A Heartfelt Letter to Family: Yes, We’re Weird, but Please Respect Us Anyway

Welcome to the May 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With or Without Extended Family

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how relatives help or hinder their parenting. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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When it comes to internal family conflict or tension over parenting differences, many folks say “Let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff.” 

When it comes to my children, though, I have realized that my parenting seems to be based in the small stuff, so little things start feeling like big stuff after a while of being together. How frequently does my daughter need to hear talk of “pretty” and dresses and clothes and shoes and hair and earrings and jewelry and pink and clean before I start protecting her right to choose her own way?

I want to have open, honest communication around these things but find it difficult. 

Recently, my family visited and someone said to my husband, not unemotionally, “How do you know what you are doing will be successful?” 

I do not know if anything I am doing will be successful, but I also think I might be going for a different kind of “success” than some of my family. 

I would like to communicate the reasoning behind my choices and beliefs, but usually someone ends up feeling scolded or hurt or annoyed. I don’t want to cause negativity in my extended family, but I also want to nurture my little family.

The following is a letter I wish I could give to my extended family.

Hopefully if I ever do actually give it to someone, there will be a followup conversation. If not, I hope it expresses some of the choices I am making and ways I wish we could be together.

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Dear Family,

We love each other. You love my children. I love that you love my children.

What I would like to ask is your help in loving them better, or at the very least your respect of my efforts to do so. 

I know you know parenting is hard. I am making mistakes just as you did. I know you tried your best, and I am trying my best, too.

I get that my “best” is foreign and weird to you.

Homebirth, extended (“full term”) breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing, baby-led weaning/solids, unconditional parenting, gentle discipline, whole/organic/non-GMO foods…..Sometimes it seems like almost each and every aspect of the way I live and believe runs counter to how most of you live.

I understand that some of the things I do may scare some of you, or be confusing, or may even offend you?

I just wanted to take a moment to express some of the motivation behind our choices, some of which may unintendingly feel hurtful or limiting to you.

Here are things we are trying to do in our little family and ways we can all do this together:

Provide Encouragement

It’s the best of intentions that leads you to say “Good job,” I know. You see that she has done something herself or is doing something helpful. You want to support her. You are struck by her capabilities. “Good job” seems the perfect way to express your positivity and encouragement.

I know my children are amazing. Children are, and they more than others because they are related to us and we love them so much. I know we all think my daughter does a “good job” at a lot of things. That does not mean anything.

Saying “good job” doesn’t do what we hope it is doing. 

As a teacher, I know shifting away from praise is difficult. It’s hard to believe that saying something positive for a behavior we want to reinforce could be a bad thing. In reality, though, it’s just a vague communication of approval, making it about what we like and want and not about her at all.

Instead of praising: Just say what you see. 

Just tell her that you see her climbing up. This simple act will have a meaningful effect.  You see that she opened that herself. You see her pride in her persistence that concluded in success. She will understand better your true meaning. You will be building up her own sense of self, rather than creating dependency on outside validation.

Support Growth 

I can cut mushrooms!

She is exploring her world, learning every aspect from every angle possible. She is growing in every way all at once at different speeds. What a wonder to watch her body and mind at work!

Sometimes when they are “playing,” (and I say “playing” because most play is work to children) it is tempting to tell her how to play with something. It is easy to direct her play or to even take something from her or physically take her hands and do something for her.

We all want her to learn and grow.

People learn best by doing and seeing. Let’s support her growth by letting her do as much as she can. While it can feel rewarding to “teach” her something, it is far more rewarding for her to figure things out herself until she arrives at that “I did it!” exclamation that comes after a mission accomplished.

Our efforts are best spent observing and following their lead.

They will let us know when they are ready. They will show us where they are pushing ahead and where they are struggling. We can offer her opportunities for challenges and for strategies by providing a rich environment based on our observations.

For the most part, let us sit on our hands as best we can, deepen our trust in these children, and marvel at their innate aptitude for learning.

Listen to Feelings and Words and Needs

It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to cry. It’s ok to cry.

Let’s all say this as many times as we need to believe it.

When my children cry, they do not need to be shushed, spoken sternly to, or told to stop. They are not bad children for crying. Their crying is not something to be avoided or something shameful or something to be mocked.

