Today, I wanted to present you with a simple parenting algebra equation to derive trust. It says that the trust our kids feel in us is directly proportional to the product of three variables: a) our trust in ourselves as parents; b) our trust in our children and their naturally unfolding processes of development; and c) our apparent trustworthiness. When combined, these three variables equal a reciprocally trusting parent-child relationship every time. But let’s check the math so you may see what I mean…
The self-trust variable is perhaps the most difficult to quantify, as it is a sneaky, squirrelly, randomly reactive, fluctuation — at best. It also happens to be the most important variable of the set, because it informs the values of the others. Put more plainly, if you don’t trust yourself in this equation, then neither will your kids. It really is that simple. But let me say it again, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page…
In order to build a trusting relationship with our children (or with anyone) we have to trust ourselves — and, generally speaking, the more the better. In fact, this is one of those areas of parenting where even if you are making lots of choices that could be considered problematic, or at least counter-productive, if you believe in yourself, in your parenting abilities, and in the choices you are making, then so will your children. I know it sounds ludicrous in a world where every parenting expert under the sun wants you to believe that you can only be an effective parent if you do exactly what they prescribe (no matter how you feel about it). I also know we are taught to undervalue, undermine, and undercut the precious resource of our self-trust everywhere in modern life. So I understand if this little pill is harder to swallow than jagged glass.
Now, before I get misquoted, let me be clear, that I am not saying, “You can starve and beat your kids and leave them sleeping outside under some cardboard in the rain, so long as you trust yourself.” But I am saying that trusting ourselves is more important than any particular technique or approach. Trusting ourselves means that we exude the confidence that puts our children at ease. Trusting ourselves means that we model our trust-worthiness (as well as the general quality of self-trust) to our kids. Trusting ourselves is how we teach our children that they can trust us, too.
Without self-trust there can be no trust in any relationship. But in order to create a reciprocal, fully-functional, trusting relationship, we have to extend trust outward beyond ourselves to the person across from us. Even when the other person is “just a kid”.
As I intimated above, if we move with confidence, our infants are naturally geared toward relying on us. And when that reliance is met with reliability, and a mutual reliance on the infant’s biological confidence, then we have reciprocal trust in action. Or put another way, when we trust ourselves, and make ourselves available for our children to rely on us (that is, we attend to their needs without hesitation and nurture the bonds we share with regularly, if not, with unflinching constance) and therefore justify the trust they extend toward us, as well as extend our own trust toward our children and their natural developmental processes, then we have created a self-perpetuating trust circuit. It feeds itself and grows itself, moment by moment, and episode after episode.
The slipperiest part of this second variable is figuring out how to extend our trust in meaningful ways. Generally speaking, it means rewriting the story we tell ourselves about how nature works, how kids grow, and what they need from us to do that. It means we recognize that child development is an extremely ordinary process precisely designed by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. It also means that, as much as humanly possible, we let our children explore, and discover, and assess, and value, and grow in their own ways — with their own beliefs and ideas and preferences.
The bottom line on variable “b” is that we’d all be surprised by what our children are capable of doing, if we just trusted them more. And more importantly, we’d be astounded how much more they’d trust themselves if we modeled it more vehemently for them. And even further, we’ll be much better candidates for our children’s developing and continued trust in us, if they know we trust them. For some encouraging examples of what I mean by this, feel free to check out this post and the comments that follow it.
The last unit in the trust equation, our “apparent trustworthiness”, is almost entirely dependent on it’s relation to the previous two variables. How well we exhibit our trust in ourselves and our trust in our children has a direct bearing on how trustworthy we appear to them. In case you’re wondering, our actual trustworthiness can have surprisingly little to do with how trustworthy our kids perceive us to be — and the latter is decidedly more important. We could be the most trustworthy humans under the sun, but if we don’t believe in ourselves, or don’t trust our kids, or don’t show our trust and trustworthiness, then we may as well try to convince our kids that 2+2 actually equals 5.
As with most equations in the parenting world, if our kids aren’t getting the message that they can safely trust us, then it doesn’t matter how trustworthy we are. We’ve got to show them. We can display it in innumerable ways, perhaps as many ways as there are interactions we have with them, but some concrete methods of communicating our trustworthiness to our children include:
- Avoiding punishments — our children are more likely to trust us when they aren’t afraid of being punished by us.
- Withholding our value judgments about their explorations — when they know that they can decide how they feel about their own experiences without interference or judgment from us, then they are more likely to want to share those feelings with us.
- Listening to them — their points of view, their interests, their thoughts and preferences, are important to them, and when we listen, then they learn that these things are important to us as well.
- Avoiding praise — when we haphazardly or overly praise, especially for minute accomplishments and for tasks they take on for their own interest, then we show ourselves as inept observers and/or untrustworthy appraisers.
- Being honest and open with them about our preferences, rationale, and general thoughts — when children feel us being honest, it strengthens the notion that honesty is safe in the family, and, of course, models the preferred behavior.
