Parenting with Radical Acceptance
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
I find it hard to find that balance and ability to let every one be who they are because some children are born demanding and bossy which cripple the younger more tender hearted children. in your last paragraph 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.
This was the normal and this is how it was done when many of us were children. There was no other way so many followed the “correct way” of raising children. We didn’t know there was another way and our self esteem was low so we didn’t consider changing a ” sure tried and true ” way of caring for children. Society demanded that our children acted in certain ways. As far as doing as they wish I feel we need to keep children safe from themselves and others. Being bossy demanding and always right isn’t a good feeling either because people do not enjoy being around that type of person and that person then get poor self esteem. So is seems there is not really an easy way to parent, the worst is you do not know who your child will become until they have grown up and are who they want to be and what if they become intolerable or dislike you for not guiding them and teaching them to get along with others? When children are young is the best time of a mums life when they still appreciate you and love you. I do wish there were do overs so after the children grow up and wish the parent had done thing different we could go back and do it their way to see if they like the outcome better. I know someone who told her children, there were lots of things her mum did wrong, she thought it was right, it wasn’t. So I’m doing my best and when you grow up I may have also messed up in ways I may never know. Children need guidance and love, cared for and help to become respectable citizens. Children need to be told what is expected, they do not know how others feel and tend to care about them selves and do not have time to consider how others feel.
This is pretty much what I’m talking about. Instead of labelling children as things like “bossy, demanding, and always right” and trying to change their personality, we can focus on OUR responses. Communicating to them how we feel and what we need. In that way they learn how to get along with others by gaining a greater understanding of how their actions affect them, instead of just receiving the message that they need to be less of themselves. We can celebrate them and accept them while also maintaining our personal boundaries. Does that make sense?
I wish you could have been in my bedroom on Sunday afternoon. I was upset and crying, my 3 year-old daughter came to me, she cuddled me, held my hand and physically wiped away my tears. She sat with me like this for at least 10 minutes. These are not the actions of a selfish person! She knew something was wrong, that I was sad and she knew how to respond in that situation. Sadly, it seems that you underestimate children. My mother had 3 children of her own and cared for many others as a childminder, but she knows very little about me as a person, by her own admission I am a mystery to her she can’t ‘read’ me. But that’s the point, you don’t get to know someone by ‘reading’ them, you do so by communicating with them and listening (something she was never very good at). Caring for a lot of children does not make you an expert, every child is their own person and therefore completely different to any other child. They are just little humans after all.
No, I have 4 children of my own and have taken care of hundreds of children, And I am here to say communicating how we feel or what we need does not matter to them, they only care how they feel want they want and do not learn how to get along with others. They still want what they want and want it now. How does changing my response change a child that refused to listen or allow anyone else to enjoy materials because they hoard them all or make their own choices because they want to control all situations and tell every one what to do and how to do it. If we let our children be who ever they want and do what they want how does this sentence fit in. We can celebrate them and accept them while also maintaining our personal boundaries. What boundaries? I do not see any. If we allow children act any way they want and celebrate everything about them, they will grow up to believe they are perfect and the rest of the world needs to change so they can be happy fulfilled. They will claim that life is unfair, and have feeling of anger toward others.
I don’t believe that’s so and I have a much higher opinion of children and their intentions.
The book I mentioned, ‘Nonviolent Communication’, is a good read for exactly how to communicate your feelings/needs/boundaries.
You are wonderful Sara 🙂
Your work and writing help my family so much! I appreciate your way of parenting and my husband and I read your articles all the time! 🙂 If everyone saw children through your eyes, the world would be a more connected, softer, and safe place. I can’t thank you enough for your life work and what you share!
Thank you Marlana ♥
Oh thanks Hannah ♥
I read a book once called The Child Whisperer by Carol Tuttle, and while I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in the book, I loved how she focused on the positive side of every trait, showing that, for instance, a “bossy” child (which is not an honoring label) may also be a great leader if she is accepted and encouraged and guided with love. My daughter is this way as well, and if I hear her “bossing” her friends or brother around, I usually remind her that they have their choice as well. I ask her if she likes being told what to do (which of course she doesn’t), so then I remind her that no one else likes that either and they can choose for themselves. She has lots of wonderful ideas, and she can make suggestions but then everyone involved can find something that everyone is happy with. Guidance and modeling problem-solving, with love and acceptance, are all they really need. Acceptance doesn’t mean never guiding their understanding and behavior and teaching conflict resolution, or even never setting limits/boundaries. It means shifting our mindset and seeing them for who they are and focusing on our *relationship* with them as a person. In this way, everyone’s needs can be met and rights protected. ❤
I’ve read Dr. Shelfali’s conscious parenting books and they challenge me each day to be present. I love reading your blog posts as I am a homeschooling parent of two young girls, you help me see the potential and joy! Thank you for taking the time to do it and sharing!
