Raising strong independent kids

Often, I’m asked if I parent the same way that I lead my teams and coach my clients, and the answer is yes.  My teams will tell you I’m the GSD boss, and my kids will tell you I’m the GSD Momma.  It’s not uncommon for me to talk GSD Factor attributes with my kids at their sporting events, drop them off at school and then turn around and have a coaching session with a client saying a similar thing. 

All these attributes – be confident, be inquisitive, be imaginative, be present, be resilient, be influential – can lead to a fullness of life, be it a tiny human life or a big human life. 

Sometimes we need to keep our ears and hearts open, even to the smallest of tiny humans. What I have come to realize is that my tiny humans are always watching. Always listening. Always observing. My daughter is the eldest, and already, I can see how she is absorbing and taking bits and pieces of what she witnesses in my life and adapting them to her own life and experiences.  At a young age she has already endured bullying situations because of living out her true authentic self, but she has met them with confidence and resilience. I’m so proud of her.

Listen, parenthood is not for the faint of heart.  Being a parent is the greatest gift and the hardest course I’ll ever take. I’ve learned to listen to my tiny humans’ mini-life lessons because even though I’m their Mom, they are still teaching me.

I’m passionate about many things, but especially being a mom and raising well-rounded tiny humans in hopes that they turn into well-rounded adults.  Because of this, my husband and I are raising both our tiny humans with strong voices, the space to know who they are, and the encouragement to be confident, bold, and many times, courageous.

Trust me when I tell you that this is easier said than done.  What happens when you raise a confident, articulate four-year-old who knows what he wants, lays out how he wants it and gives you the reasons why it’s a good idea.  I’m negotiating with myself, and that’s hard to do!  I wouldn’t change it for the world, though.  Even at a young age, he is exercising his strength, his independence and his confidence. 

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’ve invited two dear colleagues and friends to join this conversation about raising strong, independent kids.  Welcome Dr. Michelle Morkert and Tracy Borreson. 

Dr. Michelle, your kids are older than mine and Tracy’s. What’s that one piece of advice you wish you had received?

Dr. Michelle – I wish that I would have listened to my own wisdom about parenting instead of taking the “expert” advice that didn’t feel right for me.  I was a young parent, and I didn’t trust myself enough to make choices that aligned with my full feminism.  Of course, I raised my kids with my trailblazer values even before I claimed that concept.  However, when I look back on my younger self, I see that I was muted and often apologetic because I was still growing into my agency.  Parenting is daunting, and it certainly activated my Imposter Syndrome.

I remember reading Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born before my youngest was born, and in it, I saw myself as a participant in the institution of motherhood.  I certainly critiqued and tweaked the traditional parenting “rules” when they didn’t fit for us, especially when we moved our family from Illinois to Massachusetts when I started my doctoral program.  Talk about backlash.  Whew.  Folks had strong opinions about that move, but I felt that maternal guilt trap that we see exoticized throughout literature and contemporary media.  I believed that guilt was part of motherhood.  That’s my second piece of advice.  Cut yourself some slack.  There’s no perfect parent and no perfect child.  There’s you and them.  Let that unfold.

When my children were in grade school and high school, I earned a Fulbright scholarship through the State Department to teach in Croatia.  My spouse and oldest child stayed in Illinois while I solo-parented two of our kids in Zadar.  I was reminded again of Adrienne Rich’s description of the days she felt most connected to her motherhood, which were spent in playfulness at the beach.  She moved outside of the parental expectations and simply connected with her children through adventure.  The time I spent raising children in Croatia changed me as a parent and deepened our relationships.  I taught them how to be self-sufficient and resourceful in new ways.  For example, we would decide to take a weekend trip to Split and they’d pack their bags, run to the bakery downstairs to buy a snack for the bus, grab a plastic bag because of motion sickness on winding roads along the coast, and pick the sites they wanted to see.  They witnessed me get lost and rebound (sometimes impatiently).  They learned the importance of finding the nearest caffe bar to get our bearings and cultivated a new understanding of themselves by living as local outsiders.  We also slowed down our pace.  It was a learning curve for us to relax and just “be” instead of rushing.

Tracy, you have built your business on living your true, authentic self. How do you take those learnings that you had to implement for yourself and to help your clients and apply that to your raising your son?

Tracy – I think one of the biggest learning experiences that’s relevant in both arenas is the creation of SPACE. There’s space required to explore your authentic goals and way of being. There’s space required to explore what’s right for you (and what’s not), and there’s space required to parent; although we don’t often create it.

I think most people, especially parents, live in a state of, “just get things done”. We rush from one thing to the next without much thought to the VALUE of the activity. Kids are in SO many clubs and sports they are busy ALL the time, and the space just disappears.

