Following is the full transcript of Austeja Landsbergiene’s TEDx Talk: Responsible Parenting – Create Memories, Not Expectations at TEDxRiga conference.
Every single one of us here today knows something about families. Every single one of us is someone’s child, therefore has experienced parenting. Some of us are parents and have our own children. I have four.
As human beings, we are all familiar with expectations. Expectations laid on us to succeed in life, expectations at work – to deliver, to be effective, to know, not to fail – the expectations for parents to juggle personal and professional lives, eat healthy food, prepare our children healthy meals every day, participate in sports, read books every night, and excel at work at the same time.
Today, you have expectations for me: to surprise you, to reveal something new, to tell a secret of parenting you have not known before. You have those expectations.
I have been an educator for 20 years, a mother for 15 years, two master’s degrees, one PhD, running 15 preschools in Latvia and Lithuania, three schools, author of parenting books. I bet this room is filled with thoughts, hopes, duties, and tasks. It’s like a raindrop getting bigger, bigger and bigger before it falls.
And what do we do? Without noticing, we transfer all these expectations that we have on our children. When I was opening my first preschool, I was introducing a new concept of contextual education to parents, training new teachers, and assembling IKEA furniture at the same time.
On one really hot summer day on a campus, a prospective family was being walked around, and they asked whose girl was roaming around, the one in winter boots and a plastic princess dress. I had to admit that I was the irresponsible mother, because in Lithuania we have expectations for how children should look and behave. And she was not meeting any of those. It takes guts to be acceptive of who your child is, to be at peace, to let go.
But I also have moments that don’t make me proud of myself. My daughter is seven, and she loves to polish her nails. During the spring break, she had them polished and forgot to remove it after I asked her to do so. Being the busy mother I am, I didn’t follow through, and there it was: the end of the break, in the morning, and my youngest with the nail polish. I got upset since we were on our way through the door, and I had no time to remove it. I said I was disappointed, I said I was angry, I shamed her.
On the way to school, she sat in the back in the car, and, instead of being the happy girl she is, she was quiet. She was not excited to go back to school. She greeted her teacher, and I saw she had her fingers turned inwards. She was so conscious about her nails. And I felt a stab in my heart. Why did I do this? I didn’t do this because of her, I did this because I was concerned and conscious of what the others will think of me. Credentials, education and all.
Just recently, I counseled a mother who was cooking three different dishes for her three children every day. She did not enjoy it. She was exhausted, and she felt unappreciated. I told her to stop. Just stop it. It’s been two weeks. She cooks one meal for everyone. Her children are still alive. She is much happier, both as a mother and as a human being. And it took so little to make a big change.
The paradox is that more than anything in our lives we want our children to be happy. We fear judgement, we fear disappointment, we fear failure so much that we have become constantly worried and stressed as parents. Today, we expect a kindergarten student to do what elementary students were doing just a decade ago.
On one hand we know that a child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development between zero and three, producing 700 neural connections every second. 700! We want to load this amazing speed train fully; can anyone blame us? However, we forget one thing.
Neuroscientists have also found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function. Children who are exposed to chronic stress are prone to mental problems, such as anxiety, depression, and mood disorders later in life, as well as learning difficulties. The famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky was the first to talk about the zone of proximal development. Children learn best when they are in the zone where tasks are not too easy and not too hard, where the goals are achievable with grit, determination, and passion.
How can we make sure we and our children are in that zone? How to achieve that balance where the magic of joyful learning happens? I think I was approximately seven years old, and my family and I were skiing in Georgia. We got up the mountain out there, and there on the very top was a huge storm. I completely froze and refused to ski down. My father tried to persuade me, but there was no way I was going to ski down in a storm like this. So he told me to close my eyes, he placed me between his legs, and we skied down – together. He could have made me. He could have shamed me. And yet, he chose to be kind, and that’s what I remember to this day. This is my memory of my father and my childhood, and it is my motivation to never give up.