A friend of mine made one—a single one—and I liked that. One anchor for the year. Not a bombardment of all the things we’d like to change about ourselves or wish we could do or hope to add to our lives.
One resolution would be a touchstone, a theme to return to, a way of being in the world, both with others and with ourselves. It could be only one word.
Grace. Gratitude. Compassion. Kind. Joyful. Fierce. Ways of being rather than doing.
I’m reading Alison Gopnik’s latest book, The Gardener and The Carpenter. The Berkeley professor of psychology and philosophy argues that, as parents, we will do best to focus on ways of being rather than doing.
“‘Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work,” she writes in the prelude to a chapter called “Against Parenting.” “Instead, to be a parent—to care for a child—is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love.”
She reminds us that we don’t see our other love relationships as a verb: “To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing’ … and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers.” We also don’t assign ourselves the task of sculpting the other person: “I would not evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed.”
As you can guess from the title, Gopnik makes the case for viewing parents’ (and society’s) role as gardener—nurturing the soil, delighting in the surprises—rather than as carpenter, directing a specific end result.
Why? It’s a better fit with reality, for one. From an evolutionary perspective, the survival of the human species depends upon there being all kinds of people with all kinds of characteristics. Children’s brains are wired to be incredibly flexible and creative and open for that reason.
Children take lots of time to experiment and fail and work things out, and because of that process, they are smarter than animals born knowing. It’s how humans have been able to adapt and will continue to be able to adapt to any unpredictable future environment.
Children are meant to be who they are. I think this is the most important concept that we as parents can let sink in.
We are not in charge of an outcome. We are not meant to control another person. We are not doing a job with the title “behavior management consultant.”
What’s one of the most profound things you can say about the dearest people in your life? That they bring out the best in you by seeing your strengths, being on your side, and truly accepting you as you are. That’s who we can be for our children, in the service of helping them be who they are.
Parent. Coach. Mentor. Guide.
What would it mean if the verb for “parent” was not “controlling” but “coaching”?
It would change so much. Including our reaction to, say, a tantrum at the grocery store.
To control, we’d angrily whisper, “Get it together, or I’m not buying these bunny crackers.” Coaching might sound like, “You really, really want that, and I won’t be buying it today. I bet ‘No’ feels like never.” Instead of escalating to prove to us that what they want is important, our child can relax into the feeling of being heard, even if the answer is still disappointing enough to warrant some tears.
Or, say a scream at home hurts your ears: “You want to scream, and that scream is too loud for me. Hmm. Must be something you can do.”
Coaching starts with the child’s need in that moment. The need is never the specific behavior. Look deeper. Kids have three healthy needs for growth: experience, connection, and power. Our task is to help them meet their needs in a way that’s OK with us.
That’s when we start to see other solutions. Like, “You can scream into that pillow or you can scream in your room with the door closed.” Or, “You scream and then you feel calmer. I bet you know of some other ways that work for you, too.” And we look for strengths to name: “You know what your body needs to release your frustration.” (This framework is called Language of Listening®, and you can get more examples here as an excerpt from my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.)
Coaching can also be about taking a step back to solve a recurring problem.
Maybe getting your children dressed every day is a battle. What would put your children in a position to be able to dress themselves? It can be surprising to adults the extent to which kids need smaller steps repeatedly practiced, words more clearly defined, a demonstration of what to do rather than a statement about what not to do, limited choices, and an environment set up for success. In this case, such an environment might mean fewer clothes, better organized, only in-season, and everything in reach.
While you’re in problem-solving mode, you might even think of some crazy idea, like having your kids sleep in the clothes they’ll wear the next day.
When we strive to coach instead of control, all sorts of possibilities open up.
QUESTION: Are you more of a controller or a coach? Does this style fit with your vision for family life?
CHALLENGE: Identify specific situations where you can help your child meet needs for experience, connection, or power (autonomy). Work on modeling this throughout the next week; see what you notice.