To begin with I need to acknowledge that the term parental swagger comes from my wise and dear friend, author and psychologist Dr Vanessa Lapointe. Put simply, swagger means having the confidence and in-charge energy to be the parent that your child needs, regardless of their age.
Author and family therapist Susan Stiffelman uses the metaphor of being ‘captain of the ship’ in her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles. Both of these terms make perfect sense when we are raising children. However, given the changing paradigms of parenting, from the punitive, shame-based styles of the last century, to the more respectful, connected parenting of today, many parents are feeling confused.
The science of child development shows very clearly that having a strong attachment to a significant key caregiver is the fundamental building block to raising healthy children to become healthy adults.
The dream vs the reality of parenting
Before a parent becomes a parent, we can dream of holding a sleeping baby in our arms, or opening special birthday gifts on the child’s birthday, sharing memories and rituals that fill the heart with joy. For many of us, including me, having my first baby was a pretty rude awakening! My firstborn was – like so many firstborns – my guinea pig for learning about everything from breastfeeding, cloth nappies and especially how to settle them and get them to sleep! By about five months of broken poor sleep, I was a pretty crabby mother and felt I was failing desperately. Despite truckloads of advice from well-meaning women, I finally worked out what worked for my little son, and things improved.
Then toddlerhood arrived! No one really prepares you for that. Whether it’s explosive poos, the random climbing, the sensory exploration of everything from tomato sauce to face cream to kangaroo poo, it really is a time of unpredictability, mess and often noisy experiences.
I clearly remember the day I asked my 20-month-old son to take a towel to the laundry for me so that he could be more helpful. At the time I had no concept of the depth of understanding that a child of that age could have because he wasn’t using many words verbally. To my surprise a couple of hours later I noticed the towel was in the laundry! From that moment I realised that little ones are often a lot smarter than we give them credit for and that they deserved to be heard, respected and given opportunities to have agency and autonomy. From then on, I spoke to all my lads as I would speak to my best girlfriends – warmly and as though they could understand.
When I needed to step forward with swagger, when one of my lads was hurting one of his brothers, or pushing a boundary that was important in our family, my voice changed very noticeably!
They knew that whatever they were choosing to do in that moment was not okay.
Being firm did not need me to hurt or harm my boys to teach them what was right or wrong.
This was the absolute opposite to how I had been parented and it did take me some therapy and personal growth work to be able to make a different choice in those ‘hot’ moments. I also learned to not sweat the small stuff so I did not use that strong voice very often!
Gentle parenting doesn’t mean cushioning kids
Many parents have expressed to me how modern parenting messages about being more gentle and very attached have put more pressure on them to ensure their children are always happy. This is why some parents can be seen as ‘bubble wrap’ parents, where they ensure their children never experience a grazed knee, or a moment of sadness or disappointment. They give them anything they want, and will often put their children’s needs ahead of their own.
Sadly, this does not end well as our children need moments of challenge, failure and disappointment, as well as moments of exquisite joy and delight in order to learn authentic emotional intelligence.
Over-rewarding children with stickers, trophies and certificates does not help them develop an inner locus of control through which they do things simply because it is the right thing to do or it really is something that matters to them. There is so much judgement on the parents whose child is having a meltdown in the supermarket, or is screaming as they leave the playground and that certainly doesn’t help parents own their own swagger.
If we imagine toddlers fighting over a toy, it is a natural instinct to want to fix it or stop it from happening. However, when exploring the work of Teacher Tom and Janet Lansbury, often the best approach is to make statements to the children so they can understand what is happening and why they are behaving that way.
For example, you might say: “You would like to play with the toy that Johnny is playing with. It can be hard to wait.”
Often toddlers can sort it out themselves however if they are physically causing pain, then we definitely need to use our swagger to step in so that we can stop them gently. Impulsive behaviour is completely developmentally normal for toddlers because they have an underdeveloped brain architecture. They are not choosing to be naughty or to deliberately cause other kids harm – it just happens.
In Teacher Tom’s First Book, early childhood educator Tom Hobson shares an experience with two toddlers who were having difficulty sharing some Chinese meditation balls. He made a statement to the child who had stolen the balls from the other to acknowledge that he had taken the balls and that the other child’s face looked a bit sad about that. Tom made one further statement, “I think she is telling you she wants them back”. And then he stepped away. After a few moments the child gave the balls back. A visiting grandmother commented to Tom,
“You could just see the little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other fighting it out.” Teacher Tom replied ”I found that the angel usually wins as long as we don’t try to tell people what to do.
– Tom Hobson, Teacher Tom’s First Book: Teaching and learning from preschoolers (2017)
Being firm doesn’t mean being a punisher
Often biting can become habitual behaviour for a frustrated child and while it is developmentally normal, this is a situation that still needs us to step forward to protect other children. Maybe we could offer them an apple to bite rather than a child. Punishing a child for biting or snatching doesn’t help the child with their impulses and it can cause them inner turmoil, as they can feel unsafe in their world. Being firm does not need a parent to be mean or to inflict punishment or pain.
