in an entertainment sense and that we’re directing, but we’re present. Which children really love when they get used to that that’s the way we play together. It frees them to not have to entertain us, to not have to pull us into their play, to get to just be themselves as they are, maybe doing nothing, and we’re just being together.
And maybe it doesn’t even happen every day in your life because you’re a busy working parent, but whenever you can, try just observing, and observing with this idea that Magda gave us, which is with an imaginary basket that we would pass around in our class to all the parents. And we would put our worries and our distractions, our expectations, the way our child “should” play and what’s “right” and what our friends’ kids are doing, put all of those aside so that we can just see, just see what our child is doing right now. Could be daydreaming, could be playing with one thing for a very long time, could be doing a lot of different things. Just observe because we learn so much that way. And it’s really an under-appreciated tool that we have that will help us to respond to our child more accurately, understand them better, appreciate them a lot more, and actually find a lot more joy in our day-to-day job as parents.
Children are really, really good at this play and learning stuff. The more we can relax and appreciate rather than doubting and trying to get in there and make it better or make it what we think it’s supposed to be, the happier we’ll be and the closer our child will feel to us, because they’ll feel that acceptance. It can be really magical when we’re in that mind space.
Okay, and then number seven on our job duties is to 7) model things like manners, habits, character traits. Really just by being ourselves, that’s the best kind of modeling, but being the version of ourselves that we want our children to emulate, which for me meant I said please and thank you a lot more than I usually do. I was aware that the way that I asked my child to do something mattered because that’s how I want them to talk to other people. When we think we’re teaching a child “gentle!” but we’re all wound up and angry with them at that moment, we’re teaching something else altogether.
But modeling that kind of repair and apologies, and honesty, taking responsibility for what we do, that’s the best modeling of all. So really this is just about us taking this opportunity to practice being our best selves when we remember to. It’s all a process.
Okay, so that may sound like a tall order. A lot of those things go together and they can all feel very organic as parts of our day. We’re not putting a big effort in when we get used to just sticking up for ourselves when we get used to that this is a person that we can talk to, even though they’re a baby that isn’t talking back. That’s the most important time to treat them like a person who we can invite to participate in their life, and we help make their world a little more understandable by considering making it predictable.
And then here’s where we can TRUST. We can take these things off of our list, off of our plate — totally give these to our child:
1) Learning — the development of language, cognitive skills, motor skills, creativity. Yes, with motor skills and children who are maybe neurodivergent or have issues with language, we will need to intervene a little more in those cases. But even with children who are not typically developing, I would err on the side of trust. It’s like what I was saying before when we feel like they should be doing this certain thing, but they’re actually doing this other thing that we’re not seeing and we’re not appreciating because it’s not on the front of our minds that this is what they should be doing right now. But they’re doing this maybe much more valuable thing! It’s certainly more valuable for them because that’s why they’re doing it, right?
So even when we do need to guide children a bit more, which I wouldn’t do with a typically developing child, we can still balance that with trust and letting go.
And I realize even that can seem like work for some parents that get anxious and it’s really hard to let go and trust. But consider practicing this, because the freedom, the ease, the, oh why was I doing all this work when I could have just enjoyed what they were doing now? This other thing that is unique to my child that they’re doing? And along with that development of skills which children will be driven to do naturally, they’re naturally driven to roll over to sit, to crawl, to walk, jump, run in their way in time. They’re driven to those things. They don’t do them because they see us doing them — that’s not something they need us to model. In the early years, especially, learning is inner directed. They don’t need us to draw for them, for them to know how to draw. In fact, drawing for them can make them feel like they can’t do it themselves.
So that’s where our trust and letting go of some of these jobs we might think we should take on is actually more positive for our children than doing that extra work, than taking on all those extra responsibilities.
In the beginning before I started working with Magda Gerber and learning about her approach, I really thought that I had to make learning and play happen. And this was an infancy that I switched gears. But I could easily have gone on that way for a very long time. And that’s the thing, if we don’t allow children to show us they can do these things, if we don’t give them that trust and that space and time, then they can’t really show us. It’s harder for them to. It would have to be an accident where we suddenly saw… which also happened to me because in my mind, my children could do certain things… and this is more with things like turning on faucets. I would see my child a certain way and then forget that, oh they’re developing all the time. And then I would stop turning it the faucet myself. And sure enough, my child did it. I would never have thought to give the space for that if it hadn’t just, you know, happened that way by accident. So yeah, that can happen with a lot of things, that our child might be able to do it. And just giving that extra pause… Getting into the car themselves. That was another one that I used to think I always had to do until, oh they can do this! Hmm, I forgot that they grew!
I have a podcast from a while ago that I did called “Be Careful what You Teach (It Might Interfere with What They Are Learning).” That one talks about the way children learn and the power that we have to kind of interfere with that. Without meaning to, with the best possible intentions, we can get in the way of their incredible learning abilities and the confidence that they build along with that.
