Sometimes we experience opposition from the world around us when we choose to parent our children responsively, instinctively, and from the heart.
I’ve had many of these experiences along our parenting journey but something happened recently that left me feeling as though I was in the newborn baby period again; where my instincts and my intuition were clouded and challenged by what I know to be right – versus – what the world is telling me is right.
I have recently experienced how our society generally prefers to treat children. Sadly, based on cultural trance and tradition it perpetuates a mentality of tough love, tough discipline, and conformity, with little room for individual needs or values – and few people question these methods when a child is having trouble accepting them.
I remember this feeling well. The feeling of aloneness. Doing things our way instead of ‘the way of the world’. It can make you feel anxious and afraid. You question and analyse what you know, desperately trying to find answers and solutions to ‘the problem’. These trialling times in parenthood are the nuts and bolts that end up holding us together as we discover what we’re made of. We come out better for it, but it’s a tough job while we’re doing the mechanical work to get things running smoothly.
And because there is no manual – we must rely on the only thing we truly have to help us navigate our way through the trials and the questions, and that is our instinct.
Recently, I made the mistake of allowing myself to be influenced by something a family member had said to me before the kindy year commenced: “make sure you don’t give Jair the idea he doesn’t have to go to kindy if he doesn’t want to, you’ll start something you won’t be able to undo.”
I remember thinking that sounded like similar advice to when Jair was a baby: “don’t do that thing you’re doing or you will make a rod for your own back!” and well, I don’t seem to have a rod shoved up my backside right now so I’m not entirely sure that saying is true. Still, being the rooky kindy mum that I am I had unknowingly allowed myself to be affected by the advice, and had sent Jair to kindy against my gut instinct on a day when he was experiencing separation anxiety.
There had been signs of anxiety creeping in previously (like hanging on to a tree in the carpark refusing to go inside!) but this particular morning I decided to gently encourage him along when I should have listened to my gut instead, and while we’re talking about rods, this was the day that broke the camel’s back – the morning where the ‘terrible awful’ took place.
It was a typical separation anxiety scenario. Jair was stuck to my side, tears rolling down his cheeks, panicking and tightening his grasp on me with every attempt from his teacher to coerce him away. His voice was breaking as he pleaded, “don’t leave me mummy!” and I could feel his heart pounding inside his little chest. Crap, I thought. This is new…I really thought we were doing ok with this kindy thing after three weeks? I reassured him with a cuddle and told him I would be back after he had some fun and that he was safe with his teacher who would look after him.
All the other parents had gone now which contributed to the pressure, I felt panicked and reasoned that perhaps what the teacher was doing by trying to lead him away was helpful, I also knew they weren’t comfortable with parents lingering too long as they say it can make the farewell more difficult. I felt like I was getting in the way of ‘how they do things’ – they are the professionals after all, right?
I watched as the teacher picked up my distressed child and pried his hands off me, he was screaming now asking me to stay and not to go. The teachers motioned for me to leave, I could sense them saying “now is your time, go!” and so, after standing for a moment paralysed by what was happening, I scooped up my toddler and made my exit. I heard my boy screaming and crying out for me but somehow my legs kept carrying me outside the kindy gates because, conformity, I guess?
I was crying, and trying to figure out what to do. What was best here? Surely this wasn’t what was best for Jair…what had I just taught my child – that I would abandon him if he doesn’t detach from me willingly and conform to this new routine? (I hate that word by the way – routine). It felt wrong, but I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes when the world tells us something should be a certain way, we can feel intimidated to stand up and question that thing. I felt intimidated, and in a state of shock. The kindy followed up with a call to say he was fine, but ‘fine’ on the surface doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fine’ on the inside – not for an adult – and least of all for a little person in distress.
Let’s stop the story for a moment. I believe in attachment theory. I breastfeed my kids until they are ready to stop, I bed share, respond to my children’s upsets (not always with 100% grace but I try) and have fought for the right to do things our way since the day I gave birth to Jair. Why the heck did I get in my car and drive away instead of marching inside and picking up my distressed child?
