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

Reasonable Parenting

My clients are reasonable people. For fifteen years, with one or two notable exceptions, I’ve seen lots and lots of reasonable people. And these reasonable people also aspire to be reasonable parents.

“Reasonable” in the colloquial sense, in that they want to be sensible, balanced, measured, common-sense. But also “reasonable” in a more specific sense. They want to raise their child rationally. They want to be the kind of parent who has reasons for what they do, who doesn’t respond in a knee-jerk, reflexive, irrational way to childish flaws and misbehaviours. They will never be the kind of parent who says, “Because I said so, that’s why!” They want to parent with their hearts and their minds.

This is all very laudable. It is how I have always endeavored to raise my own children, how I deal with the daycare children.

This approach, however, has its weaknesses, which most of the parents I’ve seen through the years have not considered beforehand. When they run into them, they are blind-sided. How does a Reasonable Parent deal with this?

One main weakness exists entirely in the minds of the parents. It is not, in fact, a weakness in the approach at all, but rather unhelpful, unexamined — often unconscious — assumptions about Reasonable Parenting.

This weakness arises from their desire to be principled parents. Let me be clear, here: I am ALL FOR principled parenting!! Principled parenting saves you from a world of on-the-fly decisions, rules made up on the spur of the moment when there is no guiding directive to show you the way. Principled parenting provides you with that blessed clue of thread which guides you through the maze of events which are NOT IN THE RULEBOOK, DAMMIT!

Where parents can go off the rails with principled parenting, though, is in the over-application of the idea “I will never be the kind of parent who says ‘because I’m your mother, that’s why!'” In trying to avoid authoritarian parenting — inflexible, uncompassionate, rule- and ego-driven parenting — many of my clients are squeamish about any parenting ‘because I say so’s’.

You know what? Once in a while, it’s totally fine to say “Because I said so. Now do it.” Though you should always have a reason, you do not have to give it every time. It is enough that you are the parent, you treat your child respectfully, and you can expect them to acknowledge this by responding respectfully to an instruction, request, direct order. You don’t do that every time. That would be rude. But to expect, every so often, your child to ‘just do it’, based on 1) your proven track record of reasonable, respectful parenting, and 2) the fact that you are the parent… that’s reasonable.

My clients have a tendency to blur the line between Authoritarian parenting and Authoritative Parenting. There is a world of difference between the two. Authoritarian parenting is hard-line, intolerant, disrespectful of the child. “Because I said so!” is the response to any questioning, no matter how reasonable the question might be. Authoritarian parents may or may not work on principles, but when they do, they are principles which favour the parent’s will, and are unlikely to be shared with the child. Authoritative parenting, while confident, is flexible, compassionate, and respectful. An authoritative parent’s principles focus on the long-term character development of their child. An authoritative parent has rules and expectations, but can be flexible in them. A child is allowed input into parental decisions. The parent is still the authority, but it is a more co-operative, compassionate authority.

Okay, so that’s the flaw in the pre-assumptions which cause Reasonable Parents a world of difficulty. It’s okay — it’s REQUIRED — to make rules and expect the child to obey them. It’s REQUIRED to say a firm and unyielding “no” sometimes. You are not being an unkind, unloving parent when you do these things, so long as you are doing them out of parenting principles rather than a fit of pique. (Which is not to say you can’t lay down the law in accordance with your principles while you are EXASPERATED OUT OF YOUR MIND. Of course you can! You can, you will, and you must.)

The first weakness in Reasonable Parenting, then, is the assumption that it is disrespectful to the child to exert any form of parental authority. Most of my parents would immediately grasp the weakness in that assumption… but many of them stumble over it in practice anyway.

The second weakness of Reasonable Parenting does not exist solely in the parents’ unexamined assumptions. This one is a genuine problem.

Here you are, all prepped and ready to be Reasonable in your dealings with your child. You are going to be rational, measured, sensible. Your emotions will enrich your dealings with your child, but you won’t react in ill-considered emotion. (Yes, I’m kind of smiling now, too. No parent alive will achieve such a paragon of virtuous behaviour at every moment of their life. I know that, and I hope you all know that, too. No beating yourselves up for the times you fall short of pure parental perfection, okay?)

And there you go, being Reasonable with your child… and he is NOT REASONABLE BACK! In fact, she’s positively savage! Shouting, screaming, flailing. No amount of reasonable conversation is bringing him around. Your expectations are reasonable, your demeanor is reasonable, your words are reasonable, and what do you get back?


In fact, the little cretin may even be taking swings at you while s/he creates this uproar! The Reasonable Parent confronts the Anti-Rational Toddler.

Now what?

That, my friends, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.


February 14, 2011 Posted by | manners, parenting, parents, power struggle | , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

It sounded good in theory

“You don’t hit me!” William’s voice is thick with indignation. “Hitting is bad! No hitting!”

Nissa watches his frothing with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

“All right, William. You’re using your words, and that’s good, but you don’t need to shout. Nissa, did you hit William?” Nissa is young enough that she doesn’t yet lie. Ask her a question and, if she understands it, you’ll get a straight answer. Or, in this case, you get silence, which amounts to the same thing. The girl, Canadian though she is, is pleading the fifth. So, yup, she hit him, and on purpose, too.

“Hitting is wrong, Nissa,” William continues. “Hands are for hugging, not for hitting. It doesn’t matter what happens, you don’t hit.” He’s being a bit pompous, but I let him. He’s saying all the right things, though the self-righteousness is a bit thick in the air.

“Even if you’re mad at me, you don’t hit. Even if I hit you first, you don’t hit!”


“William. Did you hit Nissa?”

“Yeah, but she shouldn’t hit, no matter what!” His righteous indignation surges like a wave, propelling the inadvertant confession past his lips. Oops.

“And what about you, mister?”

His eyes widen as he realizes his error.

You know, life would be so much easier if everyone ELSE followed the rules. You could get away with anything!

December 1, 2009 Posted by | aggression, Nissa | , , | 7 Comments