Why Mainstream Parenting Techniques Risk Breaking Our Children’s Spirits

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When I was in veterinary school I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks working on a beautiful coastal farm in Australia. The owner of the property was a real-life horse whisperer and people from far and wide brought their “problem” horses to him to be rehabilitated.

On weekdays, the herd ran wild across green rolling hills and through long grassy meadows. They were free to be horses; to be their natural selves. But, on Sunday mornings, we’d bring them into the round yards for some slow and purposeful training.

Most of the horses were terrified and their behaviour reflected it. They’d rear onto their back legs, their eyes were wide with fear, snorting, kicking and trying in any way they could to fiercely defend their vulnerable personal space.

As I sat perched safely on the old wooden fence, I was mesmerized by this strong, burly Aussie bloke as he communicated peacefully, patiently and respectfully with these majestic animals.

It never entered his mind that these were “bad” horses and getting the “job” done quickly was clearly not a priority for him; it would simply take as long as it took. I was deeply affected by the dance I observed unfolding between the two souls in the arena, each bowing their heads submissively as they assessed the other’s intentions.

They took their time: the journey was more important than the destination.

Witnessing a 1000-pound horse go from being visibly distressed to lying on the ground calm and relaxed, being gently stroked by this human, who was so recently a threat, was nothing short of miraculous. It was almost twenty years ago, but it had such a profound effect on me that I am there, in the moment, when I recall those magical Sunday mornings.

Animals have always been a central part of my life. Growing up, they gave me a safe outlet to express affection and to be myself: something I struggled with through childhood and beyond. I felt then and do now, that the human race can learn a lot from them.

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Their intentions are pure and their love is unconditional. Practicing patience has never been a virtue of mine, but the exception to my rule is animals, and since becoming a parent, I’ve realized it extends to babies and children.

It’s a blessing I’m incredibly grateful for, but no matter the amount of patience we’re naturally blessed with, just like whispering to horses, caring for babies and raising children requires a deep understanding of why they do the things they do.

If we don’t take the time to understand the WHY, frustration overflows and we risk succumbing to conventional parenting practices we may come to regret.

Much like traditional horse trainers attempt to break horses, I fear we may be unconsciously breaking our children with mainstream techniques favouring detachment rather than fostering connection. Methods such as cry it out, punishment, threats and time outs, slowly but surely sabotage and weaken the attachment relationship mother nature intends parents and children share.

The parent-child connection is a two-way street: nourishing our children yet also granting us the strength and patience to carry on when we have nothing left to give. It helps us dig deeper, enabling us to endure a level of  physical and emotional exhaustion we would never tolerate from anybody else. It’s a treasure to be nurtured and fiercely protected.

Yet, in a recent study, only fifty eight percent of six-month old babies were securely attached to their parents. If this figure comes close to representing our society, it’s not okay and reveals something about modern parenting practices isn’t working. I feel our disconnection stems, not from a lack of love, but from unrealistic expectations and unfair assumptions society places on our children and us, as parents.

Modern myths about how babies should sleep and how kids should behave mislead us. They mask us from our children’s innocence and tempt us to assume the worst in them.

If we believe these myths, we’ll crack our whips and dig in our heels: nagging, ignoring, prompting and correcting. We’ll be duped into believing the aim of parenting is to control, rather than to guide our children as they grow, inevitably stumbling and needing our guidance and support not our authority.

So, what do we do instead? We dare to ignore convention and judgement. We tap into our consciousness and trust our instincts so that we can see beyond superficial behaviour, while observing our children’s naive souls. We find the courage to nurture our kids through their young struggles and appreciate that they are not giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time.

We appreciate that no matter which choice we make, someone will disapprove. Resistance is inevitable, but speaking personally I would rather swim against the tide of our culture’s expectations, than compromise my son’s young needs. Instincts have no agenda: trust them. Invest in connection.

Because, just like the dance in the round yard, witnessing a securely attached parent-child pair is a beautiful thing; shining only brighter in times of difficulty.

It pushes us to the edge of our comfort zones and compels us to become braver people – to become conscious parents.

Conscious in the knowledge that the choices we’re making are honouring and respecting our children. That, as parents, we’re playing a long game, recognizing quick fixes are generally accompanied by unwelcome side effects.

Although, the realities of everyday life means taking the slow route isn’t always possible, what matters most is recognizing everyone has needs, no matter their size, and while they can’t always be met, they will be acknowledged. Our kids don’t need perfect parents, they need responsive parents.

Let’s soften our hearts to our children and seeing them as partners in this slow dance – it will always lead to good things Appreciating our children’s innocence means although parenting will be challenging it will never be a hardship.

* This post was originally published in August 2016 and updated February 2018. This is also an excerpt from my book, The Lost Art of Natural Parenting

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COMMENTS
  • June 24, 2016
    Kirstin

    I loved this post! In today’s society it is all about controlling your child and responding with negative discipline when they do not behave accordingly. I’ve been told many times already to put my five month old down, I’m spoiling him or don’t pick him up he just wants attention. Even that I am starving him because I am waiting until he is six months to feed him. This has been said by family and friends. My son and I have a great attachment and I will continue to trust my instincts and ignore the myths that I have been told.

