We all cringe at the parent on the sidelines of the sports field screaming at their child, so invested in their success that you’d think it was their own.
We shake our heads at the stage mums on TV pushing crying children to perform and trying to convince us that it’s all for their child, not them.
We are horrified at the parents who reject their children because of their sexuality.
Such overt examples of parents projecting their own expectations and goals onto their children are easy to spot. And, hopefully, we know by now that accepting and celebrating our children for who they are, not who we want them to be, is extremely important.
But do we truly know this? And do we convey our acceptance to our children in our daily interactions with them?
If you look closely, you see everywhere people trying to change children to better meet their expectations. And we think nothing of it. It’s called ‘parenting’, and you’re classed as a good parent if you control your child and ensure they act in ways that are acceptable to you.
We do it with the very best of intentions. We want our children to grow up to be nice, likeable, respectful, courteous, helpful, well mannered, and generally ‘good’ people. And it’s totally natural to hope for this! It’s just the way we go about it is all wrong.
“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.” -Stacia Tauscher
How We Communicate Disapproval
Most people believe that it is our job to mold our children, and therefore we are constantly trying to influence them, change them, impact their personal choices, and reinforce ‘good’ behaviours. We may not be that obvious parent yelling from the sidelines, but the message still subtly slips out: please me, perform for me, be who I want you to be, act how I want you to act.
We do it when we are dismissive or critical of their feelings, needs, ideas, or decisions.
We do it when we compare them to others in an effort to influence them.
We do it when we are embarrassed by them being themselves, when we apologise to others for them.
We do it when we limit their freedom for our comfort.
We do it when we don’t allow bodily autonomy.
We do it when we dictate what they can and cannot be interested in, ridiculing them for their interest in things we deem unimportant.
We do it with our disapproving frowns.
We do it with praise and rewards.
We do it when we judge personality traits as negative and try to correct them.
We do it when we force our quiet and reserved child into uncomfortable situations hoping they will be more outgoing.
We do it when we admonish our loud extroverted children so they will be more restrained.
We do it when we shame our strong confident children into being more amenable.
We do it when we judge our shy children and pressure them to be more social.
We do it when we focus on extinguishing behaviours that displease us, instead of communicating and problem-solving together.
We do it in endless ways, some glaringly obvious, some as subtle as the tone of our voice.
What if, instead of constantly trying to shape our child into the person we think they should be, we accepted who they are today. Because they are someone today. A brilliant person worth noticing and appreciating. A unique person worthy of having their differences celebrated, not dampened.
What if we practiced a radical type of acceptance where we completely stopped trying to change them? What if, instead, we trusted that when a child is raised with love, respect, positive role modeling, and acceptance they will absolutely be a ‘good’ person.
“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” -Pam Leo
What does this mean in day to day life? ‘Should we just let children do whatever they like then?’ ‘This is what’s wrong with the world today!’ I can hear the comments already. What it means is that if you change your perspective, if you approach each situation with acceptance, then you stop seeing ‘behaviour to manage’ or ‘people to change’ and start seeing ‘needs to communicate’ and ‘feelings to empathize with’. You accept them, just as they are, and work out a way to live together joyfully.
What is Radical Acceptance in Parenting?
“Once we have detached from our expectations of how another person “should” behave and we encounter them as they really are, the acceptance we inevitably demonstrate toward them naturally induces connection.” –Dr Shefali Tsabary
When I say ‘radical acceptance’ what I mean is, as Dr Shefali described, letting go of our preconceived ideas of how our child ‘should’ behave and instead responding to them moment by moment. We let go of what society tells us children ‘should’ be, our own ideas of what a ‘good‘ child is, our biased hopes for the future adult they will become, and any labels we have attached to our children (e.g. shy, adventurous, independent, lazy, defiant, etc). We let them be exactly who they are in each and every moment, not pigeonholing them or asking them to change their innate self for us. When problems arise, instead of focusing on how they need to change for us, we concentrate on ourselves and what we can do. We empathise and communicate with them in a way that will ensure everyone’s needs are met.
Oftentimes we find ourselves challenged by our children’s behaviour, or taking their actions personally, because we worry that it is a sign of our ‘success’ as a parent. We automatically judge them negatively and feel the need to stamp out this behaviour immediately lest they grow up to be unlikable adults. But what are we really communicating when we judge and shame our children for their feelings or behaviour? Possibly that we don’t accept them as they are, that they must please us, that our love and acceptance is conditional, that appearances are more important than their feelings.
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” – Brené Brown
Your Child has a Right to be Accepted
“…it’s so crucial that, as parents, we free ourselves of the illusion that it’s our place to approve of who our children are. Who are we to judge them? They need to know that by simply being on this Earth, they have a right to approval of who they intrinsically are. We don’t confer this right on them. Just by the fact they draw breath, they have the right to speak their mind, express their feelings, and embody their spirit. Such rights are bestowed with the birth certificate.” – Dr Shefali Tsabary
We all have a right to be exactly who we are, and children are not excluded from that. One of the biggest and most pervasive beliefs in parenting is that it is our job to shape our children into a certain type of adult. But children are not ours to own, they are people in their own right, equally deserving of respect and acceptance. They do not need to do anything to earn this right. Not act how we want them to act, think how we want them to think, like what we want them to like. Acceptance is not conditional, or dependent on behaviour.
