We’re back with another episode in our Parenting series, in which we explore our relationships with our children. In today’s episode, we’re talking about celebrating the child in front of you. Most of us bring ideas to parenting about what childhood should look like and what our children should be like, but this can create disconnect in our relationships and make it harder to see the real, amazing people in our lives. Giving space for our children to be themselves and to be different than we were expecting leads to all kinds of amazing places!
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
1. In what ways have you celebrated your child for the person they are?
2. What does your child love? How do you see that as part of who they are?
3. What visions did you hold of having children? How has that vision helped or harmed your relationships with them?
4. Take some time this week to think about your family and how you are all individuals, see and celebrate the differences.
THINGS WE MENTIONED
The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
ANNA: Hi! And welcome to the Living Joyfully Podcast. We’re happy you’re here exploring relationships with us, who we are in them, out of them, and what that means for how we move through the world.
If you’re new to the podcast, we encourage you to go back and listen to the earlier episodes. We started with some foundational relationship ideas and just really have enjoyed how they’re all building. And if you’ve already been enjoying the podcast, we’d love it if you would subscribe and share. We really appreciate your support as it grows.
Today’s episode is part of the Parenting series, and we’re going to be talking about celebrating the child in front of you. Parenting can bring up a lot of things for people. And we want to do our best. We want to do all that we can. We want to do right by these children. We want to make sure that they have every opportunity to live their best life. And while all of those things and more come from this very loving place, it can sometimes lead us to developing expectations for our children and pushing them towards the things that we think are best. All the while, we’re holding out this endpoint, this goal of a child successfully raised and a job well done.
When we bring the lenses we’ve been talking about on the podcast to this idea, it can really help: being open and curious, there’s plenty of time, consent, connection. All of the topics we’ve talked about before are critical to bring it to this relationship with our children or we may miss who they actually are and what they want from this life.
PAM: Yes, yes, yes. Everything we talk about on the podcast applies fully to all our relationships with the people we love of any age. Now, I do imagine that for some listeners, while it’s been interesting to consider these ideas with regards to relationships with other adults, for the most part, they might not seem very applicable to relationships with children. And if that’s you and yet you’re still curious why you might want to consider doing things differently and what that might look like, I invite you to check out the book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Allison Gopnik. And we’ll put a link in the show notes. She’s one of the world’s leading child psychologists, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. And in this book, she explains how the familiar 21st century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong. It’s not just based on bad science. It’s bad for kids and parents, too.
And I do love her gardener and carpenter analogies for parenting styles. So, with the carpenter model, parents are working with a goal of producing a particular kind of adult. They are essentially trying to shape their child into a final product that fits the vision that they had in mind, their blueprint.
So, for them, parenting is about control. On the other hand, gardener-style parents work to create a protected and nurturing space for children to flourish. She explains that a good garden is constantly changing as it adapts to the changing circumstances. And a good gardener quote, “works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties and with different weaknesses and difficulties. In this way, being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults, but it can help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.”
And she also dives into the rewards of being a parent. And it’s not your child’s grades and trophies. She writes, “They come from the moment by moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child. And in that child’s moment by moment joy in being with you.” And by the end of the introduction, she sets us up with this. “So, our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child.
Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds. It’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play. It’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”
Okay. I think that shift in perspective from trying to shape a child into our vision of perfect to discovering, supporting, and celebrating the unique child in front of us makes all the difference in cultivating strong and connected lifelong relationships with our kids. That’s the difference. You are going to be in relationship with your child far beyond their childhood, right?
ANNA: Yes. That’s the hope anyway. And it really is such an apt analogy, and I think it helps us to step back a bit and actually just kind of see how it’s playing out. We can think about how it felt in our childhood and what kind of relationship we want to have with our children beyond those expectations. What do we want that relationship to feel like? Something that compounds this tendency to control or have expectations is that we often come into parenting with these preconceived notions about what childhood is like. This could stem from our own childhood, which maybe we loved, or maybe what we bring is in reaction to our childhood, what we want to do differently. But either way, it’s a reaction to, from the past, not a response to what is actually in front of us, the child and the family we have right now.
Sometimes we think our child will be like us. It goes back to how people are different. Our children are different. And if you have three kids, each one of them is their own unique person with their own way of being in the world. We don’t want to hold this image we have in our head of them over top of the person that they actually are.
And this goes to ideas about family culture, too, which you’ll hear, “We are an outdoor family,” “We’re a family of travelers,” “We’re a family of,” whatever you finish that sentence with, it deserves a second look, because it’s oh so very rare that an entire family wants to move through the world in the same way. Instead, we can embrace the idea that we are a family of individuals and together we support one another to live our best lives.
