Thoughtful Parenting: A toolkit for parenting infants and preschoolers
October 22, 2017
In my house, we have a toolbox full of gadgets. These items have been collected over the years and used for a variety of predictable and random jobs. The most often used items — a hammer, pliers, tape measure, pencil and nails, are my go-to tools and give me a sense of preparedness, even though I know we'll probably have to make a trip to the store to buy a different whatchatmacallit for another home repair.
Preparing a toolkit for parenting our kids age birth to 5 can feel overwhelming. There are so many things we think about — health and safety, childcare, getting adequate sleep (our own and our child's), maintaining relationships, shifting identities, having strategies to manage irritability and worries, balancing old expectations and new realities, adopting the right parenting style, and those "Am I doing enough?" nagging thoughts. With so many things to consider, the toolkit might get stuffed and unorganized.
In the early childhood years, I think of two tools to keep handy: Parenting with responsive strategies and adopting a compassionate outlook toward yourself. Responsive parenting is a foundational way of being with a child — it sets the scaffolding for bonding and creating a space whereby a child can learn, grow, and feel secure in exploration. Self-compassion allows parents to have a soft place to land during the inevitably very difficult moments.
Responsive parenting means we tune into our child's signals (words, body language, tone of voice) and routinely guess what might be driving our child's behavior. We recognize when she is hungry, tired, sick, and disappointed. Through this lens, we can empathize with our child's experience and guide her.
For example, when your child melts down when you say it's time to leave the library, you know it's probably because he has a hard time transitioning from a favorite activity. You can acknowledge his frustration, disappointment, sadness and anger (yes, all those emotions), hug him, and say "I'd be mad too."
You can also tell him it's still time to go and you know he'll have a great time when he returns. Responsive parenting also means we convey to our child that we see her during triumphant moments, "Wow, you really worked hard at that even though you were frustrated," and "Great choice. Sometimes it takes a couple do overs and you did it."
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Day in and day out, parenting is undeniably arduous. In tough moments, we might think, "That really didn't go well," "I can't believe I did that," or even "I'm a terrible parent." Our inner critic can be brutal. Having compassion for ourselves offers us a reprieve from automatic self-criticism and often, unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves. Self-compassion is a way to be kind toward ourselves, with the knowledge that every parent is experiencing something similar.
At the Parent Connection Summit on Nov. 8 at CMC, we'll talk about responsive parenting and self-compassion as essential tools in an early childhood toolkit. Visit zerotothree.org and self-compassion.org for more information on these topics.
Barbara Gueldner, PhD, MSE, is a licensed psychologist who has specialized in issues relevant to children and families for more than 20 years. When not spending time with her preschooler, she is working on the second edition of the book, Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom. Find her at successfulkidstoday.com.