Parenting with respect – conversation with Dovilė Šafranauskė

One of the best things about starting this blog has been the connections that I have made through it. A few years ago Dovilė Šafranauskė got in touch and invited me to collaborate on what would become Pagarbi Tėvystė project – a Lithuanian website and hub of information for respectful parenting. It’s been over a year now that Dovilė and I chatted on the very first ever podcast of Pagarbi Tėvystė (I highly recommend these podcasts for all Lithuanian-speakers, interested in respectful parenting topics). I share below the notes of our conversation which I felt drawn to revisit and listen to again.

Dovilė: Hello! It’s lovely to meet you all here, on our first respectful parenting podcast. Very often we know everything about raising kids until they actually arrive into our lives. And once you meet them, it may appear that all that gear guarded in our parenting backpack is not at all what resonates with our relationship, feelings, and the connection that we want to have with our kids. That’s when the journey begins. It’s a journey in which we can grow together with our children, creating a deep connection for life. I am Dovilė, the founder of Pagarbi Tėvystė project and a mom to two 2-year-olds, Sofija and Tėja. I can speak endlessly about how to allow as much respect as possible into our relationship with kids and share practical situations that my little teachers present to me at home, frequently and intensively. I write articles about respectful parenting philosophy, meet with parents in groups and during one-to-one coaching sessions. Another passion of mine is baby sleep. It’s one of the most important physiological needs of children as well as their parents, and we talk about that on Miego Pelytės website. Now I will ask her to introduce herself, my fellow traveller, co-author of Pagarbi Tėvystė website – Asta. Hello, Asta.

Asta: Hello, Dovilė. Thank you very very much for inviting me to have this conversation. So I will introduce myself a little bit. I am 4-year-old Leila’s mom. Before becoming a mother, I was really interested in completely different topics – international non-governmental organisations, non-for-profits, work with the world’s most impoverished communities, I worked with projects in Africa and Asia. In short, parenting was nowhere in my radar, nor was it something important to me. But before becoming parents with my husband, we knew that we wanted to spend as much time as possible raising our children, and I knew that I would dive right into motherhood when the first year with our first daughter begins. So, work and studies to me always seemed like something that can be resumed or continued later on in life but I really wanted to know what it was like to be with my daughter, to be completely immersed in motherhood. Topics that interested me began to change. I began to be attracted by motherhood, conscious pregnancy, natural home birth topics, attachment and restpectful parenting ideas. So it was – I like to think – this liberation of wild – wildish – woman within myself, and that’s how my website was born Wildish Wonder (Pašėlusiai Nuostabu in Lithuanian). It was my space to create and collect thoughts, experiences, authors, and topics that resonated with me very strongly and sparked within me this feeling of wildish wonder. And now my website is a little quiet because we are in the last few days or weeks before we meet our second baby daughter. This pregnancy required from me deep inner listening within, and I have not wanted to write or share anything publicly. But I hope we will continue our co-working and conversations later again.

Dovilė: It is interesting that it was because of your website Wildish Wonder that we met. I was already overtaken by this whole respectful parenting philosophy which I couldn’t stop talking about, and I really wanted it to become known in the entire Lithuania. And that was when I unexpectedly came across your website Wildish Wonder where you quoted Janet Lansbury’s article about walking. You were saying that there was no need “to walk” babies because when they are ready they simply start doing it, which is what happened for you with Leila – you wrote that one day she simply started walking. This made me so happy, because I felt like I found a like-minded partner. Asta lives in Spain, so it wasn’t easy for us to meet. But I e-mailed her and shared my idea to create a website for respectful parenting. How did you react to that message? Was it unexpected?

Asta: It was really really nice to hear from you and to find out that the thoughts which I was sharing resonated with you. In a way I started translating my website to Lithuanian because it seemed to me that such information wasn’t very widely available. I think now there are more blogs, ideas and really beautiful resources, but a a few years ago when I was looking for it, I couldn’t find much. And even though I think that I write my blog more for me, to be able to express my thoughts, and not necessarily to share information or teach, for a while I had been wanting to meet like-minded people. And even though your message was a surprise, it was also something that I was really looking forward to. I am very grateful that you invited me to join the beginning of Pagarbi Tėvystė and all this creativity. Like I said, I really hope that soon I will be able to be part of this beautiful project again.

