It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Parenting by Principles

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Mary. (Okay, so she wasn’t really named Mary, but that’s how you know her.) Mary was in hospital, having just given birth to her first child, a darling, perfect baby girl. She was exhausted, but full of the euphoria that comes after birth — in part relief that the work of labour is over, for sure, but also overflowing joy.

There was my baby. My baby. I had made my very own baby, and there she was!!!!!

I gazed at her in awe and wonder and joy as she lay there, swaddled, the little baby burrito the midwife had handed me, all pink and clean after her very first bath. (The baby’s, not the midwife’s.)

And then, my baby stirred. Her shoulders shifted, her legs lifted off the mattress. Her head twisted from side to side, and her face, formerly pink and solemn, her face darkened a bit, her lips curled. I watched this, and my stomach tightened at the impact of the cold, hard punch of fear. Might even have been terror.

My baby! My baby was about to cry! My baby was about to cry, and I didn’t know what to do.

But! But! Here’s where fear might even have evolved into terror: I was THE MOTHER. I was supposed to know what to do! I was going to be THE MOTHER from here on in. There was no backup. I couldn’t hand it over to my mother. I.Was.It.

My very first parental reality check. It’s not Pink Puffy Hearts forever.


You learn as you go, don’t you? I cooed at her and jiggled her, and she immediately relaxed back into calm. (Yes, that’s right. My first parental panic attack was over a total non-event. Don’t worry! Three weeks later, she developed colic. I paid my dues…)

A lot of the time, particularly at first, you feel like you’re faking it. I jiggled that baby, because that was what real mothers did, but I wasn’t feeling like a ‘real’ mother yet. It comes with time and experience.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s far more effective to parent from principles than rules. Of course, you will have rules. Oh me, oh my, will you have rules! You will have rules for things you never considered needed rules.

“Do not jump off the couch onto your baby brother.”
“Milk does NOT go down the heat vent.”
“We never shove raisins up the dog’s nose!”
“You do not put toys in your diaper.”
“Don’t throw things into the ceiling fan!”

I learned in teacher’s college — very useful for parenting, too — to phrase instructions as positives, not negatives. So, rather than “NO RUNNING IN THE HALLS!!!!” you get, “WALK, people. We WALK in the halls.” So all those rules, above, have a positive — and better — form.

“Be careful of your baby brother.”
“Milk stays at the table.”
“Raisins are for eating.”
“Diapers are for poo and pee, not toys. Toys stay on the floor.”
“Toys stay on the floor.”

But, though rules are inevitable, parenting is not about rules. It can sure feel that way, some days, I know, but really, parenting is about forming worthwhile human beings, creating adults that other adults will like working with, relating to, hanging out with. For that, you need principles, not rules. Eventually, those children are going to have to learn how to behave without your constant input. They need to internalize principles, not memorize an incredibly long and random list of rules.

When you get into the habit of expressing rules as positives, it becomes easier to see the principles behind the rules. When “DON’T JUMP ON THE BABY!!!” becomes “We are gentle with the baby”, the offending child begins to learn that the point is not “not jumping”, the point is “I am big, the baby is little. Big people take care of little people”. And then he/she can see all the positive things that can be done with a baby. We can hug him, we can roll a ball to him, we can clap hands and laugh with him…

Think of all the rules that can be gathered together under the principle: “In this house, bigger people take care of littler people”. All those “don’t”s that are included in that one, big “do”. And your bigger child can begin to learn to evaluate his/her actions in light of this principle. “Am I taking care of baby brother when I do X?” By giving your child a principle, rather than rule number forty-gazillion, you are giving him/her control in a very meaningful way.

So it is with parenting. If you parent from principles, you parent more effectively. More efficiently. You aren’t responding to everything by the seat of your pants, coming up with more and yet more rules for yourself. Principles are personal things. Though many parents will share some foundational principles, not everyone parents from the same set, and I doubt any two parents have identical lists of principles.

Oddly, even though they are so very important, most people are largely unaware of their presuppositions. You often don’t become aware of a principle until you bump into someone who doesn’t share it. You’re surprised when you discover something you think is fundamental is not shared by another parent. That fundamental thing is so obvious to you, you simply hadn’t realized it wasn’t universal.(We hope, for all your sakes, this other parent isn’t your child’s other parent…)

Becoming aware of your guiding principles, then, isn’t always easy. It takes some digging, some introspection.

Here are some of my principles:

We’re raising adults, not children.
It’s impossible to be a good parent without making your child cry once in a while.
I am the boss.*

Is that all of them? I suspect not, but it might be! If your principles are foundational, there needn’t be many of them.

Lots can be said about each of mine, of course. The adults, not children principle helps me gauge present behaviour: is this behaviour going to be truly obnoxious in twenty years? If yes, better deal with it now, no matter how cute it is in the 18-month-old in front of me. If no, I can let it go.

The crying one does not mean that I set out to make my child cry! Of course not. What it does mean is that when I think something is necessary (adequate sleep, good nutrition, wearing snowsuits when it’s twenty below, not attending a poorly supervised, mixed-gender sleepover at 14), I am not going to let the child’s tears deter me.

Each of those principles covers thousands of rules. Each of those principles lets me respond to a wide range of events without feeling that panicked, “NOW what do I do?!” feeling.

Principles. So useful. They save you so much worry and fretting!

So, how about you? What are your parenting principles?

*Another post forthcoming on this principle vis a vis teenagers.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | parenting | , , | 6 Comments