Whenever we approach a situation with the mindset that it is our job to make our children ‘behave’ in a way that will meet our (or other’s) expectations of who they should be, we will inevitably send the message that we do not accept them for who they currently are. Children have a right to express their opinions, feelings, thoughts, and needs, just like any adult, even when they are contrary to our own.
Instead, we need to move from a fixation on our own expectations for the people our children become, to an acceptance of who they are now. When we can communicate from that place, we stop focusing on changing our child’s behaviour, but instead communicating with them as a person and finding mutually beneficial solutions.
What does Radical Acceptance look like?
Children are absolutely brilliant and it is such a privilege to know them. If we are open to letting them, they can teach us so much about life and ourselves. But first, we must accept who they innately are instead of attempting to mold them into who we think they should be.
It’s not enough to simply think it, we must show it. Our children need to know within themselves that they are wholly accepted and embraced for the unique people they are. How do we do that?
1. Know your children
Before you can accept someone, you have to know them! And to get to know them you need to spend time with them. Time where you are present and tuned in. Time where you are really listening to them. Time sharing things you enjoy. Time doing ordinary and extraordinary things. Notice all the little things that make your children truly them.
2. Focus on the present
Forget about the future and creating an adult. Instead, focus on who your child is now. That’s who is standing in front of you and needing your acceptance. If we’re always worried about teaching ‘lessons’ that will serve them well as adults, we miss the people needing our attention today. This is what is worth investing in, the present moment. Get this right and the future is a nonissue anyway because you’ve spent these years building trust, connection, and respect.
3. Change your perspective and appreciate difference
Decide what really matters. Is it more important to you to have things exactly the way you want/expect them, or to respect your child’s right to individuality and communicate acceptance? So maybe your child is messier than you, maybe they have a unique clothing style you don’t understand, maybe they’d rather read a book than go hiking with you like you imagined. Does it really matter? So what if they keep their own personal belongings in disarray? That could be just the way they like it! You don’t have to understand or personally relate to someone to accept them for who they are. How disheartening would it feel to know that your parents were embarrassed or frustrated by you as a person? Change your perspective. Differences are what keep things interesting.
4. Approach problems compassionately
Instead of trying numerous parenting ‘tricks’ to get children to ‘behave’, approach situations in a more person to person manner. When we are frustrated or angry in response to someone’s behaviour it is because we have a need that is not being met. Instead of always looking for ways to control the situation, focus on listening to what your child is trying to tell you. What feelings and needs are they expressing? What are your feelings and needs? Communicate them to each other! It’s not about trying to change another person, it’s about communicating in an effective and respectful way so that everyone’s needs are met. Unfortunately, many of us are not very good at doing that! I highly recommend this book to help with it (and this article).
5. Communicate acceptance
Show your child through your actions and your words that you value and accept them. Allow them the freedom to express themselves, always listen to their perspective, show appreciation, share their joy. Let them know that you see them for who they are, that you hear them, that you understand them. Keep them safe, but don’t limit them for unfounded reasons like outdated ideas about who they ‘should’ be.
6. Know your triggers
We often fall into the trap of trying to change our children when we are triggered by their behaviour because it reminds us of something we have encountered in our past. Maybe your child’s ‘talking back’ frustrates you because as a child you felt you weren’t allowed the same freedom. Maybe you are angry when you see your child ‘bossing’ a younger sibling because you remember how frustrating that felt to you as a child. Maybe your child’s shyness is irritating because you were always praised for your outgoing personality. Whenever we have a strong negative reaction to our child’s behaviour it is wise to ask ourselves what is really going on. What am I really reacting to? What do I fear will happen here? We need to address our own feelings in order to effectively empathise with our children. If we don’t, we risk communicating that we don’t accept them just as they are.
7. Recognise the subtle ways you convey disapproval
If we want to change something, we have to know we’re doing it! In what ways are you still showing your child that you don’t accept them? Maybe you feel embarrassed by their actions, apologise for their behaviour, praise and reward them when they are ‘good’, demand that they do things to your liking, stifle their emotions, limit their choices to only ones you are comfortable with? Notice when you’re doing these things and commit to radiating acceptance instead.
“The more another person’s behavior is not in harmony with my own needs, the more I empathize with them and their needs, the more likely I am to get my own needs met.” –Marshall Rosenberg
In all situations, empathise. You can’t go wrong. Empathy is so validating and a great way to communicate acceptance.
9. Accepting yourself
If you believe that everyone deserves to be accepted for who they are, then that must include you! Learn to accept and celebrate your uniqueness. Let your children see what self-acceptance looks like.
Children have a right to be fully embraced for who they are, and they thrive when provided with this kind of acceptance. Imagine living your life with people constantly trying to change you. To mold and shape you into the vision they have for you in their minds. How frustrating that would be, and how destructive to your self worth. What a gift we could give our children by making an effort to continually convey radical acceptance for their amazing individuality.
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” -Elizabeth Gilbert