Dovilė: Actually, Pagarbi Tėvystė was inspired by RIE Respectful Parenting Philosophy which is quite known in the U.S. but in Lithuania few have heard about it. It’s quite interesting because this philosophy was born not that far from us, in Hungary, where after WWII a famous pediatrician Emmi Pikler became known for her very respectful, very unique attitude towards babies and their natural development. Later on this became the foundation on which her colleague Magda Gerber created a system for RIE Philosphy. In English RIE stands for Resources for Infant Educarers which is a little clumsy as a name for a parenting philosophy. Respectful Parenting Philosophy sounds much better. Asta, I am really interested in how this philosophy reached you. How did you get to know about it?

Asta: The very first echoes of respectful parenting reached me when I was pregnant with my first daughter five years ago, and I think it was my sister who gave me a magazine in English called Juno. The magazine it’s not specifically dedicated to this philosphy but it’s full of articles about attachment parenting, various topics related to respectful approach towards kids, natural diet, ecology. So its range is quite broad but it touches on all “alternative parenting” if we could call it that. And I remember it really struck me when read a few articles about how to resolve conflict with teenagers, including specific phrases used in the article, how to respond and remain calm including during an argument, how to approach, what to ask, how to understand what the teenager or a child really means. Another article that also got stuck in my memory was on how to cooperate with kids allowing them to choose what they eat, how to learn to respect their choices. Maybe sometimes they say they don’t want to eat at all, and that’s OK, maybe they will be hungry in an hour. It was about allowing them to regulate their own eating within a range of healthy options. So these articles were like first little seeds that remained within me – there was this broad theme that I didn’t know much about and didn’t really understand because I hadn’t really experienced that myself.

Before I got pregnant, my husband and I had a conversation about how if we were to ever have kids, we would not use physical punishments or manipulations, such as “if you do this, you can have some candy”. This wasn’t acceptable to us because we don’t do this to each other as a couple. We don’t communicate like that, and we didn’t want to behave in such a way with our child. But I remember that after that conversation I felt like there was this empty space – OK, I know what I do not want but I cannot even begin to imagine how I can do it differently. I didn’t have any real examples around me of families who didn’t punish their kids, my own experience was also different. And so there was this space that I didn’t know how to fill up. Janet Lansbury’s books arrived to me when my baby daughter was five months old. A friend of mine lent them both to me, and I remember devouring them in three days. I highlighted so much, wrote out quotes, read out loud, repeated, re-read, returned again, read parts to my husband, nearly tried to memorise some of it. It resonated so strongly. These were the answers to all the questions that I had. The most interesting part was that this wasn’t only theory, I saw how applying it changed everything. It really worked for us. So that is the story about how we found it.

Dovilė: You know, my experience was very similar, only that it was Magda Gerber’s book that arrived to me – “Your Self-Confident Baby”. While I was reading it, I also quoted nearly every paragraph to my husband, telling him – this is exactly how it needs to be. And it seemed that all those things that Magda highlighted in her book were so simple, so obvious. And yet we looked at each other with my husband and asked whether we actually behaved like that – well, no. It seemed so fair but also so unusual. When we started applying respectful parenting practices, it often felt very unnatural because it took time to change those old reactions, to be mindful with our kids. To slow down was perhaps the first and the biggest task – to do everything more slowly, to wait for their answer when you ask them to put their arm into a sleeve, to really wait for their answer. The most amazing thing is that they do answer, but when you don’t know what to look for, in a way you don’t know that it exists. A challenge for me was the reactions of those around me towards this parenting philosophy. I was still learning myself and while you are in a learning process, receiving doubts or reactions of others, like “this is quite strange” or “what is this for?” – it used to really affect me. Perhaps I didn’t feel so deeply engaged in this philosophy, whereas now any comment simply makes me smile because I know exactly why I am doing what I do. I know what it means and how huge the changes are that happening in our lives. It is really interesting that this confidence appears about ourselves and about this philosophy. What about you? Did you ever come across any doubters or comentators about your parenting style?