Oh thank you ♥
And I thought I’d mention for anyone else who reads this, I liked half of that book but definitely did not agree when it got to the ‘discipline’ section :/
Please could you clarify- are you talking about Dr. Shefali’s book and would you mind please explaining what your thoughts were about the discipline section? thanks so much.
This is such an important issue and so difficult to practice all the time! I was brought up in a house where we were encouraged not to show too much emotion because ‘other people don’t want to hear your crying/whining’ and we were definitely expected to perform for the grown ups by showing what good manners we had.
I try not to let this influence my own parenting, as I see even now how much my need to please gets in the way of expressing myself. I think I manage fairly well at home, but I still struggle in public situations where I feel people are watching and judging my parenting. I feel most people expect a mother to intervene or apologise if her child is too noisy or confident, or to encourage her shy child to join in. Also to quiet a crying or frustrated child as it is seen to be inappropriate in public. The temptation is to explain it away or talk over my child’s head to the adult explaining ‘she’s tired’ or ‘she’s not usually like this’. But I am starting to hold my tongue. I do not need to explain away my child’s behaviour. It’s how they feel and how they are. Thank you for reminding me to stick with it even in the face of disapproval from others.
I really relate!! ♥
Love this x
Thank you 🙂
I love your posts and I actually read alot of them to remind me how I want to parent. I have adopted the ” I am the model of behavior” here and I can definitely see myself in my child. My only problem is the TV. My son will wake up and want to watch it alllllll day. I get it, he enjoys it. But I feel like all day is harmful. I respect his wish to watch it but i’d really love for him to want to do other things also. But then again maybe just let him binge watch until he gets tired of it. Not sure
This might be helpful? https://forageforge.com/2015/11/28/but-wont-they-just-watch-tv-all-day/
I love the post! One of the examples you used sparked some curiosity:
Do you have any ideas of how to respond in the case of an older child directing a younger one often?
With unschooling, it’s important for all children to feel free to follow their own true interests without feeling pressured by others in their own learning journey. Younger children have fewer resources in this regard to deal with this pressure, so it appears to me that they would need our advocacy if they were being overly directed. But I also do not want to make the older child feel as if it is wrong to be a leader.
How would you respond to this situation?
Thank you for the insights 🙂
This happens here as well 🙂 I gently remind them that everyone learns in their own time and we need to give them space to be able to do that. We talk about how good it feels when you accomplish something all on your own and how we would like to protect that for the younger kids too.
We’re also always having ongoing conversations about consent and checking everyone is happy to participate in whatever is happening 🙂
Thank you for the answer! That makes lots of sense. It feels like such a conflict in the moment, until you realize that you don’t have to take sides; you’re on everybody’s side 🙂 As always, love your wisdom, and thanks for sharing it!
Hi Sara. Although I do enjoy all of your posts I have to say I kind of agree with the first comment, raising children to believe that “their way” is always the best way is not really real life and doesn’t equip them with the tools they need to survive in this world. Sure it might work while they are small but in all fairness you haven’t raised a teenager yet and believe me this approach gets a lot more difficult as your child gets older because you have already set the standard for them when they were young. If you are not careful you could end up raising a very self involved self centered human being with no thought or consideration for others. This is one of my main concerns as a mother, I really do try to raise my children with love and compassion towards others and I really couldn’t allow them to upset another person just to get what they want.. but I do totally agree that you have to model the person you want your child to be!
Otherwise you have my respect as someone who can deal with each of your children on an individual basis and give each of them exactly what they need when they need it, wow that takes a lot of patience and a lot of hard work.
Thank you x
I think you misunderstand. No one said allowing them to treat others disrespectfully or teaching them their way is the only way. When you’re faced with a situation in which you are unhappy with how you are being treated instead of making it about trying to force them to change, you just approach it from a different perspective. Of what YOU can do and how you communicate your feelings and needs. The book I mentioned is fab at explaining how in detail 🙂
Thank you for reading.
Thank you for listening.
Thank you for observing.
Thank you for processing.
Thank you for writing.
Thank you for sharing.
You are a light in my motherhood days at home with a 7 and 9 year old. I will be thinking a lot about all you’ve written here in my days going forward. Please continue to share your thoughts. They are so needed in today’s world.
