Watering Can Parenting

Oleksander Pidvalnyi

Source: Oleksander Pidvalnyi

In September, I watched my fifteen year old daughter stride confidently away from me through JFK security toward a semester in Switzerland. She smiled at the TSA agent as she handed over her boarding pass, and without looking back, she leaped out of the nest. Just like that.

That evening I ugly-cried in the company of my husband and an indulgent waiter who kindly made all my culinary decisions for me (comforting slow cooked short ribs served over mashed potatoes with a beautiful glass of red wine). In the following days, I reflected on the work of being a parent: of loving a tiny being more than anything in the world; of building attachment with depth I didn’t know existed; of protecting and teaching and guiding and watching and listening and yelling and crying and swearing and hugging and learning and loving and loving and loving. And then, of trying not to clip those little beings’ wings when they are ready to fly.

We live in a world that can feel pretty scary for kids and parents, alike. There’s violence, poverty, racism , misogyny, xenophobia, war, hate crimes (hate period), and disease. It’s competitive, achievement driven, and ripe with expectations and judgment. There are bullies, scraped knees, school shooters, drunk drivers and ticks. Sending our kids out into the world, whether that means sending them off to kindergarten or to the other side of the planet, is a pretty tall parenting task. My dad sent me a text while I was at the airport, reminding me that our job is to provide our kids with both roots and wings. Roots and wings.

Friends sent their first born off to college last fall. At her welcome speech, the Dean of the College told parents that not only does the university have to waste time dealing with the helicopter parents who fly close, trying to micro-manage their children’s lives and solve their problems for them, but now they also see bulldozer parents: parents who are literally or figuratively out in front of their kids trying to smooth the way.

Fess up when you blow it. This is the best way to show your child how and when she should apologize.

I understand, with every fiber of my being, the desire to protect our kids from pain and from challenge, to make their lives easy and their hearts light all the time. Do I wish for that? Yes. There is literally nothing more painful than watching my girls struggle. Add to that innate protective response the cultural messaging about what it means to be a good mother, and we really have ourselves a pickle. In her groundbreaking book In a Different Voice (1982), Carol Gilligan, an expert on gender role socialization, explained that the female gender role decrees that it is women’s job to take care of the feelings and emotional needs of others. Being a mother kicks this into high gear; we are conditioned to see it as our job to protect our children from painful emotions and experiences. And then, we are further conditioned that our worth depends on our success at this impossible task. In their book The Mommy Myth (2004), authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels describe how modern mothers are expected to prioritize their children’s experiences over all else, and that their relationship to their children is the primary source of identity for many modern moms. Social media further drives home what these expectations look like, bombarding mothers with mediated images of eternally happy children (and mothers). It’s no wonder that we have seen the birth of helicopter and bulldozer parenting when we are under pressure to make sure our kids are happy as if our worth depends on it. Nor is it any wonder that the internet is rife with articles about mother exhaustion, burnout , perfectionism , and overload.

Clearing their path of challenges doesn’t do our kids any favors, either. Going through pain is the only way they can become the open-hearted wise warriors they are meant to be. Kids need to experience emotional struggles in order to develop resilience ; they need to experience their full range of emotions to know their own breadth and depth and power; and they need to see a whole world in front of them, not a curated path, so that they may hear their own inner callings and make their own life map.

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

But how do we stop hovering and bulldozing? How do we care-take, tend to, and love on our kids in a way that doesn’t rob us of our own energy, and supports our kids to be their shiniest selves? Instead of smoothing the way for my kids, I want to help nurture their resilience, their strength. I want to help them grow in the real world, not in a protective bubble. I want to support them in a way that allows me to have enough bandwidth left over to enjoy them and share some of my shine with them, as well. I propose Watering Can Parenting, and here’s how it works:

Torsten Dettlaff/Pexels

Source: Torsten Dettlaff/Pexels

1) Bring love.

Love is like water. Plants can’t grow without water, and children cannot grow without love.

Two Psych 101 studies vividly tell this story. One is about the rhesus monkeys who, when forced to choose, chose the semblance of love in the form of a cuddly model mama monkey over the physical sustenance of food served from a cold wire feeder, even if it meant starvation. The other study detailed the lives of orphans in communist-era Romania who were given sustenance and shelter but were deprived of loving attention and touch. These children developed emotional, psychiatric , cognitive and physical dysfunctions that were often irreversible. While these are extreme examples, they make an important point. First and foremost, we are the bearers of the most critical life force for our children: love. It’s the most important thing. Water them with it regularly.

Make your own family media use plan. Media should work for you and within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully and appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.

2) Be quiet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a quiet person. But when one of my girls is struggling, the parenting moments I’m most proud of are the ones when I remember to be quiet. To listen. When they are given the space to let their thoughts and feelings flow with a loving witness, they come up with their own resolutions. Helicopters and bulldozers are not quiet. They roar. They drown out the sound of inner voices – and littler voices.

3) Be yourself.

I’m not a fan of one-size-fits-all parenting suggestions. I am not you, my kids are not your kids, and my life is not your life. Watering Can Parenting leaves room for individuality and variety; watering cans come in all shapes and sizes. Be a watering can your way. You know your plants better than anyone. Trust your instincts. I have one daughter who likes to talk with me in the car, and another who likes to listen to podcasts together. One of them likes to be snuggled when mad, the other likes to be tickled and teased. I water them differently. But either way, I’m offering them the nutrients they need.

4) Offer strength, not solutions.

Helicopter and bulldozer parents send the message, perhaps unintentionally, that they don’t believe in their child’s capacity to solve their own problems or forge their own way. Helicopters and bulldozers don’t make room for creative solutions, and they don’t make it possible for plants to determine their own response to the environment – to grow in different directions. Instead of moving obstacles, I want to remind myself to just give my kids the strength and courage they need to find their own way to persevere. I could probably make what looks like an easier and straighter path, but maybe the most satisfying and interesting parts of my daughters’ lives will be the trails they stumble upon when they have to swerve.

Turn taking. Help all members of the family take turns talking and listening. Children find it much easier to talk when there are fewer interruptions.

5) Know that you are not the only source of water.

This last one feels particularly poignant for me today as I think about my teenager in Switzerland. She used to be a starter plant, tiny and fragile and safe in an indoor nursery where I would water her every single day. She grew roots, and a strong stem, and she is blooming. She developed strength and resilience and a desire to grow. Outside the nursery, my watering can is not the only source of water. She can catch her own rain. I can celebrate the rainy days with her as I watch her fill herself up with her own sources of love. I can watch in awe as she blooms in unexpected colors and finds creative ways around the rocks in her path. And I can be there with my watering can on the dry days…even if she’s in Switzerland.