PAM: Yes, yes. I love that image. Supporting and celebrating each family member, especially children, as the unique individual that they are in this moment. We’re not trying to mold them into an individual.
They are an individual right now, and that actually better fosters a family atmosphere of joy and harmony than, “Our family is,” or, “Be nice to each other, you’re family,” all those phrases that just come rolling out of our mouths.
I also find that another common way that parents lump their children together and thereby undermine their individuality is by how they measure fair. The idea behind fairness is definitely an important one. To be fair is to be free from bias, is to not show favor for one child over another. But how do you measure fair? I find, and I remember, many families measure it based on quantity. And we strive for equality. We give all our kids the same number of gifts for holidays, or we spend the same amount of money on their birthdays, or we sign them up for the same number of rec activities. We can cling to this equality paradigm. But the scorekeeping can get so tiring. You just have to keep track of all this. And when you think about it, equality in what you give each child really isn’t a helpful measure of fairness, because what each child actually needs, each individual, is likely different. And to see this individuality in action, it helps to move past that image you were talking about that we have conjured up in our minds of that perfect child.
No longer trying to cajole each of our kids into that mold with varying levels of success and instead just look clearly at the individual child in front of us and engage with that person. When we can do that, each child feels seen, loved, and accepted as part of the family, even if what that support and engagement looks like is wildly different for each child.
So, at any given time, maybe one child needs more of your attention because they’re sick or they’re injured while another is in the midst of a busy season with our favorite activity and need you to provide supplies for it or transportation and maybe a third is in a social season and wants your blessing to invite friends over regularly. So, you may be giving each child very different things that take varying amounts of time, effort, money, energy, all those pieces. But when their unique needs are being met, they each feel seen and secure and celebrated for who they are as a person.
ANNA: Gosh, I love that reminder that fair isn’t the same as equal. We want to help each person in our lives pursue the things that they’re interested in, and that can look, as you said, just wildly different.
People feel much more seen and loved by tailoring our engagement and our resources to what suits them and helps them along their unique path over what an equal share of something they may not even want is.
And I think it can be a really helpful framework to realize that what your child loves is who they are.
So, using the things we’ve been talking about to connect with your child, listen, be open, have the conversations, really lean to learn what they love and why. It may be that they love art or soccer or video games. Taking the time to understand and support their interests shows them that you see them and that you’re celebrating the things that they love and in that, you’re celebrating them.
And it’s such an incredible gift to give the people in our lives that we love them without judgment. And I think it’s so important, because I think so often for many of us, love had a judgment piece attached to it, and we can let that go. For many reasons we feel, I don’t know, comfortable judging children it seems, how they spend their time, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it. And I think perhaps we feel like it’s coming from a place of love. It’s an attempt to give our best advice, but more often than not, it’s so disconnecting and it harms the relationship. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t share the things that we’ve learned over the years, but with an understanding that those were our takeaways and theirs may be very different, and they may have to learn it all on their own.
I know we can wish to save them from some of that hard work, but it just doesn’t work that way. I’m sure we can all think back to times that our parents thought they knew what was best for us and they wanted to save us from this problem that we were running headstrong into, but it just never landed well, and I actually believe it creates what we’re fearing, because then our kids are less likely to come to us as they’re figuring out things, because they’re fearing our judgment or our direction, or that we’re going to co-opt whatever it is they’re doing.
If instead, we can stay connected and curious, we can act as that trusted advisor and a sounding board as they find the past that make the most sense to them.
PAM: Yes. It is so interesting, isn’t it, how we feel more comfortable judging our children than other adults. And I think that ties back to that carpenter parenting style, right? Which I think for many parents is the adult-child relationship we know, because that’s how we grew up. We compare the child to the blueprint, we judge how close they are to that ideal, and then we have to use control tactics at that point to make the adjustments that are needed to get them back on track. And absolutely not as starkly negative as that sounds right. We love our kids and we want what’s best for them, but the real question is, who gets to define what is best?
As a carpenter-style parent, we want to define that, right? It’s our blueprint, our vision of the best path from naive child to successful adult. They’re our child. We want them to listen to us and learn from our mistakes so they don’t have to go through similar challenges.