“Sorry pal, you’re at kindy now, the gloves are off, you’re on your own, I know we did things differently for the first 4.5yrs of your life but now you must suck it up, this is the real world!”
I have one word to say here and I’m not even the swearing type…it’s Bulls*&# !
I sat on the couch at a friend’s house and bawled. I asked her what she would do and she replied “I would tell them exactly what you want and I’d go and do it, and for the record, I couldn’t have walked out like you did”. I wanted to light myself on fire.
I collected him early and told him I was so sorry I had left when he was upset and that I wouldn’t do that to him ever again. I took a deep breath and said to myself “you are his advocate, be brave” I then approached his teacher and told her that the ‘terrible awful’ wouldn’t be happening again. I said I respected her, but we don’t do things like that in our family.
Here’s the kicker. She said “I’m happy to work with you, but the longer you stay and show him you will wait until he’s ready, the more he will play on that and the harder it will be. In my experience, it’s best to leave like you did this morning, first thing.” A lump formed in my throat. It was clear we were on different pages entirely. She said it was up to me as to whether I was going to ‘trust’ them as the teachers or not, and then handed me the number of a child psychologist who “may be able to help with separation anxiety issues.”
Here is what upsets me. The philosophy of letting children ‘cry it out’ in kindergartens to break a child’s attachment to their parent is generally a widely acceptable practice amongst many kindys today. In the eighty years this kindergarten has been operating have they never considered a gentler approach when working with children who present with separation anxiety? And the number for a child psychologist…while I appreciate and respect the attempt to help, I can’t see how focussing on my child having a ‘problem that needs fixing’ is entirely helpful at all.
My child doesn’t have a problem. My child is experiencing a new environment with new people, my child needs gentle solutions to help him adapt to these changes without the pressure of feeling like there is something wrong with him. The real problem here is that we live in a society that expects small children to separate from their parents without difficulty, and when they do not we suggest they have a problem that needs fixing instead of recognising a normal behaviour that exhibits positive connections with a child’s primary care giver.
While reflecting on the terrible awful I considered this quote by Albert Einstein along with Pinky’s criteria for discerning what is right when making decisions concerning our little ones:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift” – Albert Einstein
Pinky’s criteria for discerning what is right:
“Is it safe?
Is it respectful?
Does it feel right?”
I had allowed something to happen that did not line up with our values as a family. It occurred to me that although there are many voices and opinions telling us what is acceptable, correct and helpful; that does not necessarily mean we should accept it as fact.
Jair is our child and his emotional wellbeing is our responsibility. The condition of his spirit should be our concern, just as it was when he was a baby and we were advised to let him self-soothe. Fast-forward four years and the advice is no different. I’m not in the business of ‘rushing my masterpiece’ so we have decided that we will navigate each day very gently. I won’t believe that conformity is more important than my child’s wellbeing, and I have done enough research to know that a child’s feelings dismissed are a child’s needs ignored. We will do what works for us, and yes, we are ‘those parents’ once again!
I know some of you would be going through similar concerns and worries about your tiny babies and the advice you’re receiving that is contrary to what you feel in your heart. Can I encourage you to answer Pinky’s criteria as suggested in ‘Parenting by Heart’: Is it safe? Is it respectful? Does it feel right? I believe we can change the future for our children by changing the ideals tradition has taught us about parenting.
I believe that with every baby that is comforted instead of abandoned to self-soothe, every toddler that is gently guided instead of reprimanded, and every kindy aged child who is supported through their separation anxiety – we CAN change our world – one responsive, accountable, intuitive decision at a time.
Go gently, and trust how you feel, those instincts are yours for a reason.
Dani Avery is now a homeschooling mama, following her heart, enjoying camping, cooking, breastfeeding and advocating respectful parenting as she champions motherhood. Dani and her husband live with their three children in Toowoomba, Australia. Follow @dani.and.wildlings on instagram.