Before becoming a father I assumed I would have kids who did what they were told. They wouldn’t throw food, have tantrums, hit other kids. Why? Because I wouldn’t let them. I would be firm and stand my ground. No would mean no. End of story. My assumptions were wrong of course. Kids act out even if you are firm. It’s a part of their becoming independent. And what I actually wanted out of parenting was to connect with my daughter. Not to have a perfectly obedient one. And that wasn’t so easy. I worked full time after all. Plus, how does one do that? Connect? What does it look like? All of this made me anxious. I wasn’t going to be the father I’d hoped to be.
My wife, bless her, sent me a link to Janet Lansbury’s podcast. In particular, the episode on “Setting Limits with Respect.” I have since read her books, listened to her podcasts, and I must say that her advice has transformed my parenting life. I have learned how to connect with my daughter while setting firm boundaries. And I’ve learned not to be so hung up on having a child who always does what I say. I have become a confident father.
I’ll summarize what, for me, have been the most important aspects of Janet’s philosophy (and that of RIE parenting and Magda Gerber), so you can decide if it’s something you should look into. (It is.) Be aware that the following is only an introduction to a wide-reaching parenting philosophy. I recommend going deeper into Janet’s blog/books/podcast.
Dealing with your child’s emotions
When children cry or scream or flail, we want them to stop. God, do we want them to stop. So we, naturally, distract them with toys, rush to pick them up, punish them with time outs, perhaps get angry and yell. But these strategies don’t work very well. Or, at least, Janet thinks there’s a better way. Maybe we don’t need to be so afraid of the emotions of our kids. Maybe we should allow our kids to experience the fullness of their emotions, and in turn show them that those emotions aren’t dangerous or unwelcome. That way they can learn how to handle their emotions. And isn’t this ultimately what we want?
So what does it mean to allow a child their emotional outburst? It’s fairly simple. You take a breath, acknowledge the situation out loud, then wait as they cry/scream/flail. Here’s an example of an acknowledgement: “I see that you’re upset. You wanted to touch the dog’s eye, but I won’t let you.” There are no compromises here, no apologies. You are simply confirming the child’s experience, then calmly letting the emotions run their course (sometimes reacknowledging along the way). If you need to take the kid somewhere private to have a tantrum, that’s fine. But the message to send with your demeanor is: It’s okay to have emotions around me. I’m not afraid of them.
Acknowledging my daughter’s emotions out loud often has the effect of a sedative for her (not all the time, of course). But it’s also great for my own mental well-being. I now have a plan when my kid explodes: relax, acknowledge, and wait.
Connecting with your kid
My early attempts at connecting with my daughter involved a lot of dangling toys in front of her. It didn’t feel like we were building a relationship. But how does one connect? What does that look like? Here are a few tips from Janet’s books that have helped me feel more like my daughter and I are sharing time together.
1 | Slow down
It’s nice to have certain daily events where you try and slow down. For us that’s eating, diaper changes, bathing, and when I’m sitting in her play corner. Every time I’m in one of these situations, I tell myself to slow down. No phone time, no worrying about work. No rushing to get through the activity. If it takes a while to eat dinner, so be it. Where else would I want to be?
2 | Narrate a bit, but mostly just be present
Narrating (Janet calls it Sportcasting) is another version of acknowledging where you essentially say what’s going on. “That firetruck was loud outside” or “You pushed that ball and it rolled all the way off the table.” This is meaningful talk to a baby. Sportscasting is also excellent for keeping them calm during a diaper change. Try very calmly narrating everything you do (“Now I’m going to do up these snaps”) and you might be surprised how much less they wriggle around.
3 | Watch for eye contact, don’t interrupt
A close connection can be made by being near, observing, hanging out. Sometimes that means watching her bang a metal bowl for five minutes. Every so often she will look up and make eye contact. That’s when I’ll do my narrating: “You’re really banging that thing.” But otherwise I just hang out. Kids know when you’re nearby, and that counts.
Here’s a parenting problem: Your kid throws a ball at your face, and when you tell them to stop they smile and do it again. What’s your move? Wrench it from their hands so they cry? Laugh it off and let them be the ones in control? Here’s a third option, in two steps:
1 | Talk to them like a CEO
CEOs are known for their calm, dominate energy that makes you listen and take them seriously. When setting limits for your kids this is a nice tone to take. You’re keeping the stress level down, but communicating your feelings/intentions honestly. “I won’t let you throw the ball at me. If you do it again, I’ll take it away.”
2 | Let them be mad at you
When they throw the ball again, take it away and let them be mad at you. This is being reliable and honest while still sending the message that their feelings are welcome. You told them the consequences, followed through, then you can do a bit of acknowledging of their disappointment. All in your best Richard Branson voice.
Confidence in sleep training
Teaching a toddler to sleep is an emotional experience: heartbreak, guilt, doubt, lots of doubt, frustration. All exacerbated by sleep deprivation. But, ultimately, the family needs to sleep. Mom, dad, baby, siblings. This larger truth is understood only by mom and dad, which is why they must sometimes make the difficult decision to let their baby cry in protest when they go down to sleep.
When changes are made to sleep routines (no longer falling asleep breastfeeding, no longer co-sleeping, etc.) you should inform the baby of what is going on. They understand more than you think. “You used to sleep in bed with us, but now you are sleeping in your crib.” Then, acknowledge the resulting emotion. “I see that you’re upset. You want to sleep in bed with us, but now you’re sleeping here.” This sort of communication is helpful no matter your brand of sleep training.
Parentheses: I would be remiss not to mention my personal preference: the Sleep Shuffle. After completing your bedtime routine (very important step) you essentially lay on the floor beside them while they go to sleep. You close your eyes and remain still to show them how it’s done. They cry at first, but eventually fall asleep. Each night brings a bit less crying. Three nights into the process you move a few steps away from their bed. This repeats until you are out of the room entirely. The sleep shuffle worked for us. Very well. And Janet’s reassurance that we were acting in the best interest of everyone was extremely helpful.
My take is that Janet is way inside the toddler brain. She is showing us how to build honest relationships with our kids from an inside vantage. And a big, fascinating part of her philosophy (not mentioned here) is how this can be achieved with slight changes to our language. And with lots of practice and messing up and learning.
I suggest picking out a few episodes of her podcast that interest you. You might not buy in to everything, but there are gems in there that could change really boost your confidence, dad.