Monday, 2 June 2014

Encouraging independence, balancing needs

Sometimes I feel like I'm not really cut out for this gentle parenting malarkey. Actually, not sometimes, most of the time.

This morning I put on a load of washing early because I knew it was going to rain in the afternoon. The morning flew by in a blur of breakfast, reading stories, watching the same episode of 'Charlie and Lola' three times etc, and before I knew it I could hear the washing machine was nearly done and Eleanor wasn't dressed.

I coaxed her upstairs and after the usual teeth-grinding ordeal of getting her to choose an outfit when she's busy climbing on her furniture, I tried to dress her. She refused. I tried a tactic I picked up from reading 'Playful Parenting' by Laurence Cohen - having a 'conversation' with one of her toys about whether we thought she could get dressed. This won her cooperation and between us we got her into a dress and top (top over the dress - her choice).

Then I asked her to choose some socks and she started playing again, so I turned to her monkey and said, "Oh Monkey, I don't think Eleanor can choose socks for herself. What's that Monkey? You think she can choose?" Eleanor dutifully chose some socks and - unprompted - started trying to put them on. She isn't normally bothered about trying to dress herself so I decided to follow her lead and let her have a go. I talked to Monkey about whether she was going to manage it, and reminded her that if she wanted help she could ask, but I said I wouldn't help unless she asked for it.

25 minutes elapsed. Still no joy getting the socks on. To her credit, she was amazingly calm and determined, when I had expected her to get frustrated sooner. Instead, I was the one getting frustrated. It was 10.30am, I was acutely aware of the wet laundry sitting in the machine when it needed to be hanging out while we still had nice weather.  I was getting stressed, even a bit panicky. So I told Eleanor that she'd had a really good try but if she hadn't managed to get her socks on in two minutes I would put them on for her. Two minutes passed, still bare feet. I picked Eleanor up, put her on my knee and tried to get her socks on. Predictably, she got cross, protested at me doing it, and kicked about. Then, something almost inexplicable happened.

I burst into tears.

Not a slight wetting of the eyelashes and wobble of the chin. All out, face-in-hands, sobbing and wailing. At first Eleanor thought I was playing, but then she started to hug me, then sat down and said, "Mummy put your socks on." (She refers to herself in second person.)

I still don't quite know why I started crying. In that moment, I felt like a failure. I'd tried my best to allow my daughter to grow in independence by getting her own socks on, but in the end I couldn't prioritise that over the washing in the machine. I'd got worked up over something silly, and when Eleanor wouldn't let me put her socks on, I reached breaking point - either I was going to yell at her, or I was going to cry. I went for crying.

I thought about other blogs I've read by far more chilled out parents than me. Parents who would happily let their toddlers dress themselves when they were much younger than Eleanor, no matter how long it took. I thought especially about a post on the wonderful Lulastic blog, which suggested that forcing clothes onto a child is a form of oppression and discrimination. I felt awful. Why don't I have the patience to let Eleanor dress herself? Am I oppressing my daughter by putting her socks on?

It seems silly now, but often with parenting it's the trivial things that get us thinking about the bigger things. I felt like I'd let Eleanor down - I'd given her a bit of freedom, then I'd taken away again when it no longer suited me. I started thinking about what I could have done to make things easier. If I'd kept a closer eye on the time I could have started getting her dressed sooner, then I wouldn't have felt so rushed. I could have taken her downstairs and let her carry on trying to get the socks on while I nipped out and hung the washing up. I could have forgotten about the washing and hung it inside later.

After the event, I explained to Eleanor that I'd got upset because, while I knew she really wanted to get her socks on, I needed to hang the washing out. I don't know if she took it in, but maybe if I'd had that conversation with her beforehand, it would have been easier. Retrospect is a wonderful thing, isn't it? And by wonderful, I mean infuriating.

It's made me realise that I need to be more organised to preempt these issues. I don't want to put Eleanor on a strict routine, but time does tend to run away with us in the morning and if I was a bit clearer on just how much TV we had time for her to watch, just how many stories we had time to read, maybe I could start the dressing stage quicker and take longer over it. And somehow, I don't know how, I need to learn to chill out.

But perhaps most of all I need to remember that my own needs matter too. Yes, in an ideal world, I'd be more organised, and I wouldn't get stressed over silly things. But this isn't an ideal world. And maybe it's better to gently intervene when Eleanor's attempts are dragging on than for her to see Mummy crying or, worse still, yelling. I'm not perfect, and there will be times when I need to choose which version of imperfect I want my daughter to see.

In the end, perhaps Eleanor enduring the 'oppression' of having her socks put on is preferable to her seeing her mother, her role model, stressed to the point of tears or shouts. I need to remember that.


  1. Hugs, gentle parenting is not easy, I try and focus on what I have managed than all the times I've raised my voice or not been as positive as I could be. It is almost as thought you have to work out what you want to say or how you want to handle things well in advance, that's a lot to do (and I rarely manage it) and it's not as instinctive as saying 'no'.

    1. Oops, thought I'd replied to this! Yes, I try to focus on the positive, but sometimes I think it's useful to think about when things went wrong and why. Getting dressed in the morning seems to be a particularly bad time for us, and recognising that helps me focus on how to change that. Of course, working out exactly what to change is another matter!

      I agree with you about it not being instinctive - when Eleanor was a baby attachment/gentle parenting felt much more instinctive whereas the challenges of toddlerhood tend to bring out the 'fight or flight' instinct in me! I have to make a much bigger effort to be gentle now than I did in the beginning.