As parents, we are often looking for the perfect answers about what our children most need from us. By the time many of us arrive at parenthood, we’ve often achieved success in our careers and feel as if we should be able to transfer that success to each of our interactions with our children. But we soon discover that there is no certainty in parenting. Instead, it is a humbling and ever-evolving experience that, in the words of Dr. Brené Brown, is “by far [our] boldest and most daring adventure.”
Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. She spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls wholeheartedness. In her latest book, Daring Greatly, Brown applies this concept to parenting and explains how embracing our vulnerability as parents can help us to connect with our children and show them how deeply they are loved, just as they are.
In a recent article for The Huffington Post, Brown describes an Oprah interview with Toni Morrison as having a longstanding impact on her daily parenting practice.
Morrison asked one provocative and penetrating question of parents: “When your child walks into the room, does your face light up?” Or like hers, do your words and facial expression often focus on what needs fixing—hair, clothes, dirt, laces, phrasing, politeness, grade—first?
Often, the parenting culture we live in focuses on being perfect. We have to have the perfect thing to say, and our children have to grow into creations who are academically and socially perfect, play the perfect sport or instrument and also one day go to the perfect college. All of that perfection is somehow supposed to be a reflection of ours. It’s all supposed to mean that they are worthy, and by default, so are we, as their parents.
In order to remind herself that parenting is about practice, not perfection, Brown wrote “The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto”:
Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions—the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.
I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.
We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.
We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other. We will set and respect boundaries; we will honor hard work, hope, and perseverance. Rest and play will be family values, as well as family practices.
You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel.
I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.
I want you to feel joy, so together we will learn how to be vulnerable.
When uncertainty and scarcity visit, you will be able to draw from the spirit that is a part of our everyday life.
Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.
We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.
As you begin your Wholehearted journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly.
I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.
Brown’s manifesto is so refreshing for modern parents because it gives us permission to breathe a sigh of relief as if we are letting hot air out of a very tense and over-full balloon and to let ourselves be the imperfect human beings we are. It allows us to raise imperfect, human children, too. The point is not to be perfect but to be present, loving and accepting with whole hearts that love what is strong as well as what is vulnerable.
Brown’s most important message to both parents and non-parents is that being vulnerable is the most courageous thing we can do to improve our relationships and our lives. Our culture perceives vulnerability as weakness, yet her research has found that the opposite is true. It takes real courage to open our hearts and let people see what isn’t perfect. When we show our imperfection as parents, our children learn that we are human, that we are courageous and that we love ourselves with both our strengths and weaknesses.
So how can you use Brown’s manifesto as a touchstone in your own parenting? Here are some examples:
- Try noticing the look on your face when your children are near. Does your face light up, or is it tense and worried? Try to smile through anxiety and worry, and see how it feels. Over time, see how this one simple shift affects your children’s mood as well as your own and the culture in your household.
- When your children seem to be in states of vulnerability, such as sadness, anger, disappointment and fear, instead of negating their feelings or forcing some replacement experience onto them, try staying with the vulnerability and accepting it. Hold your son or daughter, and let your child know you are there and want to listen. This minor shift can have a profound impact on your relationship and on how safe your children feel in opening up when life is tough.
- Lastly, the most important variable in our ability to parent wholeheartedly is our relationship to our own whole hearts, to our own vulnerability. How well do you embrace your own feelings of vulnerability? Are you often looking for ways to change your inner experience of these states by distracting yourself or forcing yourself to feel something else? If so, it will be hard to be open to your child’s vulnerability. We must start with ourselves and work from there.
The great thing about Brown’s work is that she doesn’t take herself, her work or vulnerability overly seriously. She takes all of it in human stride, laughs whenever possible and is one of the most authentic people you will ever have the pleasure of listening to.