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 | , ,


  1. I don’t know that it really counts as a principle, but I try to have natural or at least logical consequences when my kids misbehave.

    I can’t wait for your applying this to teens as I now have 2 teens, one just turned 13 and a mid teen, almost 16 yo. With the elder, I’m really conscious of how little time I have left before he’s on his own.

    I’d call that one a strategy more than a principle. It could arise from a principle like, “I will treat my children with respect.” I found that it was after my kids left home that I’d start to second-guess myself. With my parenting focus on character development, I didn’t worry too much that they’d get along with room-mates or profs, find jobs, etc. I figured I’d done all I could to give them those necessary skills. It was the technical stuff: Did I teach them how to manage their money well enough? manage their time? run a household?

    So far, it seems, so good, though only the eldest is truly on her own yet. So we’ll just have to see!

    Comment by Katherine | January 30, 2012 | Reply

  2. treat others with kindness (all of us)
    equal is not the same as fair
    what you said

    I yours. Kindness is important to me, too, and I think that’s one of mine. You second, equal and fair: I know so many parents who trip over this. I had a principal once, when I was teaching, who, having just paid $500 to give his 16-year-old driving lessons for her birthday, figured he also had to spend that much on his 14-year-old. Um, no. Why? When she’s 16, you can get her lessons, if she wants to learn to drive. And… how is that fair to the older, who certainly didn’t get anything like that for her 14th birthday? Very weird.

    Comment by My Kids Mom | January 30, 2012 | Reply

  3. Great post! It took me a while to realize this, and even then, I didn’t think through it as clearly as you just wrote it. Kids do well with rules but I learned early on that they are masters of finding loopholes! Principles are definitely the way to go.

    Comment by meesha | January 30, 2012 | Reply

  4. I love your principles. I don’t know if you realize it but you’re teaching a lot of us how to parent better. I cannot begin to tell you how many conversations with my husband have involved your blog in one way or another.
    The principle I have always lived by (and was given to me by my mother), is that “they came home to live with you. ” In other words, we all know that children turn our lives upside down and change pretty much everything but my guiding principle is to integrate them into my life, not abandon everything I once loved just because of our kids. We still see friends, we still go out on dates and on vacation and they still were great sleepers and well behaved. They learned to adjust to us as well as we adjust with them.

    Comment by Dani | January 30, 2012 | Reply

  5. Oh, we have principles up the ying yang, although probably most of them boil down to yours. Some of them seem to be:

    We are close, hands-on parents. This results in us eschewing many common “baby” items – not because we are so opposed to them in principle but because we’ve never really felt the need for them. I got the bassinet – might as well have not, since Owl ended up in the bed with me most of the time. I got the stroller, might as well have not, since Owl was in a carrier or playing on the floor most of the time.

    We are brain-centric parents. Yes, Owl’s health is important to us, as well as his safety and happiness. But HIS BRAIN is out top priority. Everything we do, from avoiding TV to carrying him in a baby carrier, is done because research says that these choices are best for his brain. When people put their baby in front of a Baby Einstein DVD, we’re shocked, not because we think it’s a terrible thing to do (it’s McDonald’s for his mind, is all) but because it’s so beyond our comprehension – we might feed him McDonald’s occasionally, but we’d NEVER RISK HIS BRAIN. We’re intellectual snobs, and if our baby’s ignoring of most of his toys for the sake of forcing us to reread books over and over is any indication, it’s catching.

    We expect to raise a well behaved and polite child. We expect Owl to say please and thank you. He is 16 months old and knows how to do both. Like you, if he bursts into tears occasionally, well, that’s too bad. You hit the dog with the flashlight so now it’s going away and you can say please all you like. Hey, let’s look at a book…

    Comment by IfByYes | February 1, 2012 | Reply

  6. Here are a few I can think of:

    1. We care about each other. So many lessons on thoughtfulness, helping, kind words, not teasing.

    2. We value trying. Effort matters. Practice and try again instead of saying I can’t. Also, don’t decide you don’t like something before you’ve even tried it. Give things a chance, or several chances.

    3. We try to have a positive attitude. Think about the good stuff. Take a deep breath. (this in response to the whining, fussing, complaining, “it’s not fair,” “that’s too hard,” “I’m bored)

    Comment by Lynn | February 2, 2012 | Reply

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