When we embark upon our parenting journey, we may not realize how the experience will challenge us, shape us, and transform us as human beings along the way.
Some may think of “parenting” as having the right words, identifying natural consequences, or figuring out safety limits and healthy routines. Nurturing parenting is so much more: It is a lifelong relationship with our children, and ourselves, that enriches our lives and grows us with each passing milestone.
One special mama, Kimberly Heck of Charleston, South Carolina, USA, reflected upon her parenting journey and nurturing relationship with her now-27-year-old daughter and 30-year-old son. Her journey began when her son was 6 months old when she discovered gentle parenting at a local La Leche League meeting where she sought help with breastfeeding her baby.
“This was before nurturing parenting became a worldwide movement,” she shared. “One of La Leche League’s 10 concepts is about gentle parenting. From the very first meeting I went to, it was really well modeled, because a lot of the Leaders had older children.”
This path of gentle, respectful parenting was one that Kimberly had never experienced firsthand.
“I was raised in a very strict, disciplinary home," she said. "Spanking was a course of that disciplinary track. It is never any fun to get spanked, for sure!"
"I was in a very rebellious phase, as a teen or pre-teen, and I recall one time my Dad smacked me and it hurt," Kimberly continued. "I had tears coming down my face. I remember everything inside of me turning around and looking at him and saying, ‘Go ahead, hit me again.’ I could see everything drain from my Dad."
"He wasn’t a horrible person," she added. "My Dad’s influence was always there. He was a good man, an honest man, and making him proud and living my life according to a high moral fiber was important. But I realized the power dynamic shifted, and he really had no more power over me.”
Desiring a close relationship with her children, and the opportunity to be a positive influence, especially during adolescence, Kimberly and her husband chose a different path.
Tip: Understand what you want for your children
“With regards to spanking, the message was, ‘I am bigger, I am more powerful, and I am going to stop your behavior in its tracks,'" she shared, "and that to me felt like the opposite of what I wanted my children to learn, I wanted my children to learn to be compassionate, to be able to express themselves, even if it is different, but in a respectful manner.”
This led to open, loving conversations with her children at each age and stage.
“We had a very open relationship so my children could talk to me about anything," Kimberly said. "We would open doors, and sometimes those were hard doors that some people might not want to open, so that was something that was different. If I was struggling with something as a teen, that is not something I would not have gone to my Dad with.”
Tip: Be mindful of your words
Words have great power in relationships, and the parent-child dynamic is no different.
“I learned that it is so important to be mindful of our words,” Kimberly said. “This was really hard for me, because it was very easy for me to give a knee-jerk no. ‘Can I have this? No. Can I do this? No.’ I realized I wanted my children to understand what I was truly saying, and I wanted to save the no for really important things."
She gave an example: "If they would say, ‘Can I have a cookie mom?’ I would reply, ‘Yes, after dinner.’ Then I saved the no’s for, 'No, don’t cross the street, there’s a car coming!’ ‘No, don’t put a fork in that outlet!’"
Beyond yes and no, reframing instruction in a positive way, asking children for what we want them to do, and modeling our own best behavior are tools that Kimberly and her family found helpful along the way.
“Instead of ‘Stop hitting!’ we would say things like, ‘Gentle hands,'" she added. "Kids are going to hit, but we show them how to be gentle.”
Communicating in this way took effort.
“This was me reprogramming,” Kimberly shared. “There were times my kids pushed me to the limit, so I had to give myself a time-out to calm down, refocus, and show up the way I want to show up.”
Tip: Cultivate self-awareness
Self-awareness has led to a transformation in thinking that helped Kimberly to heal from her own childhood wounds.
“When I was being hit as a child, the message was that I was bad, I was wrong, I was in the way," she shared. "I had to let go of some of those things that don’t serve me."
"Children go through growth," she added, "and even parents go through growth. I had to go through tremendous growth.”
As Kimberly and her husband grew personally, so did their children.
“Their job is to push the boundaries, to find, in a safe way, ‘how can I stretch it and get my arms around it?’" Kimberly explained. "They did that, for sure.”
Her son, now described as her most laid-back child, wasn’t always that way. Kimberly described her son’s frequent meltdowns and big emotions as a young child. In her family of origin, this kind of behavior would have been punished, but Kimberly and her husband chose to invest in her child’s own self-awareness.
