Our Parenting Choices
"Given raising a child is one of the most important things we were ever going to do, I believe these questions deserved a lot more thought than we would naturally give them based on society's norms."
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1. We knew parenting was going to have tough moments, especially with twins, so we wanted to have a clear idea as to how we were going to parent up front, so we could be prepared for them. While there are lots of resources out there that can help, I was surprised at how little community level discussion there was of parenting styles and the impact they have.
2. Myself and Laura spent a lot of time trying to figure out what impact we wanted to have on our children, and what type of parents we needed to be to do so. This made life much easier once the twins arrived. We rarely disagreed on approach even though we were constantly learning and having to make decisions about what we did and how we did it, when we were both tired and irritable!
3. We used what we thought had had a good and bad impact on us in our own childhoods, character traits we thought would be helpful in later life for the twins and people we admired as inspiration.
4. Happiness, contentment, freedom, independence, curiosity and self worth were top of our list.
5. We then researched what style of parenting would support these outcomes. We found that for us RIE/Respectful Parenting and Montessori education were pretty much spot on.
6. RIE centres around treating the babies with "respect" as “unique and authentic” human beings from day one, and Montessori on “following the child”, fostering their independence and creating an environment centred on their developmental needs.
7. These provided plenty of guidance and practical advice on how we could parent. We identified 6 key ways of doing things which would be the most critical for us to try and have the impact we wanted on the twins:
- Use narration and language that encourages intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset
- Pausing, observing the twins and trying to understand how they are feeling and what they want, so that we could show respect to their preferences from a young age, and build their sense of confidence and independence
- Involving the twins in what we were doing, giving them advance warning, and asking their permission, so that they felt involved and in control
- Create a safe environment that helps them learn…then back off and give them space to grow. Building confidence and independence by allowing them to develop at their own pace and under their own direction wherever possible
- Lots of freedom, within clear limits, helping them become curious and confident whilst still providing a feeling of safety and security.
(TG = Twin Girl, TB = Twin Boy)
I had a bit of a unusual childhood by UK standards, and while I look back fondly on it, It certainly left me with a fair bit to unpack in my 20’s and 30’s as I got to grips with the “real” world and understanding who the "real me" was so I could try to show up every day as the best version of myself, something I have always felt passionately about. Speaking to friends, I don’t think this is particularly uncommon, even in those who had fairly “normal” (whatever that means!) upbringings. I wasn’t particularly surprised then, that one of my biggest concerns when thinking about having children was “how am I not going to give them all my bad habits, limiting beliefs and generally leave them with a ton of work to do as adults!”.
As I researched this, it became clear to me, particularly as a coach, that this was really a question that forced me to hold up a mirror to myself, and examine who I was, and how I come across so I could think about what kind of effect this is going to have on the twins. This massively changed the way we thought about parenting, and lead us to two questions:
What impact do I want to have on my children?
What kind of parent do I want to be?
These aren’t questions that are a part of our education system, or something that in my experience traditionally gets discussed in any kind of meaningful way with family and friends. Most advice we received was along the lines of “it’s tough, but you’ll (have to…) find a way to get through it” or specific anecdotes about babies falling down stairs and throwing up in awkward situations (or maybe that's just my social circle…!). Thinking back, there were rarely any discussion about someone's general approach to parenting, just point advice on how to deal with specific situations that may or may not have been backed up by some kind of thought through method. Given raising a child is one of the most important things we were ever going to do, I believed these questions deserved a lot more thought than we would naturally give them based on society's norms.
One of the few advantages of having 3 rounds of IVF across 4 years, is that as a couple we got a lot of time to discover these questions, talk about possible answers, and to agree what we thought would work for us up front rather than style it out on the fly. Given we often approach things very differently, we both knew it was going to be important to figure out how we wanted to approach parenting before the sleep deprivation, nappies, bottles, and general carnage of two new people arriving got in the way. I had also heard that twins are experts at playing parents off against each other, and that it was super important for us to show a united front, or risk being run rings around!
Boy was I glad we did. Parenting can be tough, and trying to work through this kind of decision making on the days when you are in the thick of it, exhausted and just trying to get by with no fatalities would be a lot to ask.
I have gone into a lot of detail as to how we answered these questions, not to convince of our particular parenting approach (how someone chooses to parent is 100% their choice), but to give an indication of the level of thinking and structure we put in place in order for us to have confidence that we being the best parents we hoped we could be. Honestly, it also helps us to have all this written down so we can remind ourselves what we are supposed to be doing every now and again after a few nights of sleep deprivation!
What impact did we want to have on our children?
