Perfecting the art of parenting
It’s a familiar cry of parents to their children on a school day morning. “C’mon, we’ll be late. Quick, get in the car.”
But when Mum-of-four Branka van der Linden started hearing her four-year-old daughter chanting the same thing, it was a wake-up call that maybe she needed to slow down.
“I was saying it so often to the kids, rushing them out the door every morning, that eventually Claire started saying to me, ‘Are we late Mum’?” Branka laughed. “It has really challenged me to try and slow down, because it’s not fair to put all my busyness on them.”
It can seem like turnstile parenting can’t it? Manic mornings getting everyone out the door, followed by the school run, then finding time for all the other ‘stuff’, like shopping, cooking, cleaning, appointments and so on. Not to mention paid work! And then it all happens again the next day. We go through the motions – but how often do we step back and reflect on how we’re doing as parents, and whether we can be better?
That was Branka’s motivation for signing up for a parenting course run by CatholicCare which she saw advertised in the school newsletter.
“You’ve got this precious time with your kids, particularly when they are little, and I would like to make the most of it,” she says honestly. “I want to be as good a parent I can be.” Branka loved the course, which runs over four evenings, and is keen to promote it to other parents. There were seven people in her group, including two couples, and she says the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. She says it was encouraging and inspiring to be learning with other parents, and everyone could relate to each other’s stories and struggles.
Another motivation for Branka to do the course, and one that all parents can relate to, is to learn some coping strategies for those times when the kids are really testing you.
“Before I had kids, I thought, ‘I’m not going to be one of those yelling mothers’,” Branka reveals. “I thought I would be patient and calm, and able to respond to my kids in a rational way. But before you know it, you start becoming the parent you never thought you’d be! “I wanted tools or strategies to stop me from becoming a mother who loses it. When I’m totally stressed, I can fly off the handle. But I don’t want to be a yelling parent; the Mum who is so stressed and not living for the moment that I miss their childhoods. Obviously the kids need discipline but I wanted more of a sense of having a relationship with them and respecting their dignity and personhood. I needed to change something because obviously yelling at kids is not ideal.”
Branka finished the course at the end of March, and says she is already benefitting, and trying hard to put her learnings into practice. One of the most important lessons for the part-time lawyer was ‘mindfulness’ – being aware of your parenting and how you are doing it.
“I can find that I’m so busy going through the motions of parenting, rushing the kids out the door, getting dinner and all the other things you have to do, that I’m not really focused on how I’m parenting – it’s just something I’m doing,” Branka says.
“Gayle is a fantastic teacher, and she really emphasizes listening skills. She also encourages us to slow down, so we can respond to what our children say instead of react, as we so often do. We were also advised to use less words with children, and smaller words, which is what I’ve been trying to do. And we need to be consistent, which is really important with kids, and model behavior, which is exactly what Claire was doing when she started saying, ‘Are we late Mum’!”
As well as trying to improve her listening skills, Branka has been trying to find time to be with her kids, one on one.
“I’ve learned the importance of downtime for kids, and am trying to spend some quality time with each of them, even if it’s just five minutes a day,” she says. “It’s not easy, but I’m trying to fit in with their routines, Henry loves to be read to at night, whereas Laura is happy for a chat and a cup of tea.”
One discussion Branka found particularly interesting was around how parents ‘care’ for their children.
“We can use our power as adults to crush our kids,” she says. “I’m mindful of using my ‘big-ness’ to overpower my children and that’s why I want to step back and listen, because it’s more respectful. As a child you have no power, and that’s really frustrating. Kids need boundaries and to know we’re in charge, but there’s a way to do that that doesn’t harm them psychologically.”
Branka called on her new parenting skills recently when, just as she was about to head out the door for a weekend away with friends, four-year-old Claire demanded her attention.
“I was in a rush, and Claire was holding onto my leg,” she says. “In the stress of the moment I was tempted to lose my temper, but instead I thought about some of the mindfulness exercises we had discussed. So I stopped, took a few deep breaths, and thought about what I needed but also what Claire needed. It was revolutionary for me to actually think that Claire was behaving in a certain way for a reason. That it wasn’t just a tantrum, but that maybe she was feeling anxious because I was going away and she needed some interaction with me to comfort her.
“We chatted and decided that, over the weekend, Claire would draw a picture for me to show me she loved me, and I would do one for her. I don’t want to be the perfect parent. That’s not attainable for anyone. I just want to get the basics right and to know that I’m focusing on the things that are important to my childrens’ development.”
IN SUMMARY …
1. Try to be mindful as a parent – really listen to what your children are saying and focus on them.
2. Use less words with children, and smaller words.
3. Slow down – don’t rush your kids and try not to be rushed yourself.
4. Be consistent – follow through on what you say.
5. Model the behavior you want – kids will do what you do.
6. Allocate downtime with your kids; make quality time for each of them, if not every day, at least on a weekly basis.
7. Respect your kids, and don’t use your power to crush their spirits.