It’s absolutely okay to say no, and to hold that no, even if your child melts down and feels distressed.
There will be times that your child may say they hate you, that you are the worst parent on earth because you have held a boundary and that just means you are doing your job as a parent. Rather than see yourself as a failure, see yourself as a good-enough parent being the parent your child needs.
In every family there needs to be clarity around values and expectations. Conversations around the dining table, in the car and in one-on-one moments are what build these expectations. Having swagger means that you will make your child accountable for not upholding those values, e.g. when they steal something from a shop or from the book fair at school. You will have them return the item and you will make sure that your son or daughter accepts the consequences that the shop or the school choose. If your child breaks a school rule, then they need to accept the discipline that is appropriate within that school. Parental swagger means we stand by the school so that our child can learn the importance of rules and expectations within organisations.
Having boundaries that differ from other families’ boundaries can feel tricky at times. Many families have told me that they have stopped allowing their young children to play at friend’s houses because there are no boundaries around screens and their friends were able to watch content that was inappropriate, and frightening. Yep, this can be one of those tough moments as a parent when you may appear to be an outlier. However, your children are observing you as their in-charge person and you are making choices to keep them safe and secure.
Swagger in the tween/teen years
In my bestselling book From Boys to Men I write about the importance of the rails on the bridge to manhood, and this is another example of parental swagger.
Our tweens and our teens are stretching and growing at different rates and adolescence is full of change, stress, risky behaviour and the important search for identity.
When they have parents who have got their backs, who love them ferociously even when they fail, their chances of navigating this journey to adulthood are drastically improved.
My sons were not allowed to go to parties until they reached Year 11, even though of course they secretly went to a couple! Once they got to that age, with very clear expectations, they could go to parties. From all the research, I knew that the brain at 16 is more capable of making better decisions, especially risky decisions, than it is under 16 (but not as capable of course as if they were say 25!). They did complain a lot that I was too tough and that some of their friends were allowed to go to parties at 14 and their parents were buying them alcohol – something I also refused to do! I was happy to be a ‘mean’ – I preferred to say firm – loving parent who had enough swagger to make the decisions I felt were best for my sons.
Interestingly, there were times when my teenage lads did not really want to go to a party, and they blamed me for being mean and not letting them go. I was very happy to be their fall guy if it made it easier for them to refuse an invitation!
Being a good-enough parent does not mean you won’t have moments when you shout or yell, or slam a door because we are human. Let’s be honest it’s really hard being the in-charge person in a family every single minute of every single day.
Being in charge does not mean being in control of our children or expecting we can control their lives, and it isn’t about being tough or hard.
This is one of the most important things to realise that we are raising unique individuals who have their own way of seeing the world and experiencing it. It is helpful to keep in mind that absolutely no one likes being told what to do, being nagged or lectured. The research is strong that the more loved and connected a child feels, the more likely they are going to follow our directions and guidance especially when asked with respect.
Stress and swagger
Stress can make it difficult for parents to hold their swagger in a healthy place while being lovingly attached to their child. Given we are coming out of three awful years of global uncertainty, a pandemic, increasing natural disasters and higher costs of living, our ability to be the calm, reliable, predictable in-charge parent we want to be has become more difficult. Remember little habits like the parental pause can really make a difference in how we steady the ship.
An unhelpful habit that many parents get into with their children is focusing on what their child is doing wrong rather than focusing on the moments they get things right. This is especially a challenge for little boys whose behaviour is often far more impulsive and unpredictable.
Shift the lens as a parent to one of ‘positive noticing’ because it can really help create a different mindset in your child who might be pushing the boundaries a lot due to their temperament or unique character. For example, “Sam I noticed you being patient with your little sister this morning when you were building your Lego well done.” Very specific and simple and yet deceptively powerful for our children.
Next time that you have a moment of conflict or challenge with your child see this as a possible teachable moment. Reflect back on how you managed that situation after a couple of hours and ask yourself:
What has that taught my child?
If you recognise that you were not the parent you wanted to be in that moment, then consider the repair moment where you come back to the child when everyone is calm, and express your regret about using your words harshly, or too loudly because these are things that are not a part of the family values. Reassure the child you love them unconditionally, and that you are working on being the parent you want to be.
“The best way to inspire your children to develop into the kind of adults you dream of them becoming is to become the kind of adult you want them to be.”
– Robin Sharma, The Greatness Guide (2006)
Remember, there is no perfect in parenting however our children need good-enough parents who can hold their swagger to ensure their children feel like they always have them watching their back and staying connected with love. They don’t need their parents to be their best friends or their buddies. They need them to be their parents who some days do a great job, and other days not so great. They need at least one parent who gets out of bed each day with swagger and a heart full of love, aiming to be the parent the child needs and wants.
Image credit: ©️ by Alexander_Safonov / Deposit Photos
Maggie and Dr Vanessa Lapointe have had a cracking conversation about swagger in their respective membership communities. To join Maggie’s membership community and watch this and many other premium videos, click here.