Tuesday, March 01, 2016

My neat parenting theories, before kids get in the way

For several years I’ve had ideas about parenting – how to bring up kids so they are thoughtful, creative, caring and well-behaved people. Until now, they’ve been nothing more than theories. But when our child arrives into the world, probably in May, I’ll get to put my theories into practice.

As with many things in life, there may well be a big gulf between the things that make sense in the abstract and those that operate well in practice. The daily reality of raising a child – potentially incessant crying, fussy eating and mountain of soiled nappies – will undoubtedly make it much harder to put my ideas into practice. Remaining calm and thoughtful on no sleep and a child with whom you cannot reason is difficult. But regardless, having a strong roadmap to guide the way through child-rearing is a good starting point, even if it’s not always easy to follow the path. Having watched friends and family raise kids, I have nothing but respect for the effort parenting takes and our child will be lucky to be surrounded by plenty of happy well-adjusted kids.

In some ways my wife Melanie and I are lucky to be first-time parents well into our 30s. As well as remembering my own experience as a child, I’ve had a chance to watch plenty of other people bring up kids and seen what parenting strategies appeal. I believe the life experience I’ve had has also given me a sense of perspective that makes it easier to keep calm amid the chaos. I’m happy to be doing this at this point in my life rather than when I was in my early 20s. So what are the parenting theories I’m keen to put into practice?

For starters, I want my offspring to grow up in an environment rich in nutrition for brain, body and soul. Our personality and interests are largely a product of the environment we grow up in, so the quality of that environment means a lot. Clearly this manifests itself in the things a child eats, but also in the sounds it hears, the way it spends its leisure time and the things it sees around it. In practice this means avoiding low-value junk, from crappy television to blaring pop music to crass toys. Each of these things can be replaced with things of quality that enrich life rather than diminish it. The debate about exposure to screens has gone on for a while, but a consensus is emerging that a child under age 2 should not have any exposure at all. This seems like a wise approach, although the absence of screens needs to be replaced with the presence of humans.

I want my child to be curious about the world and to challenge established wisdom. A child who asks lots of questions can probably be an occasional nuisance, but this is more than outweighed by the benefit of that child developing a willingness to understand how things work rather than just accepting them as they are. I would hate for my chid to see me as infallible or an unimpeachable source of knowledge – instead I want my child to challenge me like they should any other figure of authority. Recently Melanie and I were discussing how we would talk about Father Christmas, Eliyahu HaNavi, the Tooth Fairy and other whimsical characters. When the inevitable doubting questions arise, my preference is to encourage the child to look at the evidence and make up their own mind. I don’t want to burst the bubble of fantasy, but I don’t want to abuse my authority status to perpetuate a mistruth. Instead, I want my offspring to think for themselves. I dream of one day having a child of mine say to me “Dad, where’s the evidence?”.

I want my child to experience the consequences of their actions. Humans develop thanks to a constant feedback loop that means we act, we see the impact of that action, and we internalise that lesson for next time. Offer reinforcement for an action and the action will continue. But if you shield a person from the negative consequences of an action, the action will continue as well. I would like my child to experience the impact of the decisions they make in order for them to make better decisions the next time around. Take the classic dilemma of a child who resists putting on their shoes before going outside – it seems to me that more fruitful than arguing with the child about the merits of wearing shoes would be that child’s brief exposure to life outside without shoes, after which they are likely to quickly seek shoes. And it will be a lesson remembered for next time. (Yes, of course, the obvious caveat applies – always shield a child from genuine danger rather than letting them learn directly the consequences of, say, playing with angry dogs or speeding traffic.)

...and sometimes being barefoot is just fine.

I want my child to be able to achieve its full potential rather than being bound by stereotypes of gender, class, ethnicity or geography. Kids learn a lot about what’s socially acceptable and what’s not by the examples that are put before them. So if every role-model they encounter plays to a traditional stereotype, the child will learn the lesson that that stereotype is one they need to fit. Instead I am keen to expose my child to plenty of people who defy stereotypes and make unconventional choices. With any luck, the child will see each person as a unique individual rather than as a representative of a category of people. The obvious starting point is children’s toys – it makes no sense that building blocks and train sets are skewed towards boys while dolls and playhouses are skewed towards girls. I hope to offer a wide array to my kids and let them choose what they wish.

I want my child to learn, eventually, that it is not the centre of the universe. In the early years a child is surrounded by people who dote over it, care for its every whim and ensure it is as happy for as much of the time as is possible. It is understandable that a child expects this attention to go on forever, but it is important to discover later in life that your needs must be balanced against everyone else’s. Some people never learn that lesson. It seems valuable for kids to learn that they must wait their turn, show consideration for others and sometimes miss out on what they want. We know the ability of a child to defer gratification is a great indicator of success later on in life, so it seems worthwhile to encourage that skill from early on.

I want my child to have a strong sense of self. External validation may be reassuring, but it ultimately leaves you at the whim of other people, which can lead to foolish decisions later in life. Far better is to have a strong sense of purpose and confidence in your own judgement, which means you can happily stand apart from the crowd if the circumstances make that the wisest option. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of children having a circle of friends, and yes, I would undoubtedly want that for my child. But I want my child to seek friends for companionship rather than just to fit in or to have their worth affirmed. As I child I didn’t have too many friends, but I never felt lonely because I was very relaxed in my own company. Over time that sense of self-assurance helped me build quality connections with other people. I would dearly wish that for my own offspring.

None of these parenting ideas are revolutionary, I know, but I’m keen to remember them once the reality of parenting sets in. I hope that they provide a roadmap as I head off on the parenting journey. The landscape may not always look like it does on the map, but it’s nice to know where I’m heading and I’ve got a plan on how to get there. And lots of people to reach out to when things don’t go to plan.