Asta: To be honest, I have received remarks of surprise regarding various topics during my motherhood journey. This began with my choice to not consider pregnancy as an illness or a state that requires special medical interventions. Both of my pregnancies were very free, not tied to any advice or care from doctors. My first daughter was born at home, and we have the same intention for the second birth. I have breastfed my daughter for a very long time which may seem unusual or hard to understand for some. So there are plenty of topics in which I feel different but it all came from a very deep inner intuition. And like you say, the stronger you feel about your choices, the less any comments affect you. And perhaps you even hear them differently – instead of seeing it as reproach or criticism, you interpret it as someone’s genuine desire to know or understand why you do something that is so different or uncommon. Sometimes I even receive very lovely comments whenever someone has more time to spend with me and my daughter, like how interesting our relationship is, how we communicate or how interesting was my reaction in some specific situation.

In the beginning of our parenting journey, my husband and I did this one trick, with my initiative, obviously. After reading all those books about respectful parenting, I had an idea – it was a very big need actually – to express it all somehow to our families. We both have very respectful parents and a good relationship with our closest family members, but we wanted to share these ideas that were very important to us; that whenever we are together, especially for longer periods of time, like longer holidays, we wanted to share our key parenting ideas. I remember I wrote down Our Parenting Manifesto. It was a document – well, that sounds quite official – but a summary of all that was very important to us. It contained many ideas from Respectful Parenting Philosphy, such as freedom of movement, respect to the child, informing in advance before doing anything related to her body. If a child indicates that she does not want to be kissed, it really doesn’t matter how many decades you have been waiting to become a grandparent, you do not have a right to grab and insist on kissing, when she really shows that she doesn’t want it. So many themes related to this philosophy – from allowing her to feel her body to how we talk to her, there was no need to talk to her as if she was someone who didn’t understand something. We talked to her in a way we would talk to anyone you respect, perhaps a little bit slower.

There were many things we wanted to systemise and share. We had read a lot and didn’t have an expectation that they will do the same amount of reading and studying. It was really interesting because there was no rejection towards it, they just read it. Perhaps later on, as we’ve talked to you, Dovilė, there were some comments like “what was that about when you didn’t let your child to be lifted up?”. It’s not that I didn’t let you, I simply allowed my child to tell you herself whether she wanted to be lifted up or not. But generally speaking, like you said also, the more you are convinced that these ideas completely change the relationship with kids, the less space remains for the opinions or comments of others, and they stop being so important.

Dovilė: Indeed. It’s funny that respectful parenting affects people similarly. I too was completely fascinated by it and sat down to write a report, you could call it, a summary for our families – grandmothers, grandfather, nanny – about how we wanted them to treat our kids. Our grandparents do not read in English and to expect them to learn about this philosophy was unrealistic. Therefore, I sat down and prepared this report for them to read. I have to admit that reaction was not of openly rejecting it, but now when I look back on it, I think I rushed into it a little. From my big enthusiasm about so much information, came all at once many instructions, but I missed out on a softer approach and explaining what the meaning of it all was, what we wanted to provide for our children, and why this was important. Just the instructions alone, like to tell a child before you lift them up or not to kiss her if the child doesn’t want to, just sort of hang in the air unless we know the long-term implications about the development of a child’s relationship with her body, setting of her personal boundaries. These things are really important for adults, not just the child today, but when she’s an adult. Really, parenting is a long-term project. Today we are raising kids and do things that will affect this adult in 20-30 years. It’s a very long-term investment.

And when I realised that my approach with that report was a little too direct, I decided that I simply had to show it with my example. And that was a much better and more impactful decision. When my husband and I treat our children with respect, as if seamlessly our grandparents and nannies started copying this behaviour. And today when I look at these relationships, there are many changes compared with, let’s call it, “traditional” parenting. I think it’s beautiful when the grandmother allows the children to express their emotions without trying to stifle. My heart rejoices when I see that because it’s not something very common and self-explanatory, at least in Lithuania. But another interesting thing is that the more I research and deepen my knowledge about respectful parenting, almost imperceptibly it started impacting my relationship with other people. It’s an interesting and a pleasant side effect. And it’s not only with people, but even my relationship with our cat. We have a cat, and one day I caught myself cleaning its eyes and explaining to it very precisely that I would clean its eyes and that it would not take long, and so on and on. And for me this is a very pleasant effect. I don’t know whether you have such moments when you catch changes in your behaviour. 