I get that it’s hard to hear. It’s also hard to move beyond that message we are consistently told that children are manipulative. Simply by feeling they are working and maneuvering against the adults in their lives. Even my baby’s need to feed in the night is cause for labeling him a “bad baby”…well, he’s not a good baby anyway if he’s inconveniencing me by not sleeping well or through the night.

While my children are allowed to have their feelings and cry, I would also like them to have the space to truly feel — to feel like sharing or saying please or sorry. I have faith in their compassion and have already experienced it as you know.

Let’s just spend our efforts helping these children face and process their feelings (even if we are not able to). Let’s help them learn by being the kind of people we want them to become. Let us turn their vulnerability into a strength by being vulnerable ourselves.

Let them have their feelings and let them have control. This is how they will grow to be full human beings.

Set Limits

This is something I have a hard time with, I’ll admit. I understand it is not easy to stop reacting in a conditioned manner. I am essentially retraining my self, my brain.

Sometimes, though, I hear what I sound like when I hear you talk to my daughter.

I hear the withdrawal of affectionate tone when she does not comply with your wishes. I hear you tell me she “does not listen” because she is not responding immediately. I hear the coaxing, the guilt, the flattery and abandoment used to manipulate her to your will. “Let me comb your hair and make you pretty.” “Ok, well if you don’t come with me now then I’m going leave and you can stay here all by yourself.” No. Don’t. Can’t. Threats. Intimidation. Coldness. Harshness. Shame.

We love her. There is another way.

Instead of controlling her through punishment, bribery, flattery and consequences: Let’s guide her by our own example and give her the gift of our patience.

Here’s how we can set limits:

  1. Notice: “You are crying.”
  2. Empathize: “You really want to play with that spray bottle. You are feeling upset.”
  3. State limit: “You want to play with that spray bottle, but we only spray over here….”
  4. Explain reasoning: “…because it’s not safe to spray water in this direction.”
  5. Offer options. “You can go stand in that spot over there and spray this floor or this wall.”

When we set clear limits in a loving way, she responds by showing us she can handle responsibility.

Simplicity

We all value the greater character traits of compassion, generosity, bravery and courage. I would venture to say we all agree that perserverance, strength and endurance (not of muscles but of mind), as well as a creative and discerning mind are helpful things in life as well.

Let’s all focus on a simplicity of life and living. Let’s not make relationships about stuff–clothes, toys or even books. She just wants to be with us, to be seen by us, to be valued.

I know my children are beautiful, inside and out.

Please end the obsession with controlling my daughter’s hair. Don’t tell her you want to comb her hair so she looks pretty. How many times does she hear people like her clothes, shoes, hair, or say that she is pretty? Compare that to how many time she hears she is strong, agile, creative, caring, clever or any other wonderful characteristic. Isn’t it clear that young girls get enough messages about their beauty being their only asset? Don’t you want her to break out of stereotypes?

I think we do these things without thinking. I do them and I think about it all the time. I think, though, together we can all work on minimizing these kinds of limitations on who she is and can be.

In the meantime, limitations on what her environment contains can be a good thing.

A simple space is best for exploration and growth. Books are wonderful, but too many lessens the value of each. Clothes are beautiful, but we really only need a few things. These objects do not hold extreme value in the lives of my children unless we start placing the value there.

Instead, watch and follow the simplicity of my daughter’s fodder for growth: a box, a piece of paper, a stick, some water, a spoon. These are things (real things!) of living, and she values them greatly. Let’s encourage her to value the simple goodness in her world, the natural world and in herself.

Again, we’re weird. We do things differently.

I know that human nature seems to make each of us feel judged by someone making choices that differ from our own.

I want to say clearly that I am not trying to judge you or trying to say you are or were wrong. Sometimes I don’t find the right words or use the best tone. Truly, though, I say these things in an effort to communicate where I am coming from and what I am experiencing and learning on this journey.

I am trying to do things differently for my family than you would or have……and I could use your support. My family could use your support.

Like I said, I don’t question your love for my children, or even your love for me. I just feel that my family could thrive if we had your support.

At the least, what I would appreciate is trust in my ability to evolve as a parent and a person. At the very least, I believe I deserve your respect for my own journey and choice, just as you have my respect for yours.

My great hope, though, is that we can learn together how to be kind, loving and respectful to these amazing beings while also getting their other needs met.

