Humility is a powerful parenting tool
I’ve been a parenting writer for over ten years and in that time I’ve learned a ton about parenting — enough to know that, quite often, I get it very wrong.
Tonight, I lost track of time and forgot to make dinner. So, after a very late and terribly unhealthy takeaway meal (parenting faux pas #1), it was bedtime. The kids, having been on devices for way too long (faux pas #2) were nowhere near bed-ready. It’s incredibly hard to get over-tired kids to brush their teeth (so we didn’t #3) and there were tears, arguments, and a dozen “but I just need to…” . After an hour of this, I got tired and grumpy and yelled (#4). It was 10pm before lights finally went out —2 hours after school-night bedtime (#5).
Kids have a great way of keeping you humble.
The concept of humility isn’t talked about as much as its opposites — narcissism and other individualistic traits, which, according to narcissism expert Keith Campbell, PhD. of the University of Georgia, are on the rise. But perhaps we should be talking about it more. The latest positive psychology research is finding that humility is incredibly good for us.
Higher levels of humility have been associated with a higher sense of life purpose, feeling healthier, getting along with others better, marriages that last longer, and greater generosity.
But how do we know if we are humble or increase it if we aren’t?
According to assistant professors Don Emerson Davis Jr., Ph.D., and Joshua Hook, PhD. humility is like a muscle we can build through practice.
Humility is most accurately judged when it is under strain. Humility involves self-regulation which, like a muscle, can be 'weakened' with short-term use, but strengthened with regular exercise. Just like courage is easier to judge in the context of danger, humility ought to be easier to judge in contexts that evoke egotism, defensiveness, and conflict.”
Parenting is the perfect workout arena for humility! Family life provides plenty of opportunities to be self-centred, defensive, and enter into conflict — especially with teenager children. We build our humility muscles when we practice self-regulation, pausing and acting in a way that fits our long term goals and deepest values.
Here are some ways to build humility in your family…
Share the power
Humble people trust others to make decisions, come up with solutions and implement them. Being humble doesn’t mean being a doormat or passive — it means being aware that your opinion is not the only one and, perhaps, not even the best one. When we are humble as parents, we share the power with our kids — we listen to their ideas and let them run with some. We delegate responsibility and age-appropriate decision-making to them. Here are some ideas to get started:
- Allow the kids to choose the weekend family activity.
- Ask them to come up with ideas for how to get the chores done together.
- Brainstorm ideas together for outings, family rules, etc.
- Ask them to suggest solutions to (age-appropriate) family dilemmas such as “What are your ideas on how we could get more active?”
This coach-style of leadership puts you on the same side as your children. It shifts everyone’s mindset into a cooperative one rather than an “us vs. them” one.
Learn with them
When you’re a leader, or in authority of some kind — like with parenting — it can be easy to think of yourself as the “passer-on of knowledge”, with information, advice, and instruction flowing in one direction only — from you to those you lead.
It’s incredibly easy to slip into this role, especially if part of your personality makes you a natural teacher. Natural teachers love sharing what they know, passing on information in easy to understand ways, and mentoring others. Generally, with parenting, this is helpful and appropriate. I home-school my kids so a big chunk of my day is spent in the “teacher” role.
The difficulty is that our children are not empty receptacles waiting for us to fill their brains with knowledge (this philosophy originated in the 17th century and is no longer valid, but many people continue to hold on to it.)
Your children might not understand the scientific differences between mammals and insects, but the afternoon they spent watching ants means they have hands-on knowledge of animal behaviour. Kids know more than we give them credit for. Sometimes my kids are incredibly insightful and surprise me with their observations of people and the world.
When we really listen to our kids and their ideas we see that our way of thinking is not the only way. Listening turns our pride down and we learn that our opinions, knowledge, or thoughts are not the only ones that matter.
- Ask your young children to teach you something, such as what things are alive and how they know — “Is a rock alive?” Listen to their answers without correcting or teaching. They might be wrong, but this is how young children develop what early childhood teachers call “working theories” of the world. These working theories are built on and developed as kids grow and learn. You’ll learn a lot about how your child thinks!
- If your older teen offers an opinion, ask them for more detail. What do they think about that matter? How did they come to that conclusion? Humility is about being open-minded and willing to hear the ideas of others with interest and curiosity.
Ask Kids for Feedback
“It’s OK to be proud of your strengths,” professor Davis says, “as long as you acknowledge — and work on — your weaknesses.”
In parenting, you have strengths and weaknesses. Why not ask the kids where you can improve? Try some of these:
“What do you think of my parenting? Are there things I can do better?”
“Are there things I could be doing to be a better mum for you?”
“What do you like and not like with the way I parent you?”
I’ve actually done this multiple times with my kids. It’s not as scary as it sounds! When we admit we’re not perfect it releases them from trying to be perfect too. Make growth from mistakes and weaknesses the goal rather than perfection.
“Humility is a very pro-social quality,” says professor Hook.
We live in a very interconnected, social world. Because of this, it’s not only good to role model humility to your children, but it makes your family (and marriage) relationships stronger.
“When you don’t always need to be right, relationships are smoother and can be more intimate,” says Hook.
Humility helps us grow closer to our kids, lets them feel heard and valued, and increases our happiness and well-being. With practice, we can all strengthen our humility which, thankfully, also sets us free from the need to be a “perfect parent”.