“I taught him how to read his own emotions, to check-in and realize how he is feeling,” she described. “Instead of saying, ‘You are bouncing off the walls, because you had too much sugar!’ I would ask, ‘Hey, you had a couple sodas today. Do you think that has something to do with how you are feeling?’ As I would ask them to check in and notice, they began to grow and know themselves.”
Strengthening her children’s inner wisdom and self-knowledge was at the heart of Kimberly’s parenting.
“I love Barbara Coloroso," she shared. "Her work taught me that if you teach your children to listen to your voice, then your children will eventually replace that with their friends’ voices, and that is where peer pressure comes in."
"I didn’t want children who were little robots," Kimberly continued. "I wanted my children to be able to think for themselves and make logical decisions, and if they didn’t understand something, let’s have a conversation about it. One thing I always say is, trust your intuition. Parents have an innate wisdom."
"I wanted to be careful that my children learned to follow their inner voice as well,” she added.
Tip: Learn about child and adolescent development
During adolescence, this inner wisdom was very helpful to Kimberly as she nurtured her children through a tumultuous time of burgeoning independence. One day, when her son was a preteen, Kimberly recalls compromising with him about his weekend plans. Instead of going to a party, it was agreed that he could go to a movie with a friend.
After dropping him off, something inside of her said, “Circle back around.” Listening to her inner voice, Kimberly saw her son and his friend sneaking out of the movie theater. Her intuition saved her son from potential trouble that evening!
When it comes to parenting teens, Kimberly laughs: “Dust off your 2-year-old gentle parenting skills once your child reaches adolescence! Once again, they will think they know everything, it is only going to be their way or the highway, and you are going to go back to, ‘Are you going to go to bed now with the red pajamas or the blue pajamas?’ They definitely stretch their wings!”
Learning about her children’s development as they grew helped Kimberly take these inevitable changes in stride.
Tip: Nurture your parenting partnership
Through it all, this parenting journey is not something we do alone. Co-parenting with a spouse or partner brings a new layer of learning, and a new perspective on nurturing relationships.
“Sometimes, my husband and I were on the same page," Kimberly shared, "and sometimes we weren’t. It is that give and take. I’m more touchy-feely, and he’s more real-world. He is not into coddling. When the kids were in grade school, we coached a lot of the recreation sports our kids were involved in. He was not a big fan of ‘everybody gets a trophy’ and I was."
"My husband and I were able to talk about things," she added, "but there were times we argued.”
Exploring her own personal history helped Kimberly to understand her need for balance.
“My mom died when I was 7 years old," she shared, "so I knew mothering was the most important thing, because it was something I had lacked my whole life. I knew I wanted to do the best and be the best for our family."
"I always put my relationship with my children above my relationship with my husband," she admitted. "When the dust clears and the kids are gone, you still have that relationship. Whether you are married or not, having a very strong adult relationship modeled for children is important.”
Investing in her marriage with fresh eyes and renewed grace for her husband, Kimberly found purpose in the important skills her children were learning by witnessing their parents’ relationship.
“It is not about showing the children how perfect you are and how everything is magical," she said. "There are times that there will be disagreements, but showing them how to resolve conflict in a loving way is the best gift you can give. I began to realize I was short-changing my relationship with my husband, and I needed to value his thoughts. I am stepping up and being the best parent I can be, and I need to trust and get out of the way so that my husband can be the best parent he can be.”
Tip: Connection is key
At the heart of family life is connection.
“Find and facilitate ways to interact with the children,” Kimberly advised.
From scheduling appointments to create more family time, implementing treasured seasonal traditions and inviting teens to be the family driver in an effort to put down the device and talk, Kimberly and her husband found creative ways to stay connected as their children grew. This connection remains strong, even after their children have left the nest.
Tip: Enjoy the journey
Having adult children now, Kimberly has witnessed the great rewards of nurturing parenting.
“It is fun now to see," she shared, "because they are very thoughtful, compassionate and kind, caring adults. This world needs more of that, I think.”
Letting go of expectations and focusing on the heart of life and parenting has helped Kimberly and her husband nurture children who are fully themselves, contributing to the world in a meaningful way that is all their own.
“I want my children to be loving, good people," she concluded. "Having that framework of expectation, but letting go of what college they go to, what career they have, how much money they make, has been instrumental. If we start caging the kids in we are not giving the kids the space to create who they came to be.”