Parents are People Too: How Taking Care of Yourself is Part of Taking Care of Your Child

Following the child does not mean ignoring ourselves.
— Simone Davies, The Montessori Toddler, 193

In the Primary classroom, we talk often about being “a bucket-filler,” which means doing or saying kind things to another person. But how often do we pause to fill up our own buckets? You cannot pour from an empty cup. A few months ago I led a seminar with a few other teachers on Positive Discipline, self-care, and Mommy and Me yoga. Most of the moms who came were probably eager to learn Positive Discipline techniques and do some downward dogs with their minis. Little did they know we were going to talk less about what to do specifically in the throes of a tantrum, and more about how our own behaviors and patterns can precipitate and/or exacerbate these events. When we take time to show up for ourselves, we are better able to show up, level-headed for our children. We are better able to respond, rather than react.

Dr. Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline training for parents and teachers includes an activity called “Top Card.” During this activity you are to imagine you receive 4 (horrible) packages:

  • Rejection/hassles,

  • Stress/pain

  • Criticism/humiliation

  • Meaninglessness/unimportance

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Of these four options, participants are to choose the one they loathe the most and would send back. Depending on which of these bothers you the most, you likely have some go-to behaviors during moments of conflict or stress. If you chose rejection and hassles your go-to behavior is pleasing. If a child is having an epic meltdown over reading four more books together and you desperately fear their rejection – you will likely do whatever is necessary to please them. If your least favorite of these options is stress and pain, you handle conflict by seeking comfort, often over solving the problem. If criticism and pain are your kryptonite you aim to control the situation or seek control over other aspects of your life to feel better. Finally, if the worst thing you can imagine feeling is meaningless or unimportant, you may often display behaviors that emphasize your superiority.

I tell you about this activity because it has almost nothing to do with the child’s behavior – and everything to do with our own. If we take the time to take care of ourselves we will be better able to reflect and recognize what our triggers are, how we typically react to a challenge, and perhaps make a more thoughtful choice in the moment. 

Taking time for ourselves looks different for every person, but here are some ideas for ways to give yourself a break:

  • Let go of being perfect. “We’re all imperfect parents and that’s perfectly okay. Tiny humans need connection not perfection” (L.R. Knost). Instead of striving to be perfect, focus on having a growth mindset. Demonstrate for your child through words and actions that you don’t know everything. There is no finish line where we’ve “made it.” We are all learning and growing every day.

  • Start and end your day mindfully. Wake up a few minutes earlier to have some quiet time and start your day off positively with intention. You can’t control the blunders that may happen, but you can control your emotions and how you react to them.

  • Make a cup of coffee or tea. I attended a Montessori Coaches training recently where the speaker, an administrator at a public school, described her struggle to fit a cup of tea into her busy daily schedule. She literally wrote it down on her to-do list and was determined to give herself a break each day. She said she got so great…at boiling water. Make the time. Have the tea.

    • Play music.

    • Exercise.

    • Go outside.

    • Spend time with friends.

  • Go slow. Being on time for anything with a toddler in tow is difficult, but every once in awhile stop rushing. Say “no” to some things so you have more time to notice the pleasures present in each moment. Bonus – if you cultivate more of a slow attitude, your little one will learn to take it more seriously when you really do need to rush!

  • Practice presence. Toddlers set a great example of being truly present every day. They delight at the appearance of a bird flitting close to them on the playground. They drop everything they are doing to alert us and gaze in wonder at an airplane. Follow them. Actively listen when someone speaks, rather than internally formulate a response. Turn off technology and practice calming your mind. Take time to pause. When we slow down we can be more objective observers and see our child’s struggles from their perspective. This allows us to be more steady, tranquil leaders for them through the difficult times.

Another activity we do in the Positive Discipline training is tell all the parents or teachers to make a fist. We instruct them to watch carefully and do as we say. We then tell them to place their fist on their cheek as we place ours on our chin. You’d be surprised how many grown adults put their fists on their chin, rather than their cheek. Children will always learn more from what we do than what we say. If we show them how important it is to take care of ourselves – they will grow up learning how to do the same.

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It Takes a Village: You're Not Alone in Times of Tantrum

The sign of great parenting is not the child’s behavior. The sign of truly great parenting is the parent’s behavior.
— Andy Smithson

I see you.

Trying to be calm, cool, and collected while pushing around a wailing 3 year old who just cannot live without that $70 Star Wars Lego set. I see you fighting back tears at drop off on move-up day as your little one gets used to a new classroom, new faces, and has to be ushered into the classroom anxious and shedding some tears himself. I see you prepping your child for the big transition leaving the playground or parting from her work, mentally preparing for possible mutiny.  

What I want to say is this: your toddler’s big emotions are not a reflection of whether your child is “good” or “bad” or the kind of parent you are. Let me say it louder for the people in the back - your toddler’s big emotions are not a result of your parenting skills.

In her book The Montessori Toddler, Simone Davies explains that “What appears to be an explosive tantrum is actually saying ‘I love you so much I feel safe to release everything that I’ve been holding onto all day.’” (9) This reminder may not make you feel better in the moment, but if we approach our child’s behavior from the stance that they lack the necessary skills to regulate their body and emotions and need guidance from us as adults, as Jean Rosenberg suggests in her article “Seeing Tantrums as Distress, Not Defiance,” we are better able to swallow our embarrassment and focus on how we can support them.

Other important reminders:

  • Stay calm. When we meet frustration with exasperation or anger, we beget more of the same instead of modeling self-control and soothing behaviors we would like our child to be able to employ.

  • Hold Boundaries. It’s okay for your child to be upset, but it is not okay for them to hit, kick, or throw things. It’s up to us to remind them of these limits.