But I know we all know it feels easier to parent in a difficult situation when we feel capable. So what activities (or rest) give you that feeling? It’s unique for each of us, and when we can find the things that drive our energy and create space for them, we get to be the parents (and business owners) we want to be ????

As you raise your son with that true, authentic self lens, it breeds strength and independence.  How do you guide and navigate that as he is still learning at a young age?

Tracy – Not going to pretend it’s not tricky! It’s a constant balancing act. Primarily because there’s a balance between being yourself and still participating in the rest of the human ecosystem. There’s an ecosystem at home and a different one at school, and authenticity isn’t necessarily about showing up the same in both places but showing up “as you would” in each of those places.

I focus on balancing two things: personal expression (and the rest of the team acknowledging it) and listening to others. Being your true, authentic self is about expressing what is real to you, and in return, creating space for others to be their authentic selves means understanding that in many (if not most) cases, you will be experiencing something different than they are, even in the same situation. So these are the two things we practice: strength for me AND strength for others.

Dr. Michelle; I’ll pose the same question and add: how do you guide and navigate during the teen years?!

Dr. Michelle – Partner with your teens to teach them that it’s ok to feel uncomfortable.  They don’t need to be fixed, and neither do challenging situations.  Make yourself available in case they want to connect, and remember that their separation from you is not personal.  It’s not about you.  It’s about their individual journey.  The hardest moments can yield emotional maturity, creativity, and self-trust.  Shit can feel intense during the teen years, and I’m here to tell you that if it does, nothing has gone wrong. 

I remember one big surprise for me was that I hadn’t understood that raising my kids to be themselves, raising them differently would mean that they were not like everyone else.  I mean, I knew that intellectually, but I could not imagine just how hard that could be for them in a stage of life where they wanted to fit in with their peers.  It’s the life of a trailblazer, right? I wanted to raise them to be trailblazers before I had the language.

Recently, I experienced a moment that felt heartening for me as a parent.  My son, Eli,  is the youngest and he’s huge.  He’s 6’3 and is the biggest person in our family.  I’m always asking him to reach what my 5’4 self cannot.  He’s soft spoken, unless he’s not.  He’s funny and gentle even though he is athletic.  I think that he’s always been self-conscious of his size, so he uses his strength judiciously.  Our middle daughter, Scout, is a few years older than Eli. is a tattooed barista, cat-lover with bright hair and an enormous heart.  One day she was at work when one of her co-workers who knew Eli from high school told a story about him that made me cry mom tears.  Apparently, one of Eli’s friends was sending a girl inappropriate texts and making sexist comments.  Eli was there and, in front of everyone, told his friend to stop.  He told the friend that texting and talking like that was not ok.  The friend stopped in that moment and apologized.  Eli was not ashamed to speak his truth as an ally in front of others.  I think that the tears were inspired by relief that our family values that encompassed his childhood sunk in.  Seriously.  We would make an agreement that I would take the kids to watch Twilight movies only if they agreed to analyze gender together on the way home from the theater.  Welcome to living with a killjoy feminist.

Tracy, any parting words for parents reading this and saying, “I want to raise strong, independent kids, but I’m not sure how,” or “How do I raise them with these attributes when I don’t have them mastered myself?”

Tracy – I do think that raising strong, independent kids is made possible by seeing ourselves as strong and independent. Kids learn more by absorbing OUR experiences than we think, so if we want them to be brave, WE need to be brave. If we want them to be independent, we need to show them what that looks like. And if we’re not showing up that way today, WE need to take the first step in finding that within ourselves.

To me, strong and independent doesn’t exist without caring and compassion. That’s part of my personal brand, so that’s how I show up. That’s what kids see (yours and others BTW). That it’s not US vs. THEM but a WE that we build. When kids live like that, and they see the WE at home, they can bring that, with strength, to the world.

Dr. Michelle – For parents of today who have to navigate so much, what do you focus on with your kids? 

Dr. Michelle –  Safety.  I want them to feel safe to be who they are, and I want them to feel the safety of my love for them. I travel often, and one of the lessons that I’ve always tried to teach my children is that the safety of love expands beyond the walls of our home.  We can feel deeply connected even if we are not together.  Finally, as citizens who can now vote and work, I focus on the role that they can play to make a difference in the world, which is about collective safety.  Our oldest, Hannah, is teaching me the biggest lesson right now about just how beautiful a parent-child relationship can be when you begin to relate together as adults.  I feel safe to show up with her authentically.

Thank you both for joining this conversation.  To all the parents out there, we see you. We hear you, and we are cheering for you.  Be sure to reach out to any of us if you want to learn more or need some advice.