Following is the full transcript of Austeja Landsbergiene’s TEDx Talk: Responsible Parenting – Create Memories, Not Expectations at TEDxRiga conference.
Austeja Landsbergiene – Founder, Vaikystės Sodas
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.
This simple question, what kind of memories do I want for my child, keeps me going and should us all: at home, schools, everywhere. Is our parenting founded on kindness and generosity? Is our parenting founded on criticism and hostility? What is our habit of mind? What are we looking for? Are we looking for the things we can appreciate, or are we looking for mistakes?
Kindness makes our children feel loved, not the degrees we have, not our concerns, not the number of after-school activities we take them to every day or homework we check. Kindness – that is our key story and key memory. Do you remember how many teachers made a difference in your life? One? Maybe two. Three?
Imagine how our world would be different if only three did not make a profound difference. Children don’t need a stress-free life. Moderate or good stress, such as studying hard and learning new skills, builds circuitry and a more resilient brain. But prolonged stress reaps chaos.
Remember – kindness every single day. And for those already posing a question about encouraging laziness, I answer, “No, it will not encourage this.” Human beings are born curious and creative. Have you ever seen a one-year-old who gives up on walking? No, they get up as many times as needed, no matter how many times they fall. And they do. Because they are determined, and they don’t fear failure, yet.
What is failure? I oftentimes ask parents why they are so stressed when it comes to parenting. They say they don’t want their child to be a failure. But we impose our understanding of failure of mid-20s, 30s, 40s, whatever, to our five-year-olds. They have to enjoy the carelessness of life.
I have recently read a story of a very, very talented and young girl who got into Columbia, only to have gone missing one year later. She felt guilt and anxiety, but she could not go on pretending; pretending that she wanted to do things that she really didn’t. Both she and her mother felt an enormous stress and then a great relief when reunited after the girl had been found. It’s a story with a happy ending, a memory created that will last for life.
And even though I might have created an expectation for a magic trick, I have to disappoint you. Magic is the memory that we create now. I create memories just like you do. There is no perfect day or moment to come. If we keep waiting for a perfect day to come, it may never come. We will come back too late from work. We will be tired, we will be frustrated, we will be exhausted and angry, and it may rain when we have planned a perfect walk in the park.
Parenting is spontaneous, more than anything else. Parenting is about the unexpected moments of bliss that we savor. When we decide to run a marathon, we don’t run 42 kilometers on our first try. We may run one kilometer or just 500 meters. But just like all big journeys start with a first step, so does the journey of parenting. Hug your child, smile, bite your tongue when you are going to reprimand. It’s only a dozen of minutes most of us spend with our children per day, let those minutes count.
Let us make those minutes a candidate for the best memory competition: an experience of unconditional love. Last week, I was in Iceland, and at a conference I met a mother who said that she used to want her son to get the very best grades. She also used to tell him that she was too busy to do the things with him that he wanted and that she considered were not important – like going for a ride on a tractor that he was asking her to do. And then she realized that better grades were her expectations, and the tractor was his. And a tractor ride it was. After a while, his grades improved.
She told me not about the grades, she told me about the relationship she has with her son today, and how letting him go brought peace into their lives. She was able to create an amazing memory. You don’t need to not have expectations; always do your best, and when you do your best: do better. Children will see it and will live by example. You won’t need to say anything.
But when it comes to them, think about the future, think 10, think 20 years from today. What do you want your daughter to remember? What do you want your son to remember? Teach them to ride a bike; to unsuccessfully bake a cake and giggle about it; have a difficult conversation; laugh today when you have gotten angry yesterday; forgive; apologize; teach values; whisper “I love you” more often than you think you should and more than you have done before.
Dare to create loving memories to last a lifetime. I have come to believe it’s the one thing worth living for. Thank you.