Today’s parents have high expectations for themselves and for their children.
They have an image of where they want their families to be, but daily hassles make that goal hard to reach—and anytime we get caught in the gap between reality and the ideal, we are easy targets for frustration and guilt. Parents often conclude that they or their children are flawed.
Well—they are. We all are flawed. That is the nature of being human, but our flaws aren’t the source of most common parenting struggles. The struggles arise because many of our conventionally held beliefs throw obstacles in our way.
I want to point out a powerful and stabilizing force in the fabric of family life: will. When it is out of balance, this force drains precious energy resources and undermines our efforts toward developing harmonious family relationships.
One mother described her situation this way: “My daughter is five-and-a-half years old going on fifteen. I get eye rolls from her on a daily basis, impatient ‘Duhs’ when I say something that is apparently just so obvious, and the insistence on having it her way…”
It’s easy to think that an excess of will on the part of the child, his or her willfulness, is at the root of the problem. This behavior exhausts and frustrates everyone, but it is a symptom, not the problem.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there is empty space, matter flows in to fill it. In the example above, the child’s will has rushed in to fill a void in the dynamics of the family, and being immature—by definition!—her will has developed in a troublesome direction.
Let’s talk about what “will” really means. Will is not power or control, although it feels like it when we are caught in power struggles with our children. Will is not the parent winning and the child losing, or vice versa. Will—healthy will—is devoted action. Will is all about doing, about our thoughts and feelings and choices manifested in our deeds.
The key then, is to focus on what we do, and specifically, on what we do to create and sustain our home life.
Home is a sacred place, one that deserves our most devoted attention. Home is more than just the place where a family lives. Home is where the family is held and nourished, where children can be comfortable within their family’s embrace.
A homemaker tends this sacred space. A homemaker creates and sustains harmony. Along the way, the word “homemaker” has gotten a bad rap along with “housewife.” I think we can quite happily do without “housewife” in our current lexicon—no one wants to be married to a house.
So let me be clear: I am not advocating a return to the days of June Cleaver where one person, the wife, was relegated to the home. This is not about assigning gender roles. Whatever interests and careers we pursue, we are also homemakers. This is about infusing our homes with the warmth of our conscious attention.
The crisis of will, in our time, is that we have slipped into thinking that talking is an adequate substitute for doing. We tell our children what to do, but we don’t do it with them. We don’t lay down a solid foundation where our own activity provides a model. When we do not provide that foundation, the child is left to try to fill the hole, and without having had the time she needs to develop a healthy and balanced will, she fills that hole with an immature will based on wants, with whining, backtalk and demands.
One of the conundrums of our modern life is that adults are so busy, yet we “do” less and less. We spend more and more time driving and in front of our computers and other devices, and, quite frankly, those activities just don’t qualify as “doing.” Not for children. There just isn’t enough activity for children to imitate, to engage with by using their bodies.
Children don’t turn things over in their minds; they turn them over with their hands. Our children learn by playing and by imitating adult activity—often with significant overlap. Our children need to be included in doing adult things—no, not all adult things—but those that involve the active making of home.
Sharing a recreational and/or creative pursuit is part of the making of home. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it is something that genuinely grabs the parent’s interest and attention, involves action and can include the children. Some families are musical. Others are sporty. The list of possibilities is nearly endless: tinkering with cars, making jams and jellies from scratch, coloring together, fishing, training dogs, sewing doll clothes. Sitting is OK if and only if the hands are involved in doing something that a child could discern as an activity—typing doesn’t count, and neither does operating a video game controller. I come from a family of knitters. “We’re not addicts,” we say as we start just one more row.
Besides recreation, another aspect to consider in developing the “doing-ness” of the household is interaction with the natural world, the “home” that holds and supports each of our individual family homes. Any time in natural areas is well spent, but there is nothing like engaging with the forces of nature, too, feeling their power and resistance. Think of the classic four elements: water, air, earth and fire.
And last but certainly not least, chores: cooking, cleaning and repairing. The key to chores is to harness children’s natural tendency to imitate by inviting them to participate in chores during the early years and by continuing to do them together as they grow older. If we approach chores with care and even joy, our children will want to join in. Tending to chores—real work—nourishes children by showing them that the needs of the day are paramount over flights of want. Mastering those mundane daily tasks gives them a strong sense of capability and belonging within the family. Their “well-doing” gives them a sense of wellbeing.
Will is a powerful force. We can nourish our children’s developing will by engaging our own will and being the examples that will guide them. When we tend to our homes and fill them with our devoted action, our expenditure of energy will come back to us—maybe not in the toddler years!—but beyond, certainly. We are building a solid foundation for sustainable harmony.
Author: Lea Page
Editor: Alli Sarazen