Today’s parents have high expectations for themselves and for their children. They have an image of where they want their families to be, but daily hassles make that image hard to reach. Anytime we get caught in the gap between reality and the ideal, we are easy targets for frustration and guilt.
Often, then, parents conclude that they or their children are flawed. They aren’t. Well, they are. We all are flawed. That is the nature of being human, but our flaws aren’t the source of most common parenting struggles. The struggles arise because many of our conventionally held beliefs throw hurdles and obstacles in our way.
I want to point out a powerful and stabilizing force in the fabric of family life: will. When it is out of balance, when there is a lack of will, this force drains precious energy and resources and undermines our efforts toward developing harmonious family relationships. “Oh, we’ve got plenty of will in my house,” you may be thinking.
One mother, writing publicly about her challenges, described her situation this way:
“My daughter is five-and-a-half years old going on fifteen. I get eye rolls from her on a daily basis, impatient ‘Duhs’ when I say something that is apparently just so obvious, and the insistence on having it her way… ”
It’s easy to think that an excess of will on the part of the child, his or her willfulness, is at the root of the problem. This behavior exhausts and frustrates everyone, but it isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there is empty space, matter flows in to fill it. The same happens in our families, which are, in their own way, ecosystems with their own cycles and flow of energy. In the example above, the child’s will has rushed in to fill a vacuum in the dynamics of the family. Being immature (by definition!), her will has developed in a troublesome direction.
She is not ready to fill that void.
That’s our job. We parents must fill the void with our own mature and healthy will.
Will is not power or control, although it feels like it when we are caught in power struggles with our children. Will is not the parent winning and the child losing, or vice versa. Healthy will is devoted action. Will is all about doing, about our thoughts and feelings and choices manifested in our deeds. The key is to focus on our own behavior, on what we do, and specifically, what we do to create and sustain our home life.
Home is a sacred place, one that deserves our most devoted attention. Home is more than just the place where a family lives, so much more than the split-level three-bedroom house, the apartment on the fourth floor of a crumbling subsidized walk-up, the sprawling mansion, or even the converted bus. Home is where the family is held and nourished, where the child can be relaxed and comfortable within whatever walls surround her, within her family’s embrace, and within her own skin.
A homemaker tends this sacred space. A homemaker creates and sustains harmony.
The word “homemaker” has gotten a bad rap. I am not advocating a return to the days of June Cleaver where one person, the wife, was relegated to the home. Whatever interests and careers you pursue, as a parent, you are also a homemaker. This is not about assigning gender roles. This is about infusing your home with the warmth of your conscious attention, with your actions, with your will. It is about taking time out of our frenetic lives to tend, and attend to, the living soil out of which our children grow.
I know. If you were the frustrated and harried mother quoted above, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with curbing all the backtalk, the constant demands, the “willfulness” of your child.
The crisis of will in our time is that we have slipped into thinking that talking is an adequate substitute for doing. We tell our children what to do, but we don’t do it with them. We don’t lay down a solid foundation where our own will, our devoted attention and activity, provides a model that literally carries our children while they get the hang of it. When we do not provide that foundation, the child is left to try to fill the hole. Without having had the time she needs to develop a healthy and balanced will, she fills that hole with an immature will based on wants, with whining, backtalk, and demands.
So it is not enough to treat the symptoms. We must attend to the underlying cause. For an ecosystem to be sustainable, there must be a healthy flow of energy. In a family, energy translates as will. In nature, energy begins with the sun. In the family, you are the sun. So go shine. Act.
One of the conundrums of our modern life is that adults are so busy, yet we “do” less and less. We spend more and more time driving and in front of our computers and other devices. Quite frankly, those activities just don’t qualify as “doing.” Not for children.
There just isn’t enough activity for a child to imitate, to engage with by using her body. Children don’t turn things over in their minds; they turn them over with their hands. Our children learn by playing and by imitating adult activity — often with significant overlap. Our children need to be included in doing adult things — those that involve the active making of home. Our children need to see us being devoted to doing these things.
Sharing a recreational and/or creative pursuit is part of the making of home. It doesn’t really matter what it is that you do, as long as it is something that genuinely grabs your interest and attention, involves action and can include your children. Some families are musical. Others are sporty. The list of possibilities is nearly endless: tinkering with cars, making jams and jellies from scratch, coloring together, fishing, training dogs, sewing doll clothes. Sitting is OK if and only if your hands are involved in doing something that a child could discern as an activity — typing doesn’t count, and neither does operating a video game controller. I come from a family of knitters. “We’re not addicts,” we say as we start just one more last row. My mother knitted, so my sisters and I knitted, and in turn, my son and daughter knitted. It’s just what we did, among other things. What do you do?
Besides recreation, another aspect to consider in developing the “doing-ness” of your household is how to include interaction with the natural world, which is the “home” that holds and supports each of our individual family homes. Any time in natural areas is well-spent, but there is nothing like engaging with the forces of nature, too, feeling their power and resistance. Think of the classic four elements: water, air, earth, and fire.
And, yes, last but certainly not least, chores: cooking, cleaning, and repairing. In order for your child to develop healthy will, chores need to become the object of your devotion. The key to chores is to harness your young child’s natural tendency to imitate by inviting him or her to participate in the early years. If you are truly devoted to doing chores, if you do them with care and even joy, your child will want to join you.
Tending to chores will nourish your child by showing her that the needs of the day are paramount over flights of want. Mastering those mundane daily tasks will give her a strong sense of capability and belonging within the family. Her “well-doing” gives her a sense of well-being.
Will is a powerful force. Nourish your child’s developing will by engaging your own will and being the example that guides her. When you tend to your home and fill it with your own devoted action, you will find that your expenditure of energy comes back to you while building a solid foundation for sustainable harmony.