Asta: Most definitely. I can testify to that. Really, I think anywhere in life where we place our attention creation or growth begins. So if you focus on respect, respectful parenting doesn’t mean that respect is only directed at the child, it becomes a broader philosophy. So it’s respect to the child but it expands to respect towards yourself. Because many conversations that you have with your kids, as you say, trying to establish a boundary or maybe about my own body. Right now, I do not want you to climb on me. Maybe usually I like when you are in my lap but right this very second I feel very tired and don’t want that. It is respect to yourself, in a way, to express that need or not wanting something without going in cirles, just in a straighforward and simple manner, without any need to get angry. But also, the respect towards the partner begins to grow, at least, I have noticed that – to my husband as a father. Regardless of how many books I read or quote to him, he will always have a different relationship with our daughter, because they have their own connection, their own way to agree on things. And perhaps it doesn’t always follow some ideas that I believe that should be followed, despite of that they have a respectful relationship between them, and find a way to cooperate. And even in a broader sense, that respect, I have noticed, expands to the possibility of respecting other parents who completely do not share a similar philosophy, parents who raise their kids completely differently using methods that I do not agree with at all. That still doesn’t mean I cannot respect them as people. They simply live like this, and I don’t know what they have to deal with in their private lives, what their story or experience is. So I can really confirm that respectful parenting is not just some theory that sounds great, but that it’s much broader and the respect begins to grow in all areas of life. At least, that has been my experience.

Dovilė: I can only agree with you. Sometimes I think that even you and I are very very different. I am more of a fan of theories and systems, logical answers are very important to me. And Asta very often encourages me to listen to my inner guidance, and to even perhaps think about those things that different theories cannot explain, things that can only be felt. So, we could also find many topics that we do not agree on and have different opinions, but on the contrary, that does not get in the way. Every time we talk, I feel that my understanding expands and gains new colours. I don’t know whether this is the respectful parenting approach that allows us to have a respectful relationship and even discuss subjects where we have entirely different opinions, but we are able to listen to each other and to enrich each other. 

Asta: Exactly.

Dovilė: We often discuss with Asta different nuances of parenting and raising kids, as Leila is a little bit older than my girls, so Asta has a little bit more experience of the stage that my Sofija and Tėja are in. I have to admit that I have received a surprised question coming from this perception that kids raised respectfully should be somehow better, calmer, more obedient. But kids are just kids. Our relationship with them changes but the kids are who they are, they do things that are appropriate for their age. We also have our own challenges, and just because we follow Respectful Parenting Philosophy, it doesn’t mean everything is beautiful and rosy. But what changes, Asta, our reactions?

Asta: I think that it is very difficult to answer such questions – what would your kids be like if you were to raise them differently. Would they be the same kids or different kids? All these hypotheses are like two paths that separate and it’s impossible to compare them because they are two different paths. All kids are different regardless of how we raise them, so it will be very interesting to learn from you, Dovilė, what it’s like to raise identical twins, and how all that turns out. Everything is as it is, and it’s very difficult to compare what it would be like if it were different.

Dovilė: Indeed. I just wanted to agree that kids are very different. Even two kids growing up in the same family, are two different personalities. In my case, I am raising identical twins and they are completely different in many ways. Even something as obvious as how differently they sleep, their priorities about what they want to eat often differ, but even how they experience different situations, face different emotions, how they get to know new objects. My Sofija has a more kinesthetic approach – she touches, observes, moves, and Tėja just wants to take everything apart and see how it works. And I wonder whether I would have noticed it had I not had this magical and very powerful respectful parenting tool which is sensitive observation. That is observation without prior opinions, for example, that my identical twins have to be the same, that they have to dress the same, and like the same food, or to try to bring them to this sameness. Coming back to what you said earlier, nobody knows what it would be like if it were something else. 