That makes me so happy ♥
I love this. I have been really trying to understand radical unschooling and it’s making more sense every time I read something new. Now, to actually live it. I feel like this is me most of the time, but I easily fall back into old patterns. I have also noticed that I get frustrated when I let my kids push my buttons and I feel like I don’ t know how to correctly handle the situation or I don’t have the patience to handle it so I start “telling” them how things are going to go. As the words are coming out of my mouth I get so angry with myself. My biggest triggers are my children’s behavior towards one another. I feel like I handle those situations with empathy, trying to understand what has taken place and why. But not always. I have a 7,6 and 2 year old sons and a 3 year old daughter. The days can get pretty chaotic but there are wonderful moments as well. I feel like because I am trying to do “school”, that takes up a lot of my time that I could be engaging with them and probably heading off a lot of that behavior. I love your posts and I feel like it is essential in my parenting journey that I make these changes. My children are my world and if there has ever been a time when I have done anything but uplift them, I want to change that now. Also, I just want to understand if there is a difference between radical parenting and permissive parenting? Because as I understand, there is.
I hear you. It’s not easy! But intention is more important than perfection. As long as you keep trying, then you’re on the right path ♥
Absolutely, respectful parenting is not permissive parenting. More info here: https://happinessishereblog.com/2016/11/what-is-respectful-parenting/
Love this post, thankyou! very helpful for me right now. Trying to be present for myself is hard and realising how important it is for me to be present to my girls is a challenge I am finding very difficult at the moment but I know it is what is going to change things in our lives…it is soo important! funny, I just ordered the non violent communication book to help me and here it has come up in your post. you have inspired me with your words yet again.
Could we, please, talk about it. I have always wanted to be a parent which child will play like the one in the above picture – lying in the mud. This moments are most precious. Then it comes to me – how the day out would continue if the child is all wet? I usually bring with me a backpack with clothes, sometimes I also bring another pair of shoes. But what if the case is I don’t have that preparation? Do you stop the child from playing in the mud, talk to him that could do it later (on the way home), or talk to him to do it other time?
I didn’t have spare clothes this time. She just wore a nappy home 🙂
Often my older kids will ask me if I have spare clothes when we’re out if they want to get wet. If I say no they usually wait until just before we are about to leave to play in the water so they don’t have to stay in wet clothes for long.
At what point when they are having a melt down in a supermarket do you explain this is not acceptable? When we are at the grandparents for dinner and eating with their hands again, I’ve already asked them to use a fork at least 5 times and the grandparents are getting angry. There has to be a balance. Children don’t know what’s expected of them yet. My husband and I have a rule of 5, 5 arguments worth having with our children a day so we pick them carefully. 1wee in the toilet, 2 bedtime 3 being kind to each other…. the other 2 are open to whatever happens and are hopefully unused. I agree we need to accept children as they are but they also need guidance to show the world appropriately who they are.
Thank you for your blog. I have a very spirited little girl and find it super tough sometimes to accept her. Its good to have another reminder because I find myself in old patterns at times. Do you have any articles on kids who are very sensitive? Thanks
It’s really hard to understand this without seeing examples. A lot of examples of what this looks like in practice would be much more helpful than a lot of theory. I hope it gets added someday, because it could really help a lot of parents.
I have a beautiful 6 year old daughter who is very wild. I love that she is so free, and has so much energy, and she frequently acts on her impulse without listening or tuning into the environment around her. She wants to jump and climb in friends’ houses and public places. How do I convey the needs of the environment and setting while also maintaining radical acceptance? Now I ask her to calm down and communicate why, but when she’s in this state she has a hard time listening, and seems to enjoy the rebellion, so me asking her to stop only fuels her fire. Would love some feedback if someone wishes to respond 🙂
I love articles like this however I wish there were more examples on what to say to your child.
I have a two year old who whinges and whines most of the day. She never seems happy in her own company and generally wont say what she needs. Its always a whine.
I know there are connection issues but HOW do I manage this without getting angry?
I’ve been searching and searching
Please help xx
Great post, thanks very much. I would like to practice this acceptance with my future children.
How I wish that someone had helped me with this parenting advice when I was a young and inexperienced parent years ago. I have found by default that I behave this way now with my adult daughter who responds in a difficult way due to our old fashioned parenting. I hope that she is a more collaborative parent than I was.
Thank you so much, this is incredible & exactly how I’ve felt for a few years now. My boys are 24, 17 & 9. I’ve stepped out of the mould society pressures us all to be in, many times. My eldest has cerebral palsy & my other 2 boys have some academic learning difficulties. So i made the decision to change how I did things to accept them fully for who they are & not change them, mold them for society or myself. I just wish I’d done it sooner, & more fully….I just didn’t really know how or notice the subtle things I was doing until a few years ago.
So thank you for this, it has helped a lot.
I also think this way of living makes us all a lot less judgemental of others…..our own family, friends, but also everyone we see, meet, etc. I think there’s far too much judging of others…..looks, beliefs, opinions, behaviours, etc, etc. Accepting our own children for who they are can help towards society accepting each other.