Steph at Grounded Parents has a wonderful blog post up about empathizing with children stressed out by the numerous disruptions and strangeness of the holiday season. It’s a wonderful antidote to authoritarian parenting, focused on respecting children’s needs and emotions and empowering them to manage them, rather than forcing them to subordinate them for the sake of adults. It’s a great piece on the cultivation of virtues and a great extension of admirable feminist emphases on consent culture and empowerment.
So many people experience large extended family gatherings as stressful, alienating, and generally dysfunctional because, for some of us ever since we were children, the emphasis has not been on everyone being loved and respected in their individual thoughts and feelings but instead deferring to dominant personalities and suffocating ideals of family that put it at odds with individuals.
What if starting with kids and extending outward we saw family gatherings as occasions to find our common ground and connection with our relatives who are different from us, instead of as occasions to stuff down what matters to us for the sake of alienated, uncomfortable truces? What if this all started with greater latitude to be ourselves that came from more mutual respect undergirding mutual and willfully constructive expressions and acknowledgments of each other’s ideas and feelings?
Here is just part of Steph’s contribution to rethinking these dynamics more deliberately and healthily (and to thinking through what year round empowering parenting consists in):
I do believe that we need to set boundaries and teach our kids how to effectively calm down, react appropriately in situations and moderate their own emotions. But, I also believe that we can do this without subconsciously teaching our kids that it is wrong to feel any emotion other than happy and calm. And we shouldn’t teach them that we’ll punish them for leaving the blanket called “happy.”
So, how do we raise our children to not wreck every social gathering or holiday shopping trip with a tantrum? First, I advocate that we try not to put our kids into impossible situations. Let’s not give them more than they can handle with their big emotions and non-existent impulse control. A wise mom once taught me H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. What if I told you that you could prevent many tantrums from happening by bring snacks everywhere, engaging with your kids and making sure nap time happens? Sure, there’s still the “angry” wild card. And yes, “what is going to anger my toddler or kindergartener?” is one of life’s daily mysteries. But, in my experience, when a tantrum happens, nine times out of ten I have fucked up one of these things. I don’t expect my kids to act like little adults. They are great. They are really well-behaved, but seriously, they are five and two years old!
In the event of a less than desirable reaction or emotion (read: epic meltdown in the grocery store checkout), I don’t whip out the “calm down” card. Have you ever been told to calm down? How did it make you feel? Calm? No? Why the fuck not? Didn’t you hear my order? Does it make you feel calm to have someone order you to do something? /sarcasm.
I try to work with my kids to have skills around managing their own emotions – tools in their toolboxes. In addition to me staying calm, comforting them when they are sad, and commiserating with them when they are angry or frustrated, I have taught my kids some of the same calming techniques that I use as an adult. I practice with them, both when they are calm and when they are blowing up – counting, breathing, focusing, trying again. It really works. Again, not 100% of the time, but I am teaching my kids skills that they can use (and control), rather than conditioning them to respond a certain way out of fear of punishment. Sort of like how I do good things because I want to, not because of fear of eternal punishment. There are some great books, like Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton, and television programs, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, that teach kids how to manage their emotions, as they learn, grow and navigate difficult situations.
What about if your kids feel anxious or scared around new people? Great Aunt Edna, Uncle Steve and creepy mall Santa might be new to your kids and they might not want to hang with them. That’s okay. Bring age appropriate activities to holiday gatherings to keep your kids occupied and to ensure that they aren’t forced to engage in “visiting.” Adult conversations ARE boring. Don’t blame your kids if they don’t feel stimulated talking about grandma’s hip pain or Aunt Sue’s trip to Branson or watching another game of Pinochle. And if they don’t want to hug Auntie or kiss Grandpa, don’t make them. I believe we should teach our kids that they are in control of their own bodies and affection. As for Santa, let your kids drive this decision. You are the best judge of their capacity to stand in line, navigate crowds and interact with mythological strangers.
For more on my own empowerment focused view of parenting read my posts on sex education and conscientiously inculcating humanist values. And I suggest devouring everything Libby Anne writes about parenting.
