Updated: May 24
I want to offer you a job. For this job you will need skills in time management, planning, prioritization, crisis management, problem solving, communication, negotiation, project management, culinary arts, medicine and financial management. You will need to be available 24 hours a day 365 days per year and you will not get any financial remuneration. Oh, yes. And you will not get any formal training, so most of the time you will be left guessing whether or not you are doing the right thing. Do you want the job?
Probably not, and yet many of us have chosen to voluntarily take on this job. It is the job of being a parent.
Prior to becoming a parent, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Although there are many incomparable gifts that come with the position there are also many incredibly challenging aspects.
I would like to focus in this article on the challenges. Not because I want to focus on everything that is negative and unfulfilling about parenting, but rather because some of these challenging aspects can become considerably less demanding when approached with a certain consciousness and skill. Skills that I did not learn before becoming a parent, and yet I was fortunate enough to have come into contact with soon after my daughter’s birth.
The skills that I am referring to can be put into two broad categories. How to listen empathically and how to speak authentically. This may not sound like a big challenge at this point and yet it has taken me many years to learn and continue to refine these skills. Offering me the opportunity to connect with my child in a way that leads to mutual respect, connection and co-operation.
There are times when I am ineffective and I resort back to my culturally acquired behaviours to navigate conflicts and get what I want as a parent. I do this by making demands, through coercion, punishment or offering rewards if she behaves in certain ways. And then there are times when conflict results in the type of connection that makes parenting the joy that I had hoped it would be. Yes, you read that correctly. Conflict can actually be a gift that results in deep connection and a loving relationship.
I would like to expand on this concept using the following anecdote.
I am sure that many parents reading this resonate with the challenges that come with the evening/bedtime ritual.
“I don’t want to go to bed. I’m not tired. I don’t want to brush my teeth,” were some of the statements that were coming out of my daughters mouth along with a fair share of anger, frustration and defiance. I began to feel more and more frustrated, concerned about how late it was getting and realizing that it may take quite some time before she would get to bed. Past experience tells me that when she gets into this emotional state, she will lie awake for at least an hour before falling asleep. In this time she will likely ask for water, to go for a pee, to be massaged, to get another bedtime story. She will exclaim numerous times that she is actually not tired and can’t sleep, and my level of frustration will increase. Imagining how the evening may unfold, I began to panic.
What to do?
Firstly, I needed to attend to myself. I needed to become aware of my own inner world of feelings and needs so that I could calm down enough to begin to listen to her. I could sense that there was something deeper going on in her, and yet I had no chance of understanding what it was unless I met her with genuine curiosity. I will not go into details here, but to sum it up, a few moments of self-connection were enough to create a small window of space that allowed me to begin to get curious.
I began to listen. I listened to her anger, her frustration. I listened to how she would like to be able to choose for herself when she goes to bed, and how she would like the freedom to go to bed when she is tired. I listened to how she wanted trust that she would be able to get up on time the following morning. As I listened she started to move toward bed. Brushing her teeth, putting on pyjamas, brushing her hair. She was reluctant, but willing.
When we arrived at her bed and she was lying under the covers, she said, “I am sorry that I got so angry. It is just that my best friend at school has said that she is now best friends with another girl.”
I acknowledged how lonely and scary this is for her. At this point the tears arrived, and she climbed into my arms and began to sob. My heart melted. The realization that all of that resistance was actually the best way that she knew how to tell me that something painful was going on, and all I needed to do was listen. After a couple more minutes of being present to her she came to the realization that she doesn’t need to feel lonely anymore because she has other friends that she can hang out with. We both smiled at this realization. Both of us felt relieved.
I tucked her in and within minutes she was asleep. I believe that her feelings of loneliness, despair, sadness, frustration and anger needed to be released before she could experience enough inner calm to be able to fall asleep. I also mourn all the times that I did not have this level of consciousness and met her anger with my own anger. I regret each time we missed an opportunity for deep connection and instead we experienced an evening filled with conflict and frustration.
Skillfully navigating challenging conversations with our children takes practice and yet, it is worth it. What might have been a drawn out fight and struggle turned into a chance to hear what really matters to her and connect to what she was going through. It was a gift.
I was unfortunately not born with these skills. I learned these skills as a student of nonviolent communication(NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. I was so blown away by the simplicity and power of the model that I decided that I could not keep it to myself.
My partner, Sarah and I offer workshops and courses in Belgium, South Africa, Germany, The Netherlands and online.
You can also register here for free for our upcoming free presentation and Live Q&A for parents on 25 May 2021.