But, as you said, that’s just not how human beings are wired to learn. And we differ from our children in many significant ways, right? And regardless of age, we all want to learn through our own experiences. Think about how we like to learn. We all want to explore the things that we find fascinating, and our children will feel more supported and cared for when they know that we have their backs, that we love them and celebrate who they are. They feel safer coming to us with questions and to process things that have happened, knowing they won’t be judged or scorned, but that we’ll do our best to help them figure things out for themselves. So, we’re not there to tell them direction, but we are there to help them process and think things through to understand it for themselves. That’s where the real learning is. When they see the context, they see the choices, they see how things unfolded.
Now definitely, we can share our experiences with them as information that they might find helpful. But we can do it without that expectation that they adopt it wholesale. Again, we’re different people and we’re all in different places in our lives, too. When we were at that age, what life was like at that age is different than what life at that age is like for them, too.
And my goodness, the lightness and the joy that comes with celebrating the amazing child that you love is priceless versus the weight we carry when we’re always judging and trying to get them back on our track. Just night and day.
ANNA: Absolutely. And we can take that weight off of ourselves and off of our children, and it frees up energy to create these amazing relationships that last throughout our lives. And I think the other piece that can’t really be overstated, too, is that when we’re coming in with that judgment and control, we’re really short-circuiting the learning. We’re really not allowing them to learn about themselves.
So, if they love something intensely, but we’re saying, “Hmm, that doesn’t align, that’s not as academic as we want it, that’s not as sporty as we want it,” whatever the thing is, then they’re left doubting what they’re loving, what they’re thinking. And so, this process of them discovering who they really are is just being tamped down and short-circuited by us, which then just spills into their adulthood.
PAM: And what they’re learning is about us. They’re learning that sports is important to us, that we love hockey or we love soccer or we think that’s important. And back to our last episode, the self-awareness piece. We are not helping them gain any self-awareness when what they’re learning is about us and what our priorities are.
They’re not having a chance to explore the things that they like and what their priorities are, and to have those experiences. There’s nothing wrong with an experience that they afterwards say, “I don’t want to have that experience again,” That’s learning.
ANNA: Right! And it just makes for a richer experience. Again, we’ve talked about in the last episodes, when we go tunnel vision with this outcome or solution, we’re missing the richness, we’re missing the tapestry that comes from all the uniqueness of the people around us. And so, I’m excited that we’re talking about just celebrating our child and all the people around us really. This is just about celebrating the people around us and their uniqueness.
So, a few questions to consider for this week. In what ways have you celebrated your child for the person they are? What does your child love? How do you see it as a part of who they are?
I think that’s a big one, because sometimes it’s hard. The things they love, maybe we don’t understand it. Why are they so fascinated by that? Why do they keep wanting to go down that one path? But really sink in with that.
PAM: Those are great questions for us to ask ourselves, as we’re talking about, peeling back those layers. If we don’t understand, that doesn’t mean immediately stop them. It means, oh, why? Why is this very interesting to them? And yeah. It’s amazing what you discover when you start peeling back those layers for yourself.
ANNA: And just lean in, lean into that excitement from them and just bask in that piece and you’ll learn a lot. And then, what visions did you hold of having children? How has that vision helped or harmed your relationship with your actual children?
PAM: There’s a distinction.
ANNA: There’s a distinction for sure. The children in our head are not always the children we have in front of us. Take some time this week to think about your family and how you are all individuals. See and celebrate the differences. And again, this is for every member, adults and kids alike. How different does that feel to think we’re all celebrating the uniqueness? They’re in it together supporting one another. It’s just such a different feeling.
PAM: Yeah. And I think that is a place where we can all connect, too, as we’re talking about connection, is that we can each find the things that light us up and we can connect through the fact that they light us up. We can celebrate that joy, that fun. “Oh, you love that so much. I love this just as much. It’s so fun when we get a chance to do it and we don’t want to do anything else,” and conversations can go there. Connecting with our kids or our partner doesn’t mean that we have to love the thing they love as much as they do, but it means seeing how much they love that, celebrating how much they love that, supporting them to do it as much as they would like to be able to do it, all those pieces.
It really is when you can peel that apart. I don’t have to love it as much. I can celebrate that they love it that much. And then I can think about the things that I love that much. It’s just so rich. The world opens up for the family as well.
ANNA: And I think what you’ll notice very quickly is how people respond to that, how they open up more and tell you more and feel more trust and feel more seen and heard. So quickly, that will happen when you start to celebrate the things that they love and really take an interest. Again, that doesn’t mean you have to jump in and join them, but just taking an interest, whether it’s a video game or a sports thing, or a music thing or an academic thing, whatever it is, just giving that time for that connection is just so rich and important.
ANNA: All right. Thank you so much for listening, and we hope to see you next time. Take care.