Your children don’t know every single thing that you think about them. They can’t possibly. Nor would that be very useful to anyone involved. As a parent, you don’t know every single thing about your children. You can’t possibly. Nor would that be very useful to anyone involved.
However, it can be very helpful to approach what you already do (and will) know with a certain type of respect. It’s a respect for your children’s uniqueness, their idiosyncracies, and their amazing strengths and lamentable challenges. It’s about recognizing and honoring the fundamental aspects of their being human. Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, known, in part, for their tremendously insightful and compassionate book on mindful parenting, Everyday Blessings, discuss this kind of respect called sovereignty.
What Sovereignty Is Not
Sovereignty can sometimes be mistaken for giving in, being too lax and permissive, being weak, or simply being misguided in your parenting philosophy.
But sovereignty isn’t about letting your children do whatever they want just because. It isn’t about compromising your values as a parent. And it isn’t about letting your children steam-roll over you because you are supposed to “respect” everything and anything they do or say.
When you grant your children this deep respect, you are not bestowing upon your children ultimate entitlement. Entitlement comes more from constantly invalidating your children’s humanity or from spoiling your children, regaling them with unnecessary physical gifts (especially without gratitude attached to it), or praising them without any specific behavior in mind that you are attempting to shape.
Actual sovereignty, however, is more about conveying a deep respect for who your child is, warts and all. In that sense, it’s completely unconditional, with no strings attached.
The Difficulty with Sovereignty
Granting your children this sovereignty at any given time is no small feat. Truly honoring your children for their innate goodness and beauty can be very tough when they are throwing pots and pans at the wall in the midst of a tantrum, calling you horrible names when you deny them a trip to the mall with friends, or proverbially spitting in your face despite all the help you are trying to give them. Furthermore, although often tough to admit, you may not actually like everything your children are becoming.
It is Ok to not like every single nuance of your children’s being. You too are human. And yet you can consider how you convey these sentiments to your children. Disliking the behavior while still validating the person behind the behavior can be extremely challenging but quite necessary. So, we can choose our words and gestures carefully. We can take a breath in that very moment we are compelled to say something we might regret. We can reflect with honesty, on our own time, and in less heated moments how we want to relate to our children and what messages we want them to absorb and ultimately come to believe as truth about themselves later in life.
The Dangers of Not Granting Sovereignty
With the best of intentions, parents often try to shape their children’s behaviors to conform to familial or cultural standards. This can be honorable and part of your role as a parent. And it truly may be part of larger cultural, spiritual, or religious belief systems. At the same time, there are inherent and often subtle dangers in not granting your children true sovereignty. You may get swept along in shaping your children’s behaviors and accidentally begin to convey to them that who they are as people needs to change, that their uniqueness needs to be stamped out and traded for some more conventional mold. Or you may end up subtly conveying to them that they need to be more like you, like a sibling, or like the “All-American” child down the street.
When this process starts to happen, consider stepping back and trying very hard to gain an outsider perspective on the situation. In fact, a potentially useful exercise, devised by Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, may be imagining your children as fully-grown adults having dinner with some friends. They are all discussing their childhoods and what issues have lingered between them and their parents. What would your children say about you and your relationship with them? What would you hope and dream for them to say, feel, and believe? It is this kind of birds-eye perspective and future-oriented thought experiment that can be so useful in re-orienting toward what is truly meaningful and how we really want our children to develop.
The Benefits of Granting Sovereignty
Think again for a moment about what kind of adults you dream your children will become. Happy? Self-assured? Self-confident? Self-reliant? Happily partnered with someone they deeply love and who deeply loves them? I know I would give anything for my own daughter to live in such fulfilled ways.
When you grant sovereignty, you are actually making these things more likely to show up in your children’s lives. Because you are validating your children for exactly who they are, they learn in a very deep way that they can be themselves without having to change fundamental aspects of their beings to suit someone else’s needs. They grow up less conflicted about what they “should” or “shouldn’t” be and how they are supposed to match their behaviors and dreams with some other set of standards. They can orient toward personal growth more comfortably because they already have a firm foundation from which to blossom.
3 Tips on How to Grant Sovereignty
How do we do the hard work of granting our children sovereignty? And it is hard work, so please be kind and patient with yourself and with your children as you might try to implement such an approach.
1) Begin with your own reflections on how sovereignty may have been granted to you as a child. This may be an emotionally difficult exercise, and if it proves to be quite challenging or painful, take care of yourself and back off. You don’t have to be your own therapist here. Rather, you are simply taking some moments to reflect on (or talk with a trusted friend or partner) about being deeply respected for who you were and what impact this may have had on your “personhood” development. Always consider seeking professional help if there are unresolved issues that are causing undue distress on you or your parenting.
2) Consider how you would like to be with your children. What messages do you want to convey to them, either through verbal and non-verbal communication or which activities/hobbies you end up encouraging. Are you insisting that they play baseball just because you did? Are you listening deeply to their inner desires and dreams and validating these? (This does not mean, by the way, that you have to buy them everything they dream about or sign them up for everything they desire to do.) However, this can mean that you are truly getting to know what your children’s inner experiences are about as they more outwardly express their wishes, dreams, and even darker thoughts.
3) Finally, put this hard “inner” work into action. Intentionally bring this attitude of sovereignty into some of your daily interactions (see below) and notice how it feels to you. Notice if your children seem to respond in certain ways to your validating their true personhood. These opportunities may arise when playing with them, when driving them to a friend’s house, when saying good night, and when listening to their struggles.
a. You may respond to your teen’s frustration with you, “So that’s the way you have been feeling about me. I didn’t really know that before. But I hear what you’re saying.”
b. You may be playing with your preschooler and say, “Wow, you are really excited about becoming a firefighter! What a cool job to have. What would you love most about it?”
c. You may lament with your 10 year old, “Yeah, it sounds so hard to feel such intense feelings. I have felt similar things, but I really don’t know exactly what it’s like for you. What has it been like for you?”
d. You may choose to let your children know directly about their sovereignty with something like, “You know, even though there are actions you do that I tell you to stop or change, I always deeply love you as a person and as my daughter/son. You are always a good human being underneath all of your actions.”
When you get a moment, check out Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s exercises for mindful parenting.
I wish you all the best in your endeavors for granting your children sovereignty and being their strongest advocates for developing authentic and positive personhood.