Is parenting difficult?
Contemporary parenting is different to what it was 100, 200 or even 1000 years ago. With the dissolution of traditional styles in family life, (…) we lost our sense of security that had been founded, among other things, in customs inherited from our ancestors as well as in growing up in multi-generational families.(1)
We no longer live together. We don’t work in close proximity to our homes. We don’t rest together by the fire, listening to the tales of the elders. We don’t draw from the wisdom of our older generations. We also don’t look after our children together, which means that after they are born, the whole burden of responsibility falls on two parents (or sometimes just one).
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Families are having to face completely new challenges that biology has not prepared them for
Working away from home, looking for support from strangers, no maternal milk on demand, distance instead of physical intimacy and finally the phenomenon of nuclear families – all these factors, along with the loss of the sense of security that used to be sourced from traditional customs and resources inherited from our ancestors, have had significant impact on instinctive parenting, making it laborious and difficult.
Within contemporary culture, children stand in the way of their parents’ beliefs, perspectives and plans rather than extend or complement them. Enforced by this culture, antagonism between parents and children has become the source of tensions and conflicts (fights about teeth brushing, potty training, stress, loneliness, addiction to media, parental burnout).
As a result, caring after children has become difficult and parents are looking for universal, proven methods that would allow them to achieve desired outcomes (in most cases, changes in their children’s behaviour). As time has shown, this path is a self-powered wheel with lack of intimacy, feelings of loneliness and additional conflicts between children and parents. The frustration and the lack of understanding of this mechanism makes parents seek help from all kinds of parenting experts.
However, even they do not have the ultimate knowledge. There is no such thing as the best family model or an effective algorithm for parents-children relationship. The latter constitutes an ongoing ritual of two (or more) people coming together – two different personalities, temperaments and resources. In the process of children’s upbringing, it’s much more difficult to overcome the obstacles that stem from misunderstood or inappropriate advice as well as actions taken at the wrong time. (1) The inability to apply a piece of advice within the world of their own family knocks down parents’ confidence.
Parenting does not follow an algorithm (i.e. a finite sequence of well-defined instructions necessary to solve a problem), because the relationship between parents and children is subjected to too many variables such as:
- development (its stage and rate)
- context (i.e. how children and parents feel in particular situations, what affects them)
- needs (child and parent)
- external stimuli
- temperament (i.e. biological set of features that can be impacted by the environment to a certain degree)
- personality (children and parent)
This is where ‘parenting programmes’ come in with their most important message: you, through knowing yourself, are the expert on your child.
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What is a parenting programme?
A parenting programme is the process of building a good relationship and a secure bond, and caring for your children in an intuitive way. Every parent (in fact, every human!) is in possession of this resource. It enables people to look after children – both their own and other people’s. A parenting programme is that imprinted, unconscious knowledge, in some areas very detailed, which enables us, just like it did for millions of our ancestors, to care after our offspring. It’s a way to understand young children but, more importantly, it does not impose any specific methods of ‘dealing’ with them. This constitutes its power and universality.
A good relationship and a secure bond initially depend on parents’ attentiveness and their reactions to children’s signals. But once you turn your parenting programme on, it will work in your family against all odds.
Evelin Kirkilionis, a biologist who commonised this term, enlists the following parental behaviours that are representative of the programme:
- responsiveness (estimated in research at 0.2-0.8 second from the moment of child’s signal to parents’ reaction – such quick response enables children to notice the cause and effect relationship between, for instance, their cry and parents’ actions; this influences the sense of agency and may have a direct impact on children’s self-esteem)
- the distance from the newborn’s face (up to 25 cm – i.e. what we achieve when babywearing in wraps)
- baby talk
- the structure between parents and children’s behaviours according to the complex model of acting and reacting (for instance, while playing peek-a-boo)
- maintaining physical contact with children for at least 70% of time during play
Parenting programme is not a clear, structured model. It demonstrates itself in our everyday life with children and enables us to build a close bond. It activates within the relationship but it is not a specific tool, a method or a way to achieve ‘parental success’. Such way of thinking is characteristic of behaviourism. Parents who rely on parenting books unconsciously (…) create an analogy between their intimate relations with children and putting a certain mechanism together from individual parts. (2)
In the contemporary world, parenting requires very different actions. You need to be aware of your own self and of your own needs. You need to be in touch with your inner self as well as with your relationship with your child. Parenting programme, if activated in your family, shifts the focus from children to parents because they constitute the forefront of parenting.
How to activate your parenting programme?
Even though the programme is rooted in our biology, it will require our attention in several areas in order to work in a contemporary family.
1. Forget all your preconceptions about what parenting should look like and how your children need to behave
Each parenting programme is extremely sensitive to external influences. When looking at our own preconceptions on parenting, it’s good to review which of them come from us and our own experiences and which ones have been imposed on us externally. Through the things we’ve heard or read. In fact, it may be quite helpful to conduct a family model analysis. We need to identify our own beliefs and keep the ones that serve us well. Because what is not good for us will not be good for our children.