Answering this first question was easier. When we sat down and started to talk about what we wanted for our children, plenty of things popped up naturally related to avoiding things that we didn't enjoy or feel we benefited from growing up, or doubling down on things that we did. This gave plenty to go after, and if anything we wanted to make sure we didn't end up overcompensating! We also added a couple of additional criteria in - what kind of world did we think our children would be growing up into, and given this, what did we think would help them to be content and happy? We also thought about what traits we admired in others that we would hope to see in our children.
Of course, the answer to this is different for every family. We were lucky that we both felt very strongly that our children weren't here to complete our lives, but that they are equal human beings, have their own paths to follow and lives to live. We made the choice to bring them into the world and it’s our responsibility to make them feel loved, keep them safe and give them the best possible environment to grow up in, but with zero expectation of getting anything back, being owed something by them, or having any influence in their life other than that which they feel we have earnt.
It goes without saying that we wanted them to be happy, content and healthy, with below being the more specific things that we both signed up to that we felt were most important to achieving this:
We want them to live their own lives - As long as they are happy and content, we don’t care what they choose to do in life (where they live, what they study, what they do for work and who they love) and we can't and shouldn't try to control or unduly influence these things.
We want them to grow up independent and curious, with tons of self-worth and confidence.
We wanted to encourage habits and mindsets that are proven to help them be happier and better able to pursue their dreams In later life, that gives them the positivity and resilience to go after anything they want to, whilst not being afraid of failure. - self-discipline, a healthy lifestyle, mindfulness, curiosity, love of learning, plenty of intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset.
Once we had put the time into getting to the bottom of this, it was encouraging how much we agreed given we are quite different people. Of course, there is and continues to be plenty of detail to be figured out as new situations pop up, but to date, even in the most trying situations, we haven’t come across anything that makes me think we aren't on the same page. This is a massive confidence boost and I am convinced has saved us a lot of bickering and confusion, not great things for the twins to be role modelling!
What kind of parents did we therefore want to be?
It was surprising once we got into the nitty gritty just how much of a difference this made to our parenting and the environment we wanted to create for the twins. Of course, we aren't the first people to want these things for their children, so after a ton of research and discussion, we used the following two philosophies as heavy inspiration:
Resources for Infant Educators (RIE) / Respectful Parenting
So what is Respectful Parenting? This is based on (although I am not an expert or guaranteeing we are following 100%!) the RIE (Resources for Infant Educators - catchy!) parenting style created by Magda Gerba and more recently popularised by Janet Lansbury. There are a lot of resources online but a great place to start is with RIE or Janet's websites. Some of the key aspects of RIE as described in Magda’s own words are:
Respecting the child: Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.
This in turn creates an:
Authentic Child: An authentic child is one who feels secure, autonomous, competent, and connected.
It was easy to see how these matched with our hopes for the twins and plays directly into creating confidence and independence, as by treating them respectfully from a young age, they become used to being part of decision making and having control over their own destiny.
I believe It’s so important that we are respectful to our children for a couple of reasons:
It just teaches them (and us!) to be polite and respectful to others, which in general is a great set of behaviours to have.
It reinforces their own autonomy and confidence from day 1
A massive part of us doing this successfully was that we must become much better observers of and listeners to our children, which I believe over time will create a much more healthy relationship with the twins, and make me a better person overall!
Similarly, the Montessori education system is designed to “follow the child”, that does not mean following the child around the room (although it does sometimes!), but more broadly means to create an environment that is tailored to the child's development, but allows them to freely, safely and independently explore and learn based on their own choices. This also develops their self confidence, self-worth, initiative, curiosity, love of learning and critically over time makes them more likely to have a growth mindset and being intrinsically motivated, which we believe has benefits in terms of happiness and contentment over time. Initially created in the early 1900s by Maria Montessori, it traditionally focuses on how to do this within a classroom, however, the principles (which overlap nicely with respectful parenting) and practices can be adopted in the home. The other thing I love about Montessori, thinking back to my reflections on the need to constantly examine yourself and change to be a better parent, is that their ethos is very much focused on the growth of the child and adult in partnership.
What did this mean in practice for us?
So how do we “respect” and “follow” our children, and create this secure and autonomous authenticity!? (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it..!)
Following the children was simpler (although not necessarily easier!) in terms of taking time to see what they were interested in and wanted to do vs feeling like we always had to be on standby to entertain them. At its most basic, this means giving them plenty of opportunity for self-directed learning and experimenting, wherever possible letting them choose what they do, how they do it, and how long for. That said, some thought had to go into creating the right environment to match their developmental stages and treading the line between guiding them and showing them how to do something once or twice, vs taking over and robbing them of the opportunity to learn was tough to judge sometimes!