Asta: I wanted to agree and to add that. As you say, such philosphy gives a foundation for you to change, for me to change, for us to change as parents. Why do we look at kids that they are are this way or another way, when there are so many ways in which we are different as parents. We live through situations completely differently from how we would if we didn’t have the foundation of these ideas. I notice, for example, that my daughter is rather similar to me in a way that her emotional world reminds me of what I experienced when I was her age. It even happens that she lives through identical situations, gets upset or angry about the same subject or person that I also experienced as a child. But instead of reacting from an impulse, from the reaction that happened in that situation 35 years ago, I can now create a pause and react differently from now and with respect. So I think that respectful parenting has an effect on children which we will only discover in 30 or 40 years, and that will be reflected in the relationship that we have with our kids or that they will have with theirs. But it also changes us as parents.

Another thing that I think is very important is that it provides a model, an example to the kids, because if I want my child to behave respectfully, how else can I teach her respect if I don’t behave respectfully with her? It’s like going to the library and shouting at a child that one has to talk quietly here. If one has to talk quietly here, then you also have to talk quietly. I think it’s the same everywhere else. We can try to convince children to do something because we say so, but it always comes down to the example, the model they see in us. And only this way it can be anchored as a norm, as a state of being, as an experience. For me this is the essence of respectful parenting.

Dovilė: Very true. The change within us and our reactions is the first example to our kids about how to act in different situations. Talking about respectful pareting in practice, it isn’t always so easy to maintain calmness, it’s not always easy to react appropriately. For example, in our home the hottest topic at the moment is biting. They bite each other and sometimes me. If I reacted simply from my impulse, it’s a very intense reaction because I can see how one of my kids is hurting my other child. Inside it’s easy to experience a rush of emotions because you love both of your children, and you want to protect one but you also love the other. But it’s important to stop creating labels – one is the poor one because he got bitten, and the other one is the bad one because he is biting, and instead to use the respectful parenting practices, of which the first one is to understand what behaviour is typical for each age group. I know that two-year-olds often bite because they experience more emotions that they are capable of expressing, they want to share more than they have the verbal capacity for. Therefore, my job as a mother is to first of all, obviously, block the aggressive expression so that it doesn’t happen, and if I don’t succeed in that and it did happen, to maintain calmness and not to add to that action additional energy, simply to explain that this is not appropriate, to name the emotion.

If I see that a child is angry because her sister came and took away the book, I can simply explain – “I see you are angry, because it’s frustrating to have someone take your book away while you are reading. It’s normal. But I will not let you bite. You can tell your sister to stop or ask her to give the book back. If you really want to bite, here is a toy or a pillow you can do it with. You cannot bite your sister or another person.” I often see in mothers’ groups biting being discussed, and the advice goes all the way to biting back or punishment. But when I return to knowing that this is the way that a child is trying to express her emotions and that she is in the process of learning, I cannot reprimand a child for something that she is not capable of controlling. These insights allow me to remain calm in these not-so-calm situations. This is a practical example of respectful parenting that shows how it all begins with us, parents, with our reactions and changes. It proves that even in a respectful relationship there are experiences typical for their developmental age. That is normal, there is no need to try to change it artificially. And how about you, Asta, do you have any situations where respectful parenting skills need to be put into practice?

Asta: I will share, Dovilė, but I will add first to what you just said. Indeed, in those situations, like you just described about your girls, it is so important that when we react we do not take it personally. And that we do not add the labels, as you called them. That a child biting doesn’t become “I am a horrible mother” – to not interpret it as an attack against you, and to not add a label of a “bad child” because of biting. I think that in all these situations the impulse is to go back to how we were raised. When the emotions of our children rise, we become like a mirror and our own emotions show up, so we take it as a challenge against us. We begin to question whether we are bad mothers because our child just said that.

