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Sovereignty and Special Time: Honouring Your Child’s Choices

by Anna Cole

The theme of our Winter 2020/21 issue was sovereignty, and we loved what our parenting expert, Anna Cole, had to say about this subject in relation to children. Check out her article below!

Sovereignty and Special Time

Honouring your child’s choices

by Anna Cole

Sovereignty synonyms: jurisdiction · supremacy · dominion  · domination · sway · predominance · authority · control ·

It’s a big and wonderful word, sovereignty, and one that is more and more on people’s lips. So I was curious to realise that each of the tools I teach as a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor relate to giving sovereignty to the child, in ways that are safe for both the adult and child, and don’t turn the adult-child relationship permanently upside down.

Most adults struggle at times to ‘be’ in our ‘adult’.  In mainstream culture, we’ve mainly lost rites of passage for becoming an adult, and many of us had parents who carried both cultural and psychological wounds that led them to act from their own ‘adaptive child’ place. Our ‘adaptive inner child’ is the part of us that dealt with the trauma of our childhoods and figured out how to adapt in order to protect ourselves and survive.

Terry Real, internationally renowned family therapist and author, who – along with Pia Melody –  coined the term ‘adaptive inner child’, explains that most of us are paddling hard underwater like the proverbial swan, to stay out of our ‘adaptive child’ long enough to make grown-up relationships work. Most of us need skills and support to learn how to ‘adult’ well, be a parent, and give our real ‘outer’ children sovereignty – over their emotions, their actions, their words – without letting our own inner child run the parenting show.

Many of us were raised in the old paradigm of authoritarian parenting. In reaction to this, some of us can seek to provide sovereignty to our children as much as possible, and this can easily leak into permissiveness. This becomes frightening for a child. It’s scary for a child not to know where the edges or the limits are, or to feel like they are more in charge than their parent. It is our sacred duty as an adult and as a parent to set loving limits and have response-ability for the rhythm and structure of our parenting days.

So how do we grant sovereignty to this little human we are living with, without losing track of our responsibility as parents? How do we respect deeply our children’s choices, their emotions, their desires?

Here’s a practical answer: I invite you to try the tool of Special Time.

Set aside some one-on-one time when you won’t multi-task (e.g. check your phone, pick up lint from the rug while playing Lego with your child), specify the time-frame for yourself and your child – anything from 5 minutes to 1 hour (hint: it gets super hard to do this fully for more than around 30 minutes, to be honest) – and bring that magic ingredient of delight to your child.

The message and the intention from the parent, is: ‘What do you want to play?  I’ll play anything you want to play, let’s go!’

Give it a try. Set the timer and bring your full attention to following your child’s sovereign desires. Sure, it’s important to have a few proviso’s around safety, so if your child chooses to jump off the garage roof for Special Time, you might have to honour their desire to jump from up high, while finding a soft landing: ‘Yay, jumping sounds great! How about we get all the pillows and cushions off the sofa and bed and pile them up at the bottom of the stairs? Maybe we can grab a mattress off the bed too?’ The delight and the wish is honoured, with some safety considerations.

Try just 10 minutes of Special Time next time you are with the child you care for, and notice what goes on inside yourself when you offer this time. Do you want to lead in some way? Do you want to add things into the play other than that which the child has chosen, in their sovereignty, to play? Has your child suggested a game of chase, and you become the ‘monster’ without invitation? Do you want to point out the ’S’ shape they are making for example, while they are drawing because you are worrying about when they will get better at writing?

Lawrence Cohen (a great play therapist and clinical psychologist who works alongside Hand in Hand Parenting) remembers that the thing his daughter – then a pre-teen – wanted to play during Special Time, was Barbie. Barbie! Ugh!  He was a feminist, who didn’t like Barbie. To cede his daughter her sovereignty, he had to bite back his own judgements. Had he been willing to accept playing Barbie during that time, he would have communicated to his daughter: ‘Your choices are dumb. They are not worthwhile and I know better than you.’

Trust me: really tuning into the sovereignty of our chid’s wishes can be challenging.  Interestingly, when Larry got into the game and delighted in his daughter’s choices, rather than judging them, the game shifted from Barbies getting dressed and getting married, to barbies becoming adventure heroes and throwing themselves out of imaginary aeroplanes. Allowing your child their sovereignty during Special Time enables them to move out of behavioural or emotional ruts. As we use our warm, delighted, non-judgemental attention in Special Time, we find the flow of life and move with it. 

Anna Cole, PhD, is a researcher, writer, and Regional Lead for Hand in Hand Parenting.


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