Intentional Parenting: Raising Kids Without Bubble Wrap

June 9, 2024

So I am writing this after spending the weekend with my 7-year-old daughter in Melbourne. I was invited to Melbourne to receive an academic award and thought it would be a blast to bring her along and make an event out of it for her, as she had never travelled without the whole family. This was also part of a fun intention-setting practice we do with our kids, where we get them to make a bucket list for the year of things they want to do and empower them to trust in the manifestation of their intentions.

My 7-year-old had said that she would like to stay in a proper hotel and enjoy a buffet breakfast (anything involving food lights her up). As a parent, this was such a satisfying experience to be a part of the fulfilment of what she had set her heart on. It was a joy to see her go on the journey from defining her desire, having to wait for it without instant gratification, nor the guarantee of getting what she wanted, and then when the moment arose spontaneously, everything fell into place, and she got to receive and enjoy it with sincere gratitude.

Let’s face it, this is a nice story, but parenting can be a bone-crunching experience in the day-to-day. In fact, sometimes I am not even sure how I make it through the day in one piece. And the sick thing is (and I know all of you parents will agree), we love being parents. For some weird reason, despite all the suffering those little rug rats cause us, we still want to cuddle them and kiss them and generally attend to their every need in a kind of lifestyle of gruelling servitude. It is a beautiful thing.

I have found, however, that having some basic values defined and a reasonably clear vision for what you want to cultivate in your family life can make your life of servitude that little bit more tolerable and maybe even somewhat fulfilling. Not only that, but we slowly come to realise that most of the suffering we experience as parents is more to do with us than them, and there is a pathway forward for both parties to grow together. So let’s break it down a little.

Don’t miss what’s happening right under your nose.

I have tried to get into the habit of snapping myself out of the kind of dreamlike illusion that draws my attention away from the thing that is happening right in front of me. Whether it is the constant moving of my thoughts toward what’s coming next or getting stuck in things that just simply don’t matter anymore, the things that are in the past. It once hit me when I thought about the past 7 years and how quickly they have gone, and then I thought about that again, plus a few more years, and my daughter will be an adult. How much do we literally miss because we are distracted, and then years pass? Now, this is easier said than done, but one massive key for our family is that we refuse to hurry or to live a life of hurry. If this means that we go to bed 30 minutes later, but our kids feel like we are present, then it is worth it. I know, sometimes at the end of a long day, you just want to finally stop and have a tea and sit in silence with no one needing you (where are all my mums at?), but the truth is, the more we just slow down, notice the precious time we get to spend with our kids and actually choose to be present, they seem to settle more easily. We also found that when we rushed bedtime routines, they pushed against us more, and the whole process took the same amount of time anyway.

Know yourself

Again, slowing down is not easy. Our lives can be a frantic mess, but at the end of the day, you have to decide what is truly important to you. I know it’s a very self-help, woo-woo thing to say, but it is true. With this comes the need to know yourself well. The old saying is true: kids don’t become what you say; they become who you are. Knowing yourself can be as simple as taking moments to check in with yourself throughout your day, especially before you get home from work, to decompress before you enter the milieu of sibling wars or nappy changing or whatever other chaos goes on at your home. It seems like a small thing, but that little moment you take to decompress (not by being on your phone) will give you that clarity to not offload your stress on your kids. Most of the time, our inability to be present, creative, and patient is because we are under the pump all day and we don’t take the time to offload before we get home.

Listen to them

This is a game changer, but it takes practice and must be stacked on the "know yourself" piece. First, start to notice how much you cut your kids off to enforce what you want. How much you override what they are trying to communicate to get compliance. Hey, maybe you are all angelic beings, but when I started doing this, I was shocked. Now, kids are terrible at listening and waiting for breaks in conversation, etc., so they need guidance in basic etiquette, but the more you cultivate a practice of actually letting them express themselves, the more they will work with you to develop the skills. This is not just about them getting to say what they want to say but about guiding them in expressing well what is really going on for them. Even if they are not in alignment with the family values, you can still hear them out and let them feel valid and heard.

Of course, this must be balanced with times for cultivating independence, where they also practice listening. If you take them to the playground to play, then let them play and teach them to problem-solve, work out their altercations (to an extent), and wait until a set time to eat. Again, find a balance that fosters reciprocity and works toward deepening trust and connection.

