I just spent 10 days on a 42 ft sailboat with 10 other people, including 5 children. As a parenting and communication specialist, it was awfully interesting to observe how adults and children interact. Let me share some of my most interesting findings with you!
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1. Adults Are More Polite Towards Adults Than Children.
Maybe you noticed this fact already in your daily life. I actually wrote a blog post about it a year ago! We, adults, tend to be more respectful and polite towards other adults than toward children.
For example, if somebody is in the way, you might say « excuse me, I’d like to go through », while you might say to a child « don’t stand in the way! ».
But, we do ask children to be extra polite to adults. Something’s not right here, don’t you agree?
One of the consequences of this is that I could see that children aren’t very polite or kind toward each other. And why would they be? They speak to each other the way we speak to them. During this trip, I’ve heard myself telling the kids 20 times each day « please, speak nicely to each other ». I have noticed that this plea had absolutely no effect whatsoever! Why is that? Because children learn much more from what they experience than from what they hear. I can tell them a thousand times to be polite, if people are being rude to them, they’ll be rude too.
So I have tried to be extra polite and kind when addressing the children. It hasn’t improved their behavior toward each other (there were still 5 adults talking to them in a less polite way) BUT they became very polite to me. The payback was worth the effort, believe me! Actually, the other adults started to notice the difference and ask why the kids were more polite to me. I think that with more time, the adults could have adapted their behavior and everyone would have benefited from it.
If you haven’t done it yet, take our test and find out if you’re a polite parent!
And if you have any doubts, you can take this second test where the same questions are about guests instead of children ;-).
2. Children Don’t Understand The Concept Of Safety
Being on a sailboat, especially in the middle of the sea, is quite impressive and a bit scary sometimes. But apparently not to children. There were some simple safety rules that I’m sure you would all agree with:
- wear a life jacket when on the deck
- wear a lifeline when going out of the cockpit
- no hanging out of the cockpit at night
- always have a hand holding on to the boat
- nobody in the way while we were maneuvering
After 10 days, almost none of those rules were respected spontaneously (without an adult reminding them), except for Vasco who always wore his life jacket (because he liked the color I suspect).
Amongst the adults I could see a difference in cultures: while we, Swiss, who are used to follow rules and never question them, would follow all the rules precisely (and even making new ones where none existed), our 3 friends from Quebec couldn’t care less.
When you grow up in the Swiss Alps and go trekking a lot, you know that in the mountains there are rules to follow and that not following them means possible death. Children grow up with this idea and listen more carefully to safety rules. Traveling the world, when we arrive in a new place, we always start by exploring it and decide on the boundaries and limits. By doing so, we feel reassured and the children feel confident.
The fact that we were two families with two different ways of setting boundaries and implementing them confused the children. Next time, I’ll make sure to have a moment with the other parents to get clear and have a common message.
Another reason I see for the children not following the rules properly is that children have already so many rules to follow that they sometimes forget about some of them entirely. There are the everyday boundaries that are the ground-rules:
- take care of your belongings
- don’t make fun of others
- brush your teeth after every meal
- change your underwear daily
To which were added specific rules for living in a new environment and in a community:
- clean up your glass straight away
- do not waste freshwater
- don’t let anything that might fall and break near the end of the table, especially if they belong to our host.
That makes a lot of things to remember. Add the safety rules to all the life rules, politeness rules,… and you can see that we were asking quite a lot of the children. One of the mistakes we made was to “give them” all those rules like poetry to learn by heart. While we adults could remember them simply because they made sense to us.
A good way to help children achieve this too is to sit together before leaving, adults and children, and to express the things that are important to us for community life. If the children hear it in a conversation and understand why every rule has its importance to someone, it will be way easier for them to remember and respect them.
The safety rules should have been discussed together, and then written on a sheet and put on a wall. Excluding children from decisions is not an effective way to achieve collaboration.