And Sarah Moorehead has a fantastic piece at Ex-Communications on how she taught her children about transgender people in light of Danielle Muscato’s announcement to the atheist community that she is transgender and will begin transitioning soon:
My older kids don’t really know Danielle at all and are grown and out of the house now, but I knew at some point I had to tell my younger kids. They’ll definitely ask when they notice “Dave” isn’t showing up at conferences or at Dr. Darrel Ray’s famously awesome Memorial Day shindigs, where we originally met years ago. This time, however, it didn’t concern me a bit the way it had with telling my older kids about Holly. After Danielle’s article came out this week it seemed like perfect timing, so I told them I needed to talk to them about something important and we started by looking through pictures of “Dave” and us at various events over the past few years. We discussed that what we know about any friend is just what they decide to share with us and the rest of the world, but that much more of their thoughts and feelings are kept private, inside each person’s head. One of my kids remembered him playing guitar, and how much fun that always is for everyone to sing together. Another remembered him with a camera, taking pictures and talking with our dear friend Josiah (of Biblename Photo).
Then I asked them who they are inside their brain, and when they each answered I asked them this:
“If you tried hard enough, could you change that about your brain? Do you think you could make your brain be a totally different person if you just put on different clothes or a costume?”
“No!” They each replied, “That’s silly!”
“Well”, I explained. “You see these pictures of Dave? Does he look like a boy or a girl?”
They all agreed he looked like a boy.
“How so?” I asked. Apparently the beard was part of the give-away, but they mentioned the haircut, clothes, and “how he talks” as well.
I then explained that even though Dave’s outside body looks like a boy, inside his brain knows that she’s really a girl named Danielle. I watched closely for any gasp of astonishment, or indication of disgust, and there was none, just nods and one question from my 6yo: “So, she’s really a girl? Why doesn’t her body know that?” I explained that we don’t know why it happens that sometimes the brain inside doesn’t match the body outside, but that’s the way it is. I told them Danielle is working with doctors to help her make it all match, but it will take a long time. My 6 year old then declared that she wanted to make a magic potion to give Danielle so it would go very fast for her body to match her brain. When I told her there were medicines Danielle will take to help her body learn to look more like a girl, she was delighted and declared that “good enough”, which must mean she’s going to delay any potion concocting for at least a little while! She said at one point, “That must be so embarrassing for her. I hate feeling embarrassed. Maybe she should dye her hair red when she gets it long and flowy! Then she’ll be a superhero!” My 4 year old declared with her eyes wide, “Boys can’t be girls! If she’s a girl inside, then she gets to be a girl outside too! Somebody better help her fix that!” as she stomped her foot, indignant at the idea that there was a mix-up in the first place. Her only urgent question was regarding Danielle’s preferred nail polish color and if she wants to borrow a favorite princess dress.
My teenager (who knew Holly from earlier in this article) was more concerned about Danielle’s feelings, and wondered if she felt weird or different because she had to go through all of this medical process to make her body match the girl in her brain. I told her that I knew it hasn’t always been easy for Danielle, but that other than the updated name on Facebook she’s the same person we’ve always known, and her response was “Well duh, I know THAT!” She said, “I just think trying to make it all match up like that has to feel really scary. I hope she has people to talk to.” She had a few questions about the physical aspects of the process (not specific to Danielle’s personal business, but about transgender transition in general) that she’s decided to research online a bit more and ask a classmate at school, who apparently identifies as gender fluid.
So there we have it. There was a time that I’d have fully supported the language and message used in the now infamous Duggar Robocall. And yet, all of my fears and concerns years ago about my kids learning someone they know is transitioning genders were pretty unfounded, it seems.
Read the whole piece as there’s much more valuable to it on Sarah’s own journey to trans acceptance. This summer I also wrote an extensive piece that in good part explained my own understanding of what trans identities are about and why supporting them in their identifications is so utterly vital to their thriving. And also at Ex-Communications, and relevant to what we teach children in order to empower them, I heartily recommend Dani Kelley’s wonderful piece against Christianity teaching people that they don’t belong to themselves. Much of the advice is good warnings against attitudes that even might even seep into secular thinking if not protected against.