Give yourself timeouts

Now, of course, there are times when we don’t want to listen to their meltdown or their complaining or their stubborn refusal to do what is best for them or their whining about being hungry or bored, or most of all, the eternal chain of questions that not only bombard you ceaselessly but also demand you to answer things you actually may not know. Instead of saying things to them that we might regret later as our steam levels begin to build, we have started giving ourselves timeouts. This is about taking ownership of your emotional state and doing your best to enforce a boundary that serves both you and them well. You might have to liaise with your partner to take the reins so that you can go scream into a pillow or bang your head against a wall, or you might put them in front of a screen if it is really all you have to calm them down so you can phone a friend. You can even explain to them your process (that you are going to have some space so that you do not take your frustration out on them or whatever), which alleviates them from taking on your stress but also models honest communication.

Make mistakes and say sorry

And if you do miss this step and throw a toaster at your 5-year-old because they do not want to eat the very thing they asked you to make because it is too cold or too hot or not on the right-coloured plate, then wait till you have cooled down and simply apologise. You are not apologising for not meeting their tyrannical demands; you are simply apologising for how you reacted to their oppressive rulership. You are teaching them humility, and through it, you will normally have an opportunity to also help them see how they are not helping the situation too. Either way, you are taking responsibility for your part to play in the breakdown and owning your own growth process.

Get rid of the bubble wrap

Or you could try gentle parenting... because that’s definitely the best way to teach sincerity and honesty, right? Nothing against gentle parenting, but if it gets in the way of letting them see a real human parent, then you are actually doing them a disservice at best and fostering toxic positivity at worst. If you're smiling sweetly but seething inside, believe me, your kids will pick up on it. The truth is, the family home is where we prepare our kids for the real world and real relationships, and life is messy.

This brings me to my next point: don’t bubble wrap your kids. Studies have now conclusively shown what helicopter parenting has accomplished. Instead of creating a sense of safety for kids, it has actually created anxiety disorders, as kids feel absolutely ill-equipped to deal with the changing social landscape of the modern world. The number of parents I see following their kids around on the playground is startling. In fact, I have even had parents helicopter my kids at the playground. Then they look around for me as though I am being irresponsible by not sharing their paranoia. Seriously, let your kids fall down once in a while, let them face their fears too. Of course, be there where it is relevant to guide them, but stop shielding them from anything remotely hard out of fear that they will have some kind of traumatic experience. If you are that parent, let me fill you in on something: you are the traumatic experience.

Gratitude, Immediate Gratification, and Things to Work Toward 

Lastly, cultivate gratitude with your kids. We do it almost every day by going around the dinner table and naming things we are grateful for or celebrating someone in the family. We also balance this with giving each member of the family a chance to share what was challenging or to name what they are feeling. Life is hard and letting them give voice to the hard stuff whilst still finding places of gratitude is powerful. This takes a lot of practice, but I have noticed how much it actually pays off. Today, on our last day of holiday, as we were driving to the airport, my daughter said to me, “Dad, I know we were going to get a donut, but you forgot. I am so grateful for this time together that I actually don’t even care.” I can tell you that is not a normal thing for a 7-year-old to say, but it is the fruit of cultivating a practice of gratitude.

With this, kids still need to see where they are going in life and they also need things to look forward to. Find things every night for them to look forward to the next day, even if it is just one thing. Without gratitude, it might be hard to find something satisfying enough for them, and this is equally true if you are not teaching them delayed gratification. If you are the parent who buys them whatever they want whenever you go shopping just to save yourself the embarrassment of a meltdown in Kmart, then this will be a lot harder for you. Plus, you are really not doing them any favours. I have found it is better to bite the bullet and let all the Karens stare and judge and still stick to your guns so that they learn you are not going to give in. This is actually a kind thing to do as you are preparing them for the real world where you have to save for things, work, and be patient.

Once you have won the battle in Kmart, it doesn’t mean they are not going to ask you for things every time you go out, but if you have stood your ground, you can actually use it as an opportunity for growth. You can buy the toy in two weeks to celebrate a win in their life or let them use their own pocket money.

None of what I have written will come easily at all. These are just the ways in which we are trying to be true to the values we have for ourselves and our family. What I do know is that having these values defined will give you more motivation to actually learn ways to implement practices that will cultivate them in your family life. Parenting is not easy; in fact, it is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but for that reason, it is vital that it is taken on with intention and sacrifice.

My wife just ran a half marathon in an incredible time, and we were all so proud of her. She didn’t just join on race day with no sense of where she was going or what the demand would be. She did research, changed her diet, trained for weeks, hit thresholds, and struggled, but ultimately she achieved her goal because she had a clear why behind her decision. She also had a clear intention, and she implemented the steps to ensure she would make it. As cheesy as it sounds, our children really are the future, and we owe it to them to do our very best to raise them well. Along the way, we will certainly teach ourselves too.

For more unfiltered advice on parenting check out Six Key Things I Have Learn't Over Six Years of Parenting or Unleashing Creativity for Young Kids: Easy & Affordable School Holiday Activities for ideas for the upcoming school holidays.

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