  • Acknowledge Their Feelings. When we label feelings for our child, we give them the tools to be able to more calmly express themselves the next time, hopefully avoiding an epic meltdown. Let them feel their feelings, and make sure they know you’re close by when they are ready to talk about it.

  • Continue Communicating Unconditional Love. Let your child know you don’t care what others think when they are having a hard time. It’s important for children to express their feelings, rather than bury them. They (and you) should observe them, learn from them, and move on.

  • Allow Them Time to Process. Toddlers and preschoolers need more time than us to process directions. We can avoid conflict escalation by giving a direction once, and counting to 10 before repeating, if necessary.

  • Tag Out. When we take time to take care of ourselves and recognize our stressors we are better able to show up for our child. Make sure you keep your cup filled so you are able to fill other’s.

Every child preschool age (and often into adulthood!) is learning how to deal with disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and how to feel their feelings. You are not alone. You can work with children 9 hours a day, every day of the week, read every parenting or education book on the shelf, and be a “model” Montessori parent or teacher and still find yourself perplexed about why the child in front of you is an angel one minute and a screaming banshee the next. Parenting is hard. Teaching is hard. Both require communication, sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable, and they require us to be a team. Next time you’re having one of those days where the answer to every question you ask is “no,” or you’re wondering if what behaviors you’re experiencing at home are typical - look around. No one is judging you. Lean on each other. Lean on your teachers. Most of us have been there and can support each other in a community of solidarity. It’s important to remember none of us has all the answers, and no one is perfect.  We are stronger together. Parenting was never meant to be done alone. It takes a village.

Pretty Smart. Pretty Kind. Pretty Funny. Pretty Strong: How to Talk to Girls to Build Confidence in Their Inner Beauty

“I want to apologize to all the women
I have called pretty
Before I’ve called them intelligent or brave
I am sorry I made it sound as though
Something as simple as what you’re born with
Is the most you have to be proud of when your

Spirit has crushed mountains
From now on I will say things like
You are resilient or you are extraordinary
Not because I don’t think you’re pretty

But because you are so much more than that.
-Rupi Kaur
 

“What a pretty dress!” “You look so beautiful!!” “Look at those perfect curls.

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How often do we dish out compliments to girls based on their appearance? I do it all the time. We mean well - we want to build up their confidence. Make them feel beautiful before they enter a world of ruthless comparison. We may do it for the right reasons, but when we overemphasize looks we unintentionally send girls the message that these are the qualities that give them worth, rather than their intelligence or leadership traits. I’m not proposing we never talk about appearance but shift our flattery at least twice as often to focus on intrinsic qualities. Let’s help girls build a quiet inner confidence that is unshakeable and unbreakable. Let’s set them up for a future of strength and self-assuredness with less need for constant, superficial approval from others.

I attended a seminar recently led by Developmental Specialist, Aileen Jackman. She started off the session by asking, “Do you remember a time when someone said something to you as a child that negatively affected you?” In a room full of women every example was related to physical appearance - no comments were related to a skill, intelligence, or abilities to accomplish something. I’m guessing this experiment would have gone differently in a room full of men.

So how do we change the conversation? How do we take the focus away from looks while still ensuring girls grow up confident?

  • Focus on effort and process-oriented praise, rather than product-oriented. Make a conscious effort to balance out compliments on your little one’s looks with twice as many compliments on what she does. Point it out when you notice she worked hard to complete a task or project or came up with a creative solution to a problem.
  • Model self-acceptance.  Our most relentless critics are almost always ourselves. Next time you go to make a comment about what you look like or how much weight you want to lose - remember who is listening. Instead of making negative comments about what you look like, talk about the healthy habits you’re focusing on, like exercising or eating fruits and vegetables. Celebrate what your body is capable of. In over-complementing our children on their appearance, we may be unintentionally communicating our own insecurities. Practice more self-compassion so the inadvertent messages you send are positive ones.
  • Encourage skills and activities that are independent of appearance. Sports are a great way to build confidence around developing a skill. If your little one is more creative and interested in playing an instrument or dreaming up stories and writing, foster that. Celebrate her unique gifts and individuality so she feels accepted for who she is, not just what she looks like.
  • Provide examples of women you admire for their spirit or strength. Read books together about women who faced adversity and prevailed or accomplished amazing things to change the world. Television and social media provide a plethora of princesses, damsels in distress, and girls whose primary concern is what they look like. It’s up to us to supply examples of the qualities we want our children to value in themselves.
  • Allow your child to solve problems on her own. We don’t get self-confidence from being told what a great little girl we are or from having others solve our problems for us. Self-esteem comes when we overcome obstacles on our own, establishing a strong sense of competence. By letting our children know we are there if they need support but are not going to solve problems for them, we send the message that we know they are capable of meeting challenges themselves and don’t need rescuing.
 
 
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The difference in the way we treat girls and boys begins at a young age. Girls are typically given dolls or encouraged to play house, while we give boys Legos and blocks to build with. According to the US department of Commerce, women filled 47% of all US jobs in 2015 but only held 24% of the science, technology, engineering, and math jobs. If we begin to be more mindful about the subtle messages we send, we can start to change the script. With more thoughtful compliments our girls will grow up less concerned with what they look like and have more time to focus on everything else they bring to the world. We don’t need to stop communicating to girls they are pretty - but rather emphasize the fact that they are so much more than that.

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Casey Hardigan was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She moved to Atlanta in 2013 where she discovered her passion for teaching and Early Childhood Education. She received her Montessori teacher certification with the Pan American Montessori Society and began working at the Suzuki School as a preschool teacher. She is now the Assistant Director at the Suzuki School Ponce City Market campus.