Obviously, the variables will remain — well, variable. Depending on the parent, the day, and the state of mind of all parties involved, the levels of trust will fluctuate. But with conscientious attention, we can manage the proportions in such a way that even notable fluctuations are kept within an optimal range. This is because, although the proportional relationship between the trust variables is precise, and determinant, the effect of the equation itself is averaged across time.
So even when we have rough days, even when we utterly flub in any particular trust equation, our cumulative effect is what matters most. Children are exceptionally forgiving. If we blow it today in showing our trust in ourselves or in our kids, or in showing our trustworthiness, we can rely on the fact that we’ll be graded on a curve with respect to all of our other days and trust-proofs. And if we didn’t prove ourselves in the way that we would like today, then we have another opportunity, and another, and another… just waiting for us — to trust and be trusted.
And that’s really the key phrase here, “to trust and be trusted” — that’s the goal, and the means to get there. The two of them go hand in hand and feed each other. And like all direct proportions — to one another, they are exactly equal. If trust increases then being trusted will, too. And if our children feel trusted, then they, too, will be trusting. And that’s an equation on which all of us can rely, or should I say, trust.
Thought provoking, as usual Nathan. I think the key for me is always that one you mention of the child’s perception of how trustworthy we are. If they sustain their trust in us when they leave the nest also has interesting ramifications for the parent-child relationship. 🙂
Nice article on a difficult topic. The bullet points really take it home. Trust definitely begins with us!
As usual! Am convinced and Impressed! Keep sharing 🙂
Thanks so much ladies, for the comments and encouragement.
So glad that you found something to take away.
So, Nathan, do you think there’s a difference between trusting your children in the present moment and trusting that they will do something or have some sort of developmental milestone in the future? My husband is convinced that our children will never “learn” to sleep alone unless we initiate it, and he believes that toilet training won’t just happen on its own. I try to argue that I trust our kids will naturally seek autonomy over time as they grow. He says he can trust what he has experience in, and since this is the first time we’ve raised children, he is not convinced that those things will happen in the future.
Powerful questions Kristanne!
Yes, I believe there is a “difference” between trust in the moment, and trust in what will happen. But both spring from trusting that there is a time for everything. Time for babies and kids to kick us in the ribs half the night, and time for us to have the bed to ourselves, heck, even time for us to miss having our babies in the bed with us… All things in their own time. And yet, even your husband’s feelings of wanting the bed back have their place and time too… Trust in the “right timing” of things no matter what they are, is a powerful kind of trust.
Historically, we would have had our kids in the same cave, hut, room, sleeping area, etc., until puberty or marriage — in some cultures even longer. And I think the modern version of this is the over-sized family bed, such that there’s plenty of room for kids and grown ups — which comes in handy even after the kids move on to their own beds and/or rooms. This strikes me as the most natural version, but not one that all parents want. In your case, I think you can discuss, and occasionally revisit the subject, even set up the eventual kid bed that yours will transition into, so that the idea is presented and “on the table”. Then let your children move toward it as they will. Without the idea presented, they might not think of it on their own for quite a while longer than your husband might like… Our Echo is four, and she is sure that she will want to sleep in a bed without us at some point. But she tried last night to have a “sleep over” with her big sister and that lasted all of 4 minutes before she wanted Mom to come back and help her fall asleep in the family bed. The younger ones usually want to sleep alone sooner than the first one — a trend that is fairly consistent with most other things, too. There are no hard and fast rules about when kids need to move on to their own beds, other than perhaps, “don’t force it”.
With toilet training, the unfortunate side issue is that by the time society feels uncomfortable with a kid in diapers (around 2 or 3), we’ve already really successfully trained the child to ignore her body signals, and to do this abnormal thing of going to the bathroom on herself (in the diaper). So in order to get her back to doing what makes since to the body, we have to spend some time “recalibrating” her understanding of the process. That being said, children are really brilliant, if they see you going to the bathroom on a toilet, and they are given an opportunity to check it out, and you talk about it some, they have no trouble picking up the process in their own time. Bella (our eldest) went for it early, then decided she’d rather go in the diaper and did so for another year. Xi didn’t like having things on her, or having to be wiped down, so she went for it right before 2 and never turned back. Echo wasn’t trained to go in a diaper, we used E.C. with her, so she was going in the toilet consistently at 1. Again, I’d say forcing (or bribing) compliance in this area is the only “no-fly zone”.
Autonomy is different from both of the above examples, though. With those items, we are talking about them developing a certain desire that is a part of modernity, not necessarily part of natural development. With “autonomy” per se, one might argue that children were “born for it!” Given natural, deep attachment, bonding, and nurturing, and time to grow, and trust in their process, all children are geared to be autonomous — interdependent and social, but also self-determining, and self-reliant. If we don’t get in the way, they can’t stop themselves from this drive. But we don’t have to evict them from the nest to make this drive kick in — it’s already there, just ask any 2 year old to do something he doesn’t want to do, you’ll see plenty of autonomy!
Let me know if I didn’t hit the mark in addressing your interest, Kristanne. And thanks for writing in!
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