All my love,

sheila

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RESOURCES

Setting Limits

Providing Encouragement

Supporting Growth 

Listening to Feelings and Words

Simplicity

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Dealing With Unsupportive Grandparents — In a guest post at Natural Parents Network, The Pistachio Project tells what to do when your child’s grandparents are less than thrilled about your parenting choices.
  • Parenting With Extended Family — Jenny at I’m a full-time mummy shares the pros and cons of parenting with extended family…
  • Parental Support for an AP Mama — Meegs at A New Day talks about the invaluable support of her parents in her journey to be an AP mama.
  • Priceless GrandparentsThat Mama Gretchen reflects on her relationship with her priceless Grammy while sharing ways to help children preserve memories of their own special grandparents.
  • Routines Are Meant To Be Broken — Olga at Around The Birthing Ball urges us to see Extended Family as a crucial and necessary link between what children are used to at home and the world at large.
  • It Helps To Have A Village – Even A Small One — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses how she has flourished as a mother due to the support of her parents.
  • The Orange Week — Erika at Cinco de Mommy lets go of some rules when her family finally visits extended family in San Diego.
  • One Size Doesn’t Fit All — Kellie at Our Mindful Life realizes that when it comes to family, some like it bigger and some like it smaller.
  • It Takes a Family — Alicia at What’s Next can’t imagine raising a child without the help of her family.
  • A new foray into family — As someone who never experienced close extended family, Lauren at Hobo Mama wrestles with how to raise her kids — and herself — to restart that type of community.
  • My Mama Rocks! — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment is one lucky Mama to have the support and presence of her own awesome Mama.
  • Embracing Our Extended Family — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares 7 ideas for nurturing relationships with extended family members.
  • Doing Things Differently — Valerie at Momma in Progress shares how parenting her children far away from extended family improved her confidence in her choices.
  • Snapshots of love — Caroline at stoneageparent describes the joys of sharing her young son’s life with her own parents.
  • Parenting with Relies – A mixed bagUrsula Ciller shares some of her viewpoints on the pros and cons of parenting with relatives and extended family.
  • Tante and Uncles — How a great adult sibling relationship begets a great relationship with aunt and uncles from Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy.
  • Tips for Traveling With Twins — Megan at the Boho Mama shares some tips for traveling with infant twins (or two or more babies!).
  • Parenting passed through the generations — Shannon at Pineapples & Artichokes talks about the incredible parenting resource that is her found family, and how she hopes to continue the trend.
  • My Family and My Kids — Jorje of Momma Jorje ponders whether she distrusts her family or if she is simply a control freak.
  • Parenting with a Hero — Rachel at Lautaret Bohemiet reminisces about the relationship she shared with her younger brother, and how he now shares that closeness in a relationship with her son.
  • Text/ended Family — Kenna of A Million Tiny Things wishes her family was around for the Easter egg hunt… until she remembers what it’s actually like having her family around.
  • Two Kinds of Families — Adrienne at Mommying My Way writes about how her extended family is just as valuable to her mommying as her church family.
  • My ‘high-needs’ child and ‘strangers’ — With a ‘high-needs’ daughter, aNonyMous at Radical Ramblings has had to manage without the help of family or friends, adapting to her daughter’s extreme shyness and allowing her to socialise on her own terms.
  • Our Summer Tribe — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger shares a love of her family’s summer reunion, her secret to getting the wisdom of the “village” even as she lives 1,000 miles away.
  • My Life Boat {Well, One of Them} — What good is a life boat if you don’t get it? Grandparents are a life boat MomeeeZen loves!
  • Dear Children — In an open letter to her children, Laura at Pug in the Kitchen promises to support them as needed in her early days of parenting.
  • Yearning for Tribal Times — Ever had one of those days where everything seems to keep going wrong? Amy at Anktangle recounts one such day and how it inspired her to think about what life must’ve been like when we lived together in large family units.
  • I don’t have a village — Jessica Claire at Crunchy-Chewy Mama wishes she had family nearby but appreciates their support and respect.
  • Trouble With MILs– Ourselves? — Jaye Anne at Wide Awake Half Asleep explains how her arguments with her mother-in-law may have something to do with herself.
  • A Family Apart — Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings writes about the challenges, and the benefits, of building a family apart from relatives.
  • First Do No Harm — Zoie at TouchstoneZ asks: How do you write about making different parenting choices than your own family experience without criticizing your parents?
  • Military Family SeparationAmy Willa shares her feelings about being separated from extended family during her military family journey.
  • Forging A Village In The Absence Of One — Luschka from Diary of a First Child writes about the importance of creating a support network, a village, when family isn’t an option.
  • Respecting My Sister’s Parenting Decisions — Dionna at Code Name: Mama‘s sister is guest posting on the many roles she has as an aunt. The most important? She is the named guardian, and she takes that role seriously.
  • Multi-Generational Living: An Exercise in Love, Patience, and Co-Parenting — Boomerang Mama at The Other Baby Book shares her experience of moving back in with Mom and Dad for 7 months, and the unexpected connection that followed.
  • A Heartfelt Letter to Family: Yes, We’re Weird, but Please Respect Us Anyway — Sheila of A Living Family sincerely expresses ways she would appreciate her extended family’s support for her and her children, despite their “weird” parenting choices.
  • The nuclear family is insane! — Terri at Child of the Nature Isle is grateful for family support, wishes her Mum lived closer, and feels an intentional community would be the ideal way to raise her children.