Here are a few examples of harmful preconceptions: ‘Parenting is an ordeal’, ‘My life is over’, ‘A mother must sacrifice herself for her children’, ‘Are you a parent? Forget about getting any rest!’, ‘Children need to be weaned off being held or breastfed, using nappies etc.’
2. Look after yourself
In order to function well, humans need to be charging their batteries for around 40% of the 24h cycle – this means approximately 10h, including the time we sleep. Unfortunately, the deficit of sleep and general fatigue are currently the biggest maladies of early parenthood. They are also one of the main reasons behind parents reaching out to children’s sleep trainers and resorting to harmful self-help books.
It’s important to know that children ‘outsource’ some of their emotion regulating processes to us. Therefore, our well-being is crucial also for them. If you struggle with any deficiencies, perhaps you should work on the quality of your rest: well aired bedroom, sleeping in the dark, Internet detox for at least 1h before going to bed, everyday walks with your child, well-balanced meals, drinking enough water, everyday routines (e.g. your morning coffee), a nice treat from time to time (e.g. a massage). There is a variety of simple ways to look after yourself.
3. Join the village of support
Another key component for the parenting programme to work efficiently is cooperation – within the family system, in a larger group of friends, among neighbours or parents at the same nursery. Also feeding online contacts may turn out to be very supportive. The Internet offers more and more villages of parenting support, especially for mothers.
Jean Liedloff once said that mothers of Yequana tribe don’t get stressed because the responsibility for their children falls on the whole village. They don’t carry the burden that society puts on the shoulders of western mothers, blocking the natural parenting programme. Therefore, use every opportunity you have to be around other adults. It’s fundamental for your well-being!
Take a closer look at your own beliefs in this area. People, similarly to all primates, are a herd specie. As a result, we find operating on our own very difficult and in case of certain tasks – like childcare – almost impossible. In spite of that, our culture keeps the myth about self-sufficiency alive and well: Our culture dictates that we can do it on our own (…). According to the common belief, people who need help are viewed as weak. Maturity, however, does not mean independence but should rather be regarded as the ability to create dependencies and correlations. (3)
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4. Cherish family relations
Your relationship with your husband or partner is just as important as the one with your children. It constitutes the foundation for the parenting programme: each family member is equally important Children’s happiness depends on the happiness of the whole herd. And vice versa. This means that if anyone in the family, a child or an adult, feels that their needs are being neglected, the mechanism of the programme will be deficient. The only difference between children and adults is that the former are unable to look after their own needs themselves.
5. Stay close!
Children’s survival depends on whether they are able to signal their needs in a way that enables their carers to satisfy them. They have multiple inbuilt signalling systems at their disposal. If we react early enough and attend to their needs in the right way, looking after a newborn will be less problematic. This, in turn, will significantly impact the process of building your bond. Through their behaviour, happy and satisfied children reaffirm their parents’ skills. When parents are confident in their actions, children are less stressed and, as a result, caregiving becomes much easier.
How can you learn to recognize those early signals? Asking yourself this question is the first clue that you want to understand your child. And the answer is – intimacy. Staying close to your child (both physically and emotionally, on multiple levels) enables us to ‘read’ children’s signals.
Simple ways of maintaining intimacy from birth:
- babywearing, cuddling, kangaroo care, co-sleeping, holding in your arms (wraps and carriers are only tools to help you with this; you can use them but they are not compulsory)
- types of play that incorporate physical touch: peek-a-boo, making faces, tummy tickling, tossing, Eskimo nuzzling, building tunnels made of pillows or between your legs, elephant kiss or butterfly kiss, feeding with a spoon if that’s what the child asks for
- dancing together, lullabies, reading out loud together and/or storytelling
The activation of the parenting programme is related to stimuli in the right hemisphere of the brain. All activities such as dancing, genuine emotions (laughter and cry), baby talk, imitation (of sounds and faces) along with the physical intimacy affect the way it works.
6. Be a guide for your child
Children need responsible adults who will guide them through the world.
A good guide shall:
- not Judge
- not abuse their physical and psychological advantages
- consider needs
- provide children with feedback and support but not do things for them
- model behaviours they would like to see in their children
- be able to admit making a mistake and to apologize
This, again, will often require a change in our perspective or beliefs. But once introduced properly, it should work efficiently, putting in motion our biological resource – the parenting programme.
If properly supported during their development, children will have the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate and will be ready for new challenges. They will be able to gradually, independently and with a solid level of self-confidence relinquish physical intimacy with their parents and expand their own actions. As a result, the initial ‘investment’ of time, energy and availability on the parents’ behalf will pay dividends pretty quickly.
– (AKA Boska Nioska). Babywearing consultant and the author of Noszenie dzieci published by Natuli. Marta promotes stress-free babywearing and runs Mokosz – workshops aimed at improving parenting skills and self-development. A philosopher, a horticultural therapist, a teacher and a life coach. She lives in a timber house by the woods in Świętokrzyskie Mountains.
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