Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Principle-Centred Parenting

Conversations lately have centred around effectively dealing with stressful people and situations. I can’t explain the frequency of this, because just last month, I seemed to have twenty opportunities a week to talk about taking personal responsibility and growing up as a parenting tool. These things seem to have seasons.

Over the past week, I’ve spoken to 2 clients, 2 friends and a new online contact about a wide variety of parenting and personal problems that centre around the ‘toolbox’ method of living life. I’ve said these words, or something very similar, at least 4 times:

Think of it like this: when you have a hammer as your ‘tool’ you tend to
function as if the world were full of nails. Handy when you’re assembling a
shed, not so helpful when you’re trying to wash dishes.
I like tips, tools and techniques. They’re frequently useful to know and to have handy. There is a serious flaw in trying to stockpile them, though. There are zillions of possible problems any parent might encounter in the course of raising a child from newborn to fledgling adult, and, obviously, a wide variety of approaches (tools) that can effectively handle any one of them. So, the average parent, over the 20 years or so, will need, what... 200,000 different tools?

That’s not practical.

What if you spend an enormous amount of time and energy searching out tools and tips and techniques while your children are busy growing up without your noticing? (p.s. I have noticed that it is not possible to spend the same amount of energy twice – once it’s gone, it’s gone. Plan your time accordingly.)

What if you don’t find the right tool for the job until 3 years after you need it? What if you lug around 100 that you never, ever find a use for?

‘Ack! No! Don’t leave me with nothing!!’ parents are inclined to implore me, when I suggest that the toolbox approach might not, um... work... very... often.... if ever.

Principles to Use

I’d never leave someone with nothing... although ‘nothing’ is a suggestion I often make when people don’t know what to do. Here’s the suggestion I make instead:
  • decide what your parenting goals are

  • decide what your personal values are

  • work from there
The Mystery is Afoot, Wenjie Zhang, a certain slant of light
As Anna Christensen, of Wilderness Alert, says, ‘set your goals in stone, your steps in sand.’ You need to know where you’re going, or you’ll never get there. You can’t change your goal every 15 steps, or you’ll be going around in circles – or just going nuts. You can’t pre-determine all your steps to get there, because up-close obstacles are often invisible from far away. You need a guiding principle (or several) to know, in the moment, what you will and will not do in any given situation. 

For example, if your primary goal is to have, say, self-disciplined and responsible adults in about 20 years, you can’t wash all your kid’s clothes, cut the crusts off his sandwiches and help him brush his teeth when he’s 16, even if he begs, bribes, or cajoles you. Actually, you can, but you’ll be moving farther and farther away from your goal with every step.

If your goal is to have a highly-dependent 20 year old man-boy, that’s a good bunch of steps to take. Kind of like trying to get to New York from Winnipeg by going north... you can go north with true diligence, energy and serious determination, but you’ll never get anywhere near New York. Whatever your goal, it will predetermine a large number of your steps –or at least the general direction– right from the beginning.

Once you know what your main goal is (there are too many to choose from for me to list them in this post, I’ll let you use your imagination... or wait a while– I may make a list sometime later) you have to decide what kinds of steps you will take, and what kind of steps you will not take. This is defining your personal values... your guiding principles, your ethics.... essentially, this is the framework you make all your decisions within.

Begging: a cooled off Whiskey begging for a treat, by Kelly HunterWill you swear a blue streak at the child who just broke the lamp? That depends on whether or not ‘treat children with dignity’ is one of your values. Will you have a long roster of babysitters and adult-only activities? Maybe... but probably not if one of your values is ‘children need and deserve their parents’ presence.’ Will you train your child to sleep, use the toilet, to sit up and beg on command? Well, that would require you to believe children are sub-humans who need training... and the absence of the belief that children will naturally and automatically grow into self-disciplined and responsible adults as long as they are supported and loved by people who are mostly self-disciplined and responsible.

Your values have everything to do with the choices you make as you move toward (or away from) your goal. For a comprehensive guide to determining your own values, and a fairly broad introduction to choosing or identifying a primary purpose, the book The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz is invaluable. A quick overview is:
  • Your core values make you feel energized, eager and alive. Other people’s core values that you’ve adopted because you should or have to make you feel soggy, tired and annoyed. Move toward what energizes you – it’s just a good formula for success.
Possible core values are the ‘character’ characteristics people are talking about when they’re talking about ‘building character.’ Empathy. Respect. Self-discipline. Honesty. Trust. Wisdom. Creativity. Ambition. Kindness. Courage. Et cetera.

They aren’t ‘shoulds’ like: Nice. Fair. Looks-like. Blame.

Core values and a primary purpose anchor you in the seas of variable currents– mother-in-law thinks this, that neighbour thinks that, a co-worker contradicts both in a very convincing way, the parenting expert says, the doctors declares–there really is no end to the myriad voices, convictions and advisers.

As the Loehr and Schwartz say, knowing your core values and purpose is literally like having a rudder and anchor. Without them, you can’t steer and you can’t stop from being blown, well, wherever.

Knowing your core values and main goals is also inspirational. It will inspire you to live up to your own highest standards. Nothing else ever will. I don’t know that anything else ever can.

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