    • June 24, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Kirstin – so happy it resonated with you. People say stupid things hey! I think different choices can make people feel unsure about their own decisions which is challenging. Follow your instincts and be strong – your child is all that matters. And isn’t it odd that fruit spoils when we ignore it but we’re told babies spoil when we show them love. I plan to write a post on just that soon. Have a great weekend and cuddle that baby of yours – they sure do grown too fast 🙂

  • June 24, 2016
    Rachel

    Thanks for your article it was really beautiful, I could really relate. Funny to as I’m from western Australia 🙂 but now living in Italy and here I really really notice a very different parenting style and find it really hard to be amongst as I parent my son in a very different way in all aspects. Yes it can be very challenging and test my patience beyond what I could ever of imagined and boy are there days I feel like I totally sucked as a mum but in general I feel I nuture him In a manner that I am very proud of and guide him in a way that helps him understand the world and encourage him when he is doing great and above all love him and show him tenderness when he needs it the most. I had dreamed of the day to become a mother for what seemed like forever, and it is beyond rewarding but I never imagined how many struggles I would face and how scary all these decisions are to teach and guide another human being in the rough cruel world…. On a slightly different note my mum actually was going to these ‘healing’ classes ( not sure what they were actually called, but it was with horses – horses that had been mistreated, neglected or abandoned etc etc and they are on this property with these two women that care for them, but you go there to work through a particular struggle/issue you have in your life and in these sessions a particular horse from this heard actually choose you to help you through it… It was really fascinating and powerful for my mum, I also know of people with disabled children that do therapy with horses and it has huge benefits for them too. Incredible/ beautiful animals xxxxxxxxx thanks again for your wonderful article/ reminder.

    • June 28, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for reading Rachel and for leaving such a lovely and thoughtful comment. It can be super challenging – parenting is the hardest test I’ve ever faced but with rewards like no others. It is scary – I can totally relate and every day I beat myself up over something and hope I’m doing the best for my son in the madness of trying to fit everything in. You’re right – animals are such amazing healers. I read somewhere that just having a pet at home boosts our immune systems by 50% – they’re incredible. Our amazing companion, Oliver, our cat died about 18 months ago and I miss him so much. He found me when I was at uni as a vet student and he was a tiny kitten who fit in my hand. He travelled the globe with us and was my constant companion. They’re the absolute best…and kids are too. Thanks again xxx

  • June 25, 2016
    Emily

    Great article! 🙂 I love your perspective on raising kids, and you have a way of always making the topic interesting. 🙂 And the picture of the horses is beautiful! Did you take that in Australia?

    • June 28, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much Emily – thrilled you enjoyed it and that you liked the connection with animals.

  • February 14, 2018
    Gayle

    As my 4 year old granddaughter told me recently when she had an emotional meltdown, “I don’t want to be 4 Nanna. I know how to be 3. I can’t be 4, I don’t know how to be 4. It’s too hard.” Made my heart melt. Yes, we place too many expectations on developing children.
    Listen to your child and go with what you think is the best way to nourish and nurture your child. As a Nanna I try to support my daughter in law and son as much as possible in the way they’re bringing up our grandchildren, and tell them to just do what they think is best and what suits them and their 2 children.

  • February 15, 2018
    Maxine

    I personally have never followed any parenting sites or books for advise really. Dipped in and out maybe, but have always generally found my own way or asked friends.
    Until a couple of years ago and I came across Raised Good and EVERY article I read resonates.
    This one couldn’t have come at a better time. At a time when my 7 year old is emotionally challenging where she has always been so robust. And whilst clutching at straws and losing my temper, it was a breath of fresh air to read this and think… No, just remove all these expectations and societal demands. And say ITS OK. She is who she is. And let her talk to me.
    I’ve been guilty of losing my temper. Saying “don’t cry” over this that and the other. When I realised. And now I tell her it’s ok to cry, we just need to work together on validating what’s worth crying over. How we feel and how we can challenge that. But that crying is fine. If that’s how you feel in that moment. But come to me for a hug. Talk to me.
    Thank tou Raised Good. Between reading your articles and watching Bad Moms last night I feel a lot more relaxed!!!

  • February 20, 2018
    Nicole

    Tracy, thanks for another great article! I remember reading this before and totally connecting with it all!
    I wanted to share that I too had the privilege of working with horses, a few years before my son was born, at a rescue ranch. Apprenticing in natural horsemanship I was able to help rehabilitate these beautiful animals not only physically but emotionally. Patience is what it’s all about. The way of accepting and understanding another’s nature while teaching and guiding them has been a lesson I will never forget and had no clue how well the lessons I learned would serve me as a parent! So awesome to hear you had a similar experience.

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