Why parents need to lead from the front, not herd from behind

Simplicity parenting

Somehow the practice has evolved in western cultures that to be a good mother you have to become a slave to your children’s needs.

This is absolutely fine for the first few years of life when a child needs all the love and care you can give it. But it baffles me why so many parents continue to do everything for their children long after they can do things for themselves and then complain that their life is no longer their own.

Third world parenting practices

A memorable example of parenting practices I can share with you comes from the time when I lived in London many years ago. During the course of a week, I was visited by an Indonesian couple and their small toddler and, a few days later, by an English couple with a toddler of the same age. Both children were well-behaved little boys who could walk and say a few words.

In both cases, the parents and I chatted away as the child amused himself playing with a toy on the floor, and at one point during each visit, each of the boys developed a runny nose that needed wiping.

The English mother broke off the conversation, crossed the room to get a tissue from the box, wiped the child’s nose, then put the tissue in the bin.

The Indonesian mother told her son to fetch a tissue to wipe his nose, showing him what to do by pretending to wipe her own. She then pointed to the bin, told him to put the tissue in it, and that was that. The child did everything for himself. He was learning what tissues are for, what bins are for, and what to do if his nose ever runs again. With a bit of practice, he’d be able to do it for himself.

The English child, by contrast, remained ignorant and helpless, dependent on its mother to continue wiping its nose, probably for quite some time to come.

Jean Liedloff’s childrearing studies

I saw similar instances of parenting on a daily basis during the 20 years I lived on the Indonesian island of Bali. This has also been documented by Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, a classic study of childrearing practices that challenges many western assumptions. It was based on the two and a half years she spent living with an Indian tribe in the South American jungle.

She visited Bali in 1972 and was interviewed about some exchanges she witnessed there between parents and children. One instance she marvelled at was of a 5-year old child sitting in his father’s lap while the two had lunch together, both eating from the father’s place:

There was perfect calm. You can imagine in our culture having a five-year-old on your lap, saying, ‘I want this, I don’t want that’ – and the usual tension between the child and the parent saying, ‘No, you have to have this, ‘Don’t touch that!’ ‘Eat up!’ ‘Sit still!’…

He was totally at home sitting on his father’s knees, almost as though they had one body. One would have a bite, the other would have a bite. There was just no conflict. It was total welcome – complete acceptance of the fact that they were on the same team and have the same interests. There was perfect ease and serenity. Nobody trying to prove anything to the other; no jockeying for control.

Why parents need to lead from the front

Something I hear again and again from clients I work with who need help to clear their clutter and organize their home is that they did not learn these skills when growing up. Sometimes this is because their parents or caregivers did not have the skills themselves, but in a surprising number of cases it is because the mother did all the household tasks herself — shopping for food, cooking, washing dishes, cleaning, vacuuming, tidying, organizing, doing the laundry, ironing, taking out the garbage, and all the other chores that are part of running a home. Then the child grows up, leaves home, and has no idea how to take care of themselves.

Mothers, meanwhile, put their own lives on the back burner, and they email me to ask what they can do to escape the never-ending drudgery their life has become.

The answer lies in teaching children to help around the house. This frees up parents to have time for themselves and helps children to develop essential life skills. It’s a win-win no-brainer, and as my story about the Indonesian boy shows, the earlier you start, the better.

The natural order of things

Many women devote years of their lives to raising their children, making them the centre of their lives.

This leads to two main problems. It leads to empty nest syndrome after the children grow up and leave home, because the woman has no idea who she is or what to do without the needs of her children to fill her daily schedule. It also raises children to have a sense of entitlement without having to earn it, who tend to lack respect for their mother because she is not a role model for them.

John Rosemond summed up the solution beautifully in his 2016 article, Why your kids should not be the most important people in your family:

The most important person in an army is the general. The most important person in a corporation is the CEO. The most important person in a classroom is the teacher. And the most important person in a family are the parents.

The natural order of things is that the leader leads and the followers follow, not the other way around.

Kim John Payne offers highly effective methods for tackling this issue in his excellent book, Simplicity Parenting.

Related articles
Do you walk your dog, or does it walk you?
How to teach your children to live clutter-free
Back from Bali – A conversation with Jean Liedloff

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Copyright © Karen Kingston 2018

About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her international bestseller, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, has sold over 2 million copies in 26 languages. She is known for her in-depth, practical and perspective-changing approach.
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6 Responses to Why parents need to lead from the front, not herd from behind

  1. Birgitta B says:

    This makes me think of Jessica Mitford’s memoir “Hons and Rebels” about growing up as one of the six Mitford sisters in the 1920s and how the eldest (Nancy) actually moved from home and lived on her own in a small flat in London for a while. A very short while. She came back to the ancestral home after only a few weeks if I remember rightly – well, maybe it was a few months. Anyway, when asked by younger sister Jessica why on earth she would move back home after finally having acquired independence, Nancy’s answer was (I’m quoting from memory): “Oh darling, it was terrible. I was knee-deep in stockings and knickers. Nobody to pick up.”

  2. Pixie says:

    My mother and father taught me to do all of the household tasks listed above—and more, including outdoor work and blowing my own nose—with one exception. For some unknown reason, although I hung and took down wash loads from the line and ironed, folded, and put away clothing and other articles, I was never taught how to use a washing machine until just before I went off to college. Operating a washer is not a difficult task…yet, I remember feeling so inexperienced and tentative those first few times I did laundry alone at school. Imagine what a disservice it is—and how overwhelming it must feel—to go out into the world with limited skills if you’ve (figuratively speaking) “been having your nose wiped” for all of your life!

  3. Alison says:

    I wish I’d read & taken this article on board 13 years ago! Where did I go wrong? I think I started out with the right idea, but now I have a teen who thinks she is entitled and does very little to help. Plus I have got a chronic illness! I wonder if the same book, Simplicity Parenting, would work just as well for a single mum with a teenage daughter (one thing my daughter is good at though, is decluttering).

    • Hi Alison – A section of the Simplicity Parenting book is about helping kids to declutter. The rest of it is about wise parenting in the modern era. I think you’ll find some gems in there that it’s not too late to implement in your relationship with your daughter.

  4. Ruby says:

    Oh Boy! Did I need to read this today. I was observing my little 6 year old mouthing off to me as I dressed her & put her clothes away & I knew when my rage bubbled up that I am setting negative patterns with her around relating, respecting, and responsibility.

    So to retrain her (and me) what would you suggest as first steps Karen? I’m guessing empowering her to do more to support our household & herself?

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