Tag Archives: Positive parenting

Unconditional positive regard

I am officially off the “meat market”. Turning 40 next year I walk around the world not worrying too much about what men, or anyone, for that matter, think about me. Of course I care for my appearance and to stay fit, but more for my own sake. I was never much of a flirter anyway. Unlike my husband or best friend, who both can get their ways past any queue or defer any ill-tempered official (of any sex) through flirting intensely, I tend to be serious and slightly on guard with strangers.

Which is why it took me by complete surprise that the Egyptian concierge at the hotel in Qatar, where I stayed between my flights, flirted with me extensively. First I ignored it and thought it part of his job description: be nice to women traveling alone. Then he upgraded me to the suite. I said there was no need. Yes, there was, no extra charge, please enjoy.

When I asked for an adapter I called down twice and walked down the third to simply get it. He made a funny scene out of what a true pity it was that I had to come down to fetch it. I found myself giggling like a 16-year-old. I had been very clear that my husband had booked the hotel so there was nothing there to wonder about. But just the fact that he gave me a different picture of myself than I had decided to act upon was a tiny gift I decided to accept.

I looked at Doha at my feet, enjoyed my complementary tarts, high-speed Internet connection, a warm shower and the sleep in a huge bed – a commodity I would miss during my long-long flight to Melbourne. Upon my departure he made an operette-scene about having to see me again, all of it becoming slightly more than I could muster so I slipped into the cab and waved good-bye.

But isn’t this exactly what I try to do for other people, especially children: to give them a picture of themselves as lovable, for whom they are? I am not stupid, I know there was a sexual undertone of the concierge’s flirt, but the essence remains the same; I want to let you know you are a likable person, in my own way.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi

On my visit to Sweden I took my niece to a musical and as we walked she told me how someone she had met seemed to take to her so easily. “Sweetheart, I said, you need to know that you ARE easy to like, there is nothing strange about that woman liking you!” She said nothing, but smiled to herself.

“Suck it in, I thought to myself, suck it in and never let it go. No matter what some asshole along the line will tell you, no matter how the cool girls in high school will make you feel – know your worth! Know that you are lovable”.

Love and acceptance is so central in our lives that we do the strangest things to get it. Just read Alice Munroe! The basis of all good therapy then is what Carl Rogers termed “unconditional positive regard”. It gives to people what they might have missed during their childhood: a sense of being possible to be loved, accepted, and “contained”, irrespective of the things they think, say, or achieve.

No wonder then that studies on e.g. depression convincingly show that it is the relationship to the therapist rather than the form of therapy itself that makes the greatest difference for results. And yes, the pope is Catholic.

Although most of us are not professional therapists, there is lots we can do for one another and our children in our everyday life. Of course we can’t provide unconditional positive regard to everyone we meet: real life involves conditions and conventions we need to live by. But we certainly could muster a bit more generosity. Maybe flirt a bit more, irrespective of age and gender?

When my eldest daughter was on her way to a wedding and sent me a picture of herself in the dress I replied: “Whoever gets to sit beside you tonight is a lucky person. You are such pleasant and kind company!” The hearts and smileys bouncing back on my screen said it all. I could see the smile on her face all those miles away. And the one on mine still lingers when I think of my Egyptian concierge waving after the taxi. Maybe turning 40 is not so bad after all.

Knowing when to let go

“He climbed up there, he’ll get down”, the mother shouted from the bottom of the stairs in the Children’s Hospital. She turned back to her friend and the member of the hospital staff in the stairs and I looked at each other. I offered the child my finger to help him down, but he gave me a terrified look so I just lingered around to catch him in case he fell. The stairs were way too high for a child his age, made of white stone, hard and edgy. The little boy had huge curls surrounding his face and dark brown eyes, conveying no trust in this world. When he had landed safely I continued up the stairs. The staff member rolled her eyes: “Interesting parenting you see around here sometimes”. The scene made me depressed for the rest of the morning.

Teaching a child to learn the consequences of its actions is a core task in parenting. It is a fine line parents need to walk – when to support individuation and let the child experience the consequences of their choices and when to shield them from their own immaturity. It takes sensitivity, afterthought, and a lot of trial and error to know when to let go, when the child is ready to understand the concept of consequences.

Logical consequences is a specific strategy in the Positive Parenting Program, Triple P, but several parenting programs have similar tools. Its purpose is to help children experience consequences of their behaviour in a predictable way. So if two children fight over a toy or device despite the parents asking them to start sharing instead or the toy will go away, the object indeed goes away for five minutes. Logical consequences make sense to the child and are closely related in time to the inadequate behaviour, helping the child make the link. A logical consequence can also be shorter time for play because of time spent whining instead of getting ready or not being able to go shopping with a friend because of missed homework that has to be done.

A logical consequence for the little boy in the stairs for not listening should have been to sit in the pram. In fact, given that he was only about 18 months the best choice would probably have been to distract him with something else or why not walk with him a couple of times, telling him that mommy will be busy later on and he can be a good boy playing with some toys after the walks in the stairs. There was no logic to the consequence of possibly letting him fall.

At times, however, children will and should fall. A book that provoked a lot of debate in Sweden problematized the consequences of what was termed “curling parenting”, a Swedish version of alleged overprotective parenting where the path is cleared for children, as the ice is swept clean in the sport of Curling by the Sweepers for the granite stone to glide as smoothly as possible. The authors Carl Lindgren and Frank Lindblad argued that in parents’ efforts to protect their offspring from injuries and negative experiences, the children were left without resilience for the normal challenges of life.

Given the links between overprotective parenting and fearfulness and anxiety in children (Rapee, 2009), they seem to have a point. Of course children who are temperamentally inhibited, less sociable and more fearful of new situations, might elicit this type of parenting when they are toddlers. So the causal pathway could go either way, but being overprotective certainly does not improve these children’s bravery or resilience.

To be honest, I tend to be pretty protective of the children. Helmets, sunscreen, and life vests are non-negotiable and they are all tired of hearing me talk about never going anywhere with strangers. But I like to exercise “controlled risk”, as in letting them walk on their own to the store and back, secretly checking on them or biking behind the bus when they are riding it on their own for the first time to school. I hate letting them go to camp or downtown with friends, but I do, because I figure that is part of being a good parent. And because my husband tells me not to be such a mother hen…

But I have to stop myself from making up all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head and something in me will not settle until the kids are all back and sound asleep in their beds so I can peep in and listen to their even breathing. That will, of course not be like that forever, because we have to let go of our children: the question is only  when and how.