13 responses to this post.

  1. You hit the nail on the head with this one. I wish I had the guts to hand a letter like this over to our families! We spent a week with the in-laws, and in just that time our son started telling me, “Great job!” for no reason at all, all day long.

    Reply

  2. I want to print this out and send it to my in-laws. I’ve been trying for years to put my words together… thank you!

    Reply

  3. If you do, Laura, please let me know how it goes! Thanks for reading. ~sheila

    Reply

  4. I love the way you’ve written a letter to your family like this, I find the section about showing patience, dealing with confrontation in a way which is at the child’s level, really useful as we’re strugglnig with that oursevles as our toddler displays his frustration by saying ‘no’ and getting into al ittle tantrum. I shall try it. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

    • I find these steps helpful, when I can do them. Let me know how it goes with your family, and if you have any tips for communicating please pass them on! ~sheila

      Reply

  5. Posted by codenamemama on May 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I have told my mom so many times that my parenting (and my blogging) is not a judgment/criticism of her. Every generation is going to do different things with the knowledge they’ve gained from the past. You could do a series of posts on every one of your points – they are all such great tips!! I especially love “instead of praising, say what you see,” and “inspiring rather than stereotyping.” I’m currently learning all about how to parent a girl (oy – it is tough!), and your words rang so true for me!

    Reply

    • Yes, Dionna, I realized that my post was way too long. I already trashed it and reworked the whole thing multiple times before arriving at a letter. In the end, I kept them all. Thanks for the feedback. And yes, the girl thing is hard for me, especially because I was such a tomboy and appreciated being able to do my thing for the most part.
      As always, love your blog,
      ~sheila

      Reply

  6. I really love, “instead of praising, just say what you see” Observation is powerful, in providing support and encouragement, and in making communication and conflicts easier. What a wonderful letter. . . I think you should send it 😉

    Reply

    • Well, I did get a positive message from a family member (the only one who reads the blog and the most open and in line with us). That made me feel like maybe I can do one more person and see from there on…..Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂
      ~sheila

      Reply

  7. I really like the way you explain to your child why things are done a certain way by setting gentle limits and don’t stifle her expression and feelings. Explaining things to kids makes them think and understand faster (well at least it seems that way at home). Very enjoyable post – I hope your family can understand better too 🙂

    Reply

    • Thanks so much, Ursula. This is what I strive for, anyway. I do try to model for my family members when they are around, but I find this type of communication subtle and easy to overlook. It also gets misunderstood as permissiveness, unfortunately. Thanks for reading!
      ~sheila

      Reply

  8. I am so guilty of the things you list under the ‘set limits’ bit. The coaxing, the threats… that’s me. And I know when I’m doing it, but seem incapable of NOT. It drives me mad. This is an excellent write. Thank you (and sorry I’m late in reading!)

    Reply

    • Yes, I hear myself while I’m doing it, too. I am learning to be gentle with myself in those moments, to soften my direction (towards guilt and control) so I can choose another way. Breathe. This one simple aim gives me space to see and choose more consciously….when I can do it. It’s all process, isn’t it? Thanks for reading. ~sheila

      Reply

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