Whether you realize you’re doing it or not, you’re sending your children messages, constantly. They’re internalizing the information that you surround them with, the things that they hear most from you and from others people they interact with. Whether it’s at home, at school, or at the fencing club. That information and those messages are sometimes verbal, and sometimes they aren’t, but they are always heard.
The toughest part is figuring out not only the right messages to send to your kids, and it’s just not just how to communicate those messages, it’s also in decoding which messages you’re sending without even realizing it. For me personally, thinking about this subject has helped me to make some positive changes in my own parenting, because I was inadvertently sending some messages that I didn’t realize I was sending.
The accident of parenting
Parenting just kind of happens, right? You start off with this little crying infant who needs comfort, a clean bottom, and food. (Or two infants at once in our case!). It’s chaos in those first few months, and you’re running mostly on instinct without thinking too much about it. Then before you know it they’re ten and holding a fencing sword. With that new independence, now you’ve got more space to analyze, and hopefully not over analyze, the world you’re shaping for them.
Make no mistake – parenting is powerful. You are not replaceable. You are not just the weekend chauffeur and the payer of fencing tournament bills. You are the whole world for your kids, even as they are older and more independent.
Not long ago I read about a survey of elementary school kids, eleven and under. When they were asked what they wanted most from their parents, they said they wanted the following three things:
- Attention, especially one-on-one attention
- Rules, even though they resisted them sometimes
- Safety, so that they could feel less out of control
- Routine, both family rituals like bedtime and regular activities
I look at those answers and I think, wow, that’s really true in my own life. If I imagined what my own kids would answer, I could absolutely see these responses. What kids want and need are consistent, holistic messages that they are loved and supported by their parents.
Even though you start off as parenting by instinct, you intuitively fulfill these four things, right? That little baby gets lots of one-on-one attention. They get rules in the form burping and diaper changes, which they might fight against when they happen but then they learn that it’s better if they do what mom and dad are trying to get them to do. We obviously offer them safety. They get that routine of feeding, changing, cuddling, then sleeping.
The message that those little babies are getting is that their parents are there to give them what they need, and that they are supported and loved.
Parenting on purpose
Now is where things start to get a little wonky. It’s not quite as clear what to do with those kids as they get older and start to assert their independence. They buck those rules harder, they have needs and demands that don’t seem so clear anymore. Where you kind of had it figured out with those little babies, now that first grader or that middle schooler isn’t so easy to decode. That also means that your messages aren’t as clear as they were before, it’s more complicated right?
The thing is, you’re still sending those kids messages.
When you encourage them to do their homework, you’re sending a message that academics are important. When you take them to a barbecue with a family friend, you’re sending a message that you approve of these people and how they live. When you make time for a board game night every single week, you’re sending a message that family time is valuable. When you groan (we all do it sometimes) about driving that long way to a fencing competition, you’re also sending a message.
Whatever it is that you’re doing with those kids, from the groceries you buy to what time you get them to the fencing club, it’s all creating a world for them. They are making sense of the things that you do, they are becoming who they are because of the messages you send to them. All the time, and most often when you aren’t thinking about what messages you’re sending to them.
This is where parenting on purpose comes in. It’s not about guilting yourself, goodness knows we parents don’t need anymore guilt. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to raise perfectly amazing children. It’s about checking in with yourself. Most likely you’re going to find that you’re sending mostly the messages that you want to send, but sometimes you’re going to find that you’re sending messages you didn’t mean to send.
Here’s an example. Say you push really hard to get your child with the right fencing coach. You’ve asked around, you’ve done your diligence finding who would be the best fit. You get them into the class and get them private lessons with this coach. But it turns out that the class is right up against an activity of their sibling across town, so every lesson you are five minutes late. On the way, you’re stuck in traffic and frustrated, everyone is in a tough mood when you get there and your young fencer is no longer enjoying fencing as much.
What you did was to send the good and intentional message that your child needed to have the right fencing coach for their progress. But then unintentionally you are sending the message that fencing is a struggle and a frustration. The child can’t tease out that its the timing that’s the problem and not the fencing, the only message they get is that mom is frustrated every time the ride to fencing class.
Many fencers are stoic children, then are the kinds of kids who don’t complain so much and try to please their parents. Your child is getting these mixed messages now about fencing, and they can feel like they are the problem, that this thing they are passionate about is the problem.
Now here’s the trick. The trick is to parent on purpose here, to realize that your child is getting this message. Not to guilt yourself about it. Think about the message you want to send to your child, and look for a solution that sends the message you want. It might be a carpool, or juggling the other child’s activity. You might have an older child who drives that could drop them off, or another family member, or use safe kids transportation service. What you want to send as a message is that fencing is important and enjoyable, but also that we might have to mold in order to make life work if we want things.
Get direct – talk it out
This might sound like off the wall advice, because of course we talk to our kids right? But oftentimes I catch myself just letting things roll past me without directly addressing it with kids. I assume they get the gist of it without explicitly asking them what they understand to be going on. It’s something that I think lots of other parents do too.
For instance, if a ref makes what’s clearly an unfair call against my child at a fencing tournament, but the match ends up going my child’s way anyway, the easy thing to do is to just ignore it and let everything keep going. However by not talking about it, I’m sending my child a message. Silence is a message! When something like that happens, it’s always good to acknowledge it to your child. It might be as simple as “Wow, that was a tough call by the ref but you held it together anyway!” This explicitly tells your child that it’s important to control your emotions, and that kind of directness is greatly appreciated by kids.
Most of life isn’t the big moments. Most of it isn’t the podium wins or the devastating losses. We live in the inbetween stages, and that’s where you’re sending your child most of the messages that they’re getting. Those near misses or quietly hardworking times are critical to raising kids who are capable and resilient. Engaging with your kids about those times ensures that you’re sending the messages you want to send.
A wonderful thing to do with your kids, especially as they get busy with fencing and other activities, is to ask them directly what messages they’re getting from you. “What do you think I like most about your fencing? How important do you think you being a fencer is to me?” You might be surprised at the answers that you get. Your child might get the message that you think fencing is important so that they can get a scholarship to college or so that they can win medals. Those things might be on your radar, but you’re likely encouraging them to fence so that they can be fulfilled and grow!
In the end, open communication is important in all relationships. Children are both very much like adults and also totally different. We all still want the same things though – honesty and love from the people in our lives. Whether that’s in the fencing club or at home.