In terms of respecting our children, It was easy to think “Of course, I treat my children with respect”, “what kind of a parent do you think I am?”. I doubt there are many parents that want to go out of their way to be intentionally disrespectful to their children. But when we held up a mirror and really examined the way that we were parenting, it was so easy for things that didn’t align with respectful parenting to creep in without us realising.
A really simple way of checking if we are being respectful is to ask ourselves “would I do this (in this way) to an adult?”. Hmmmm, so when we asked ourselves this it was surprising that we would catch ourselves sometimes not be being respectful in our dealings with the twins - picking them up whenever we like or taking things off of them with no warning or explanation, hurrying them along when we are in a rush. If you are honest with yourself would you treat another adult like that? The answer is uncomfortably often “no”. So what do you do? You still have a life to live, jobs to do, and at least one if not more small human beings who just didn't get the memo this morning about what needed to happen when…
With all this in mind, we identified several key components of both RIE and Montessori that whilst they required some thought, thankfully were not that hard to at least begin to put into practice. These were worthy of their own posts, so please click through for my deep dive on each:
Pausing, observing the twins and trying to understand how they are feeling and what they want, so that we could show respect to their preferences from a young age, and build their sense of confidence and independence
Involving the twins in what we were doing, giving them advance warning, asking their permission and giving them choices, so that they felt involved and in control
Create a safe environment that helps them learn…then back off and give them space to grow. Building confidence and independence by allowing them to develop at their own pace and under their own direction and motivation wherever possible
What went well?
I cant imagine parenting not having done this thinking and having our approach talked through and largely agreed (at least in principle!) before the twins arrived and things got a bit crazy! The depth and breadth of information available for both RIE and Montessori is such that I was able to both get comfortable with the practicalities, but more importantly, be confident that by following these, we would have the impact we wanted to on the twins.
By being super clear and lined up made every decision related to the twins and our parenting so much easier to make. When something new or unexpected happened, we could easily run this through the same logic we had used before (and look for others using the same principles, and how they handled it) and make changes, rather than having to figure everything out from scratch.
Honestly, for us as a couple, whilst things could be tough and strained in many other respects due to time pressures and energy levels, we always seemed to navigate things that involved the twins without any major drama. This was a relief for us, but most importantly it meant that the twins got a really calm, consistent and about as balanced as could be, parenting experience from both of us. I also suspect this has at least in part contributed to their superstar characters (admittedly I am biased, but I doubt it is my genes 🤣)!
Being a new parent is an intimidating experience, and there is a lot of social pressure and feelings of judgement as to how you are "doing". It's so easy to pop on social and see lots of pictures of glamourous families enjoying themselves in beautiful surroundings, meanwhile, you are in your jogging bottoms for the 48th day in a row, desperately trying to keep an eye on the twins while making lunch and resisting the urge to climb into the Tupperware cupboard for a nap. By having a really clear and, at least to us, evidence-based framework for what we were doing, and how we were doing it, we gained a lot of confidence that whatever our best was at the time, it would always help to have the desired impact on the twins long term. This made in the moment comparisons with or judgement from others much less important.
Whilst this seems a lot to get through in one go, it actually never seemed that hard or time-consuming, as we got to pick this knowledge and practises up as the twins grew, so if I can give only one piece of advice, it’s pick the thing you feel most strongly about or think will have the biggest impact, go deep, figure out what it means for your parenting style, start using it, and then move onto the next thing!
What was hard and what would I do differently?
I am told I have pretty high standards in general, and I suspected that when I had the twins, I would be fairly uncompromising about applying those standards to the way the twins were treated. Sadly for everyone else, this turned out to be 100% true. The downside? It made me a pretty brutal person to be around, adult to adult. After all, I was really clear how I wanted the twins looked after and interacted with, and I wasn't really of the mind to cut anyone any slack in doing it.
Of course, this just didn't make sense in the real world, as they say, variety is the spice of life, and I certainly couldn't expect friends, relatives, caregivers and randoms on the street to just instantly digest what was for us years of research and thinking, and know what to do with it. My wife was as ever was much more sensible about this and I tried my best to follow her advice of just letting things go when we were with others, as in the long run, it wouldn't really make much difference.
There were however still issues. When the twins there were breaks in the routine, or the twins spent a lot of time with others, a lot of the benefits we felt we had managed to gain (basically all boiling down to how happy and content they were when there was only one of us to look after them) felt like they had evaporated. It took a few painful days of upsets and boundary re-setting to get them back on track. Ultimately though, I couldn't do a lot about it, we were certainly keen the twins spent plenty of time with others, so I just ended up being a bit of a moody sod, which of course just made things worse! The good news is, as the twins are getting older, the impact of this is getting shorter and shorter, which means I am much happier just going with the flow (and hopefully more pleasant to be around), as long as the twins are happy and content!