3. Children Don’t Need As Much Comfort As Adults
I usually think of my children’s comfort before mine, but during the trip, there was little I could do. They had to share beds, sleep in the common area, waking up every 3 hours when the shifts changed, got seasick, couldn’t wash (they really weren’t bothered about this one), couldn’t change clothes, saw all their favorite food run out,… The list is endless. And while we adults started to dream of a warm shower, clean sheet, and fresh veggies, the kids just took what there was and never asked for more.
There is a lesson here for us parents: we often project our needs on our children instead of wondering about theirs.
The adventure was enough for them. Being with us was enough for them. They would sleep on the deck in the cold and humidity, but what they remember from the experience was watching the stars at night. They would eat plain tortillas with an old cucumber but they remember laughing with their friends during that meal. They would be awake all night long but what they remember was observing some adult’s secret activities on the boat.
Children and adults have the same fundamental needs. During the trip, while we were worried about their physiological needs (do they have enough sleep or enough healthy food?), we could have put more effort into giving them more respect and recognition.
We thought of ourselves, saw that we were lacking comfort, and naturally thought that the kids lacked too. This is a common mistake. If we had been more attentive, if we had observed and listened, we would have seen that the children were perfectly fine comfort-wise but they were growing tired of adults’ constant comments about their attitude and actions.
4. Children Are Autonomous And Caring
For 3 days I was so sick I couldn’t take care of them, at all. 60 hours without drinking a drop of water or eating a bite of food, and 48h without sleeping, I was a wreck. My husband had to work hard to cover his shifts and help with the tasks I was supposed to do, so he didn’t have time either.
The children were absolutely able to care for themselves, making their beds at night, preparing their breakfast, keeping busy, helping out (though I suspect they didn’t brush their teeth). I don’t know if it’s mother guilt (“I’m supposed to do it all”) that makes me do things for them the rest of the time, or somehow me thinking that I do it better/faster/with less mess, but I usually do more than I need to. Or worse, I tell them to do it (without giving them a chance to do it spontaneously), and then I look at them doing it and give them a thousand comments (don’t carry the plates like that, watch out, the jam jar is dirty,…).
We want our children to be autonomous, we know it is good for their development, we know it is good for us so that we can get more me-time and be happier, less tired moms. BUT IT IS SO HARD TO DO!
Moms, let me spell it out for you and me: we are control freaks!
After the trip, I asked the children how they lived my sea-sickness (the fact that I didn’t take care of them for 3 days), and what they said was that they were sorry I was sick and missed the fun. They didn’t even notice that I didn’t help them for days. Even my eldest son, who was sick himself, didn’t mind my lack of care. I was still there, still their mom, still kissing them good night and giving them hugs, and that’s all they needed.
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How A 3 Days Experience Can Offer A New Vision
Being in a new setting, living a new experience is a great way to observe how we operate and the gap between our ideals and everyday life. I learned some humility during this crossing, and even though I could be proud of my children, their autonomy, and coping skills, I realized I was not so proud of myself. I made a mental note to myself, to be more polite and respectful to children, and not to assume their needs, but to ask instead.
Making this decision changed the overall atmosphere on the boat and everyone is more relaxed and open. Just hearing me speaking more politely to the kids made all the other adults adjust.
This was quite an extreme experience, and I know not everyone can (or want) to go on a sea crossing. But if this article made you wonder how YOU would have acted, grab a notebook, and observe yourself for 3 days. Just let a part of your consciousness observe when you interact with your children and note what’s happening. Plenty of lessons there!
Thanks for reading this article! As always, I hope it gave you some line of thoughts to explore as well as ideas to act and create a positive change in your life.
Don’t let the inspiration fades and take action right away:
I wish you all the best with your kids, always remember that we all do the best we can at a given moment and don’t judge yourself harshly. Be confident and listen to your intuition. If what you do comes from a place of love, then you’re on the right path.
See you next week for another exciting article!
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