By Dottie Stone Coleman, MAT, MEd
Whatever their age, every interaction with our children — every word, every response, every look — has the potential to build up their self-confidence and self-esteem, or tear it down. Likewise, every behavior of our own in which we model self-confidence, respectful self-expression, and responsible self-care and self-advocacy has the power to encourage and build those kinds of behaviors in them. All eight of Attachment Parenting International’s Principles of Parenting contribute significantly to building self-confidence and empowerment in our children of every age. That said, let’s look at a few examples of Responding with Sensitivity — examples of beautiful parenting sure to promote the traits we so hope to see developing in our children.
Responding with sensitivity is usually done by active listening, or acknowledging feelings expressed by your children; and then affirming, or validating, those feelings. For example, “I know you’re upset because we can’t buy that toy today. I get frustrated, too, when I can’t afford something I want.”
But let’s consider that there may be a third step to responding sensitively, and that is, when possible, “eliciting or suggesting an action based on the feeling.”
For example, Owen, age five, wanted a new outfit for his toy dog. His mom told him they would not be buying anything else on that trip to the store, and Owen was upset. So, his mom asked him how he might earn some money to get what he wanted the next time they came to the mall. Owen had learned how to crochet at preschool, so he got busy making crochet chains of different lengths to be used as rings, bracelets, and necklaces. One day, Owen’s dad let him set up shop in an unused space in Dad’s office, and thanks to Dad’s generous co-workers, Owen earned enough selling his chains to buy the items he wanted! He was ecstatic, and so proud of himself.
On another occasion, Owen and his mom were leaving a restaurant on an extremely hot day and just ahead of them was a family of seven — a mom with six kids, two of them babies. Owen was worried because the family didn’t have a car. His mother told him they were probably walking to the bus station. Owen was sad about their situation and concerned about the little kids because of the heat. Soon nine people were crammed into mom’s minivan to give these folks a ride to the bus. They caught the bus they needed and avoided a 30-minute wait. Owen felt so good about helping them; he couldn’t stop talking about helping them catch their bus. What wonderful reinforcement of his compassion and for his self-confidence that Mom went out of her way to act on his concern! Of course, I’m sure she will also teach him that you can’t safely take into your car just anyone who seems to need help, but in the circumstances of that day, it was so empowering that she acted on his feelings.
Nick, also age 5, is a curious, deep thinker. After encountering the idea of black holes in space, he had many questions, like “What happens to the things that get sucked into a black hole?” His father acknowledged and affirmed his curiosity by saying, “That’s a really good question, Nick. I’m afraid I don’t know.” But Dad didn’t stop there. Dad happens to have a friend who works with the particle accelerator at a nearby university. Dad arranged for Nick to talk to this friend, who did a great job of putting his answers in terms that Nick could understand. Again, a caveat: Obviously it’s not always possible to answer a five-year-old’s questions in terms they can comprehend. But, when we take their questions this seriously, it sends a message that their thoughts and their curiosity are important, and warrant following up on.
And one more example from Owen: A visit to Grandma’s house overnight was marred at bedtime by the absence of Dino, Owen’s long-time sleeping companion, who had been accidentally left at home. Owen was very tired from a long day of exciting activities, and he was inconsolable because Dino wasn’t with him. Owen’s father and his grandmother listened actively, sympathized, and offered substitute loveys, all to no avail. Finally, Dad suggested that Owen phone Dino, make sure he was OK, and tell him he’d be back tomorrow. The call was made, and with the help of Mom, who was at home with Dino, Owen told his friend where he was, learned that Dino was doing fine, and afterward settled down with one of Grandma’s collection of snugglies and went to sleep. Dad’s suggestion that Owen take some action toward restoring his connection with Dino made all the difference.
Thus, Responding with Sensitivity could be said to include three As:
Though an appropriate action may not always be evident, looking for one is sure to result in many instances in which your child is helped to feel effective and empowered, both of which are crucial components of self-confidence.