So then along with learning: 2) Play choices and inner direction. So yes, the way they choose to play, as long as it’s safe enough and appropriate, is the perfect way for them to play in that moment. Letting go. We don’t need to teach children how to play. It’s naturally driven. Even children in the most impoverished environments will find a way to play.
3) Emotions and their expression. That’s one that I talk a lot about in this podcast: trusting that we don’t need to help them work through emotions or express emotions. We’re constantly modeling how to express emotions in a more mature way and that’s the best way to teach them that. And then we’re going to be that safe presence as much as possible, when we can, so that they can feel safe to go to all these emotional places in themselves and express the feelings. With that feeling of safety, the normalcy of that, that they begin to feel when we allow them to, that is what develops resilience. So when we get in the way of that and try to do work around emotions, giving children the message that they’ve got to calm down, calm down. That’s us exerting effort and taking responsibility for something that will actually flow much more smoothly and develop into stronger resilience if we can let it go and just support from a place of safety. Encouraging them to feel things all the way through. I know it’s a challenging mindset. It’s never going to be fun to have an upset child. Never. But if we can make peace with this and know this is a time of bonding, even if I’m sitting over here on this other side of the room allowing you to feel, because you wanted me to stay back from you, we bond deeply with children through that kind of permission. So letting go of trying to fix or work through or calm down emotions.
Another one in the TRUST column, the fourth, is: 4) Development of manners and social skills. So in the LEAD column I had “modeling manners, habits and character traits.” But from there we want to let go of the development, because we’re teaching, teaching, teaching in the best possible way through our modeling and the other thing children need to help them develop is trust. We believe that they will want to do these positive things because that’s the way they see us treating others in our life. And when children aren’t in those spaces, they feel the safety of that trust coming from us, unless something is totally extreme and then of course we’ll stop our child and we won’t let them be hurtful towards other children in their words. And we’ll do that respectfully too, ideally. “Ooh, come here” (privately). We’re keeping that intimate and respectful the way we would with an adult who is being out of line, an adult that we cared about, staying on our child’s side, but letting go of: we’ve got to make them do this and that. It’s so much pressure we put on ourselves and it can end up undermining our goals because what they’re feeling instead of being kind and polite is that my parent doesn’t think I am kind and that they’re mad at me and they’re judging me. And that makes them feel the opposite of being polite.
So it’s interesting how we can trust for the win, we can let go for the win. And sometimes when we try to manage those areas that flourish so much better with trust, we get in our own way.
Then the last two kind of go together in a way: 5) eating and 6) toilet learning. When we try to get children to eat certain things, certain amounts of things, it tends to backfire. And the same with potty learning. Some children, they’ll go along with our agenda. Many other children will be inclined to resist, especially in the toddler years, which is usually when people want to potty train, right? It can backfire. So when we’ve done that job of the attentive connected caregiving and diaper changes, talking them through this, they’re learning about their body parts, they’re learning about their bodily fluids and how things work, it becomes a natural transition when they’re trusted to wanting to model these skills after us as well. Because they know that we go on the potty. Maybe they see us go on the potty and that’s something they naturally want to achieve, and it’s such a confidence building achievement for them to have.
So that’s why I’m all for trusting in that area and then eating the same thing. They go through different periods where they just lose the taste for things or they only want certain things. And you know what, if we can just let those ride out without a lot of pushback… We’re going to start by only offering a selection of healthy things. (And please listen to my discussion with Ellyn Satter. She is a highly respected expert in the field of children and eating. And I think you’ll find her suggestions very comforting and freeing.) But yes, it’s in this category of just relax, put out the healthy foods that you like, at least one thing that you know your child will eat on their plate and enjoy mealtime, let go. Don’t see this as work. And that’s actually what creates the results that we, we want.
So my vote is to not waste precious parent energy in what children are learning in a direct way, (trying to teach them, in other words), or direct their play, or entertain them rather than trusting their inner direction. Also, managing their emotions in some way, I don’t recommend putting energy into that instead of trusting that feelings just come and go and they can’t really be controlled in an effective way. They can get buried or they can get funneled into behaviors and things that we don’t want, but we can’t make them disappear. Trusting the development of manners and social skills and character traits because we’re modeling those through everything we do with children. Trust children to eat what they need from the healthy choices we offer and trust them to achieve toilet learning.
So, exhaling on all those points. That’s what I suggest. And again, I know a lot of this may be controversial and just some ideas to consider.
And for more about our role and what children need from us, I go into great depth on that and more in my upcoming No Bad Kids Master Course, which is still on pre-order now for another week or two with a major discount! It’s going to be released January 31st. And this will give you all in one place the whole picture on setting limits, understanding children’s behavior, what they need from us, developing consistent routines, modeling the manners and character traits. It’s all in this one package! So please check it out if you’re interested. It’s at NoBadKidscourse.com or you can get there through my website, janetlansbury.com.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.