Our practical example at the moment is that we are awaiting the arrival of the baby sister, and it is really interesting to observe Leila. She is already 4-years-old and can express herself very broadly and put many of her emotions into words, but that doesn’t mean that the control of emotions is very developed. Really, we as adults often do not control our emotions nor express them without throwing stuff around. So it’s funny that we expect this from little kids. But while we await the arrival of the baby sister, there have been many different situations. It’s fascinating to me that kids are masters of self-therapy. If they are living through situations that are in any way difficult to them, they often find a way to express that through play. During the last few months of my pregnancy Leila is constantly playing the games of wanting to be very small. She pulls out her baby clothes, or she found a nappy that was left somewhere and she wanted to wear it in the morning. Or she wants to be born, she wants to be a chicken hiding inside an egg and break out of the shell. The first reaction can always be – “what do you think you are you doing, you are already 4-years-old, put away all these things and behave your age!”. But if you really observe that child with curiosity and give space for her to express or experience what she wants to experience, you see how in that game there is a deep code for self-therapy, self-healing, preparation for a huge change that awaits her. She will never be able to fit into those clothes again nor she will ever need nappies, but it’s as if she wants to get in touch with that experience again and to understand that there will be someone new in the family who will take that place. It is very very interesting to begin this sensitive observation of their games.

Another example is from this morning. I was organising something in the kitchen and she was busy with some project, cutting with scissors in another room. And I heard the sounds of frustration that she makes when she is not succeeding in something. She was very angry, expressing her frustration with a roar. I told her I could hear that something wasn’t working out and I was waiting to hear from her whether she needed any help. She showed me that she couldn’t fit one box into another one, despite trying to push it in. And then her next comment was that the music I was listening to in the kitchen was making her head hurt. I said I would lower the volume and told her that this was the music I wanted to listen to when the baby comes because I like dancing to it. And suddenly she changed the topic completely to “I really don’t want to have any sister. When she comes, we have to get rid of her because we don’t need her in this house”.  And it was really interesting because again, I could have taken this very personally and say – “you are such a horrible child, she hasn’t even been born yet and you want to throw her away, how can we not love her, you are such a bad sister, even though you are not even a sister yet”.

It’s so beautiful that all these philosophies about which we talk become practical when we are able to create a pause within ourselves and to feel that none of this is directed at me. They will be wonderful sisters, it’s just that in this moment she is experiencing some uncertainty, whether it’s an unsuccessful crafts project with the boxes or fear and worry about the changes that are coming when the baby arrives. In this moment she had to express these emotions. And the most interesting part is when you stoop down and listen, and then validate that you couldn’t make those boxes fit, or maybe you are a little worried about the arrival of your baby sister, or you don’t like when my music is too loud – all of it gets resolved and a moment later that child is playing again, feeling understood, and not “bad child” nor someone who doesn’t like their unborn sister. Such is our practice at the moment.

Dovilė: I can imagine. This must be the main theme for you at the moment because it’s all going to happen soon. And to finish up, what would you say is the one most important thing in parenting? 

Asta: I think it’s important to enjoy it. We have talked about this.

Dovilė: We have. You have written a very beautiful article about it in Pagarbi Tėvystė website. It’s about how to enjoy the small things.

Asta: Indeed. I think and always say that wherever we direct our focus is where we increase and create that energy. So if you focus your attention to those situations that are pleasant in parenting or that are easy and enjoyable, then I think those situations only become more frequent. And really, I would add only one more thing that somehow we still need to follow our intuition. Whatever the philosphy, whatever the book or author, famous conversations, whatever – first of all, you need to discover if it resonates within you with what you know is true to you and true to the relationship that you have with your child, with yourself and your family. But I believe both of these things go very much hand-in-hand. Because when you follow what really resonates within, enjoyment and satisfaction arise.

Dovilė: I really agree with what you say about enjoyment in the here and now, enjoyment of what we have now. Instead of thinking that it will get easier when the child is older, we can enjoy what is happening here and now. I also just want to add something that’s very important for me. We have talked about it – and it’s balance. It’s respect in its broadest sense, respect to oneself, to the needs of the family. All of it can be integrated without any need to give up or sacrifice anything. Such balance is possible. Especially, if we get to it through this prism of enjoyment, through comfortable approach to the situations. It has been lovely to chat, Asta, thank you very much. We’ll await your impressions about respectful parenting with a newborn, with your baby daughter, who is promising to come soon. You mentioned that Leila was already five months old when you learned about respectful parenting, and now you have a lot of experience. We will eagerly await your impressions about how such connection is created from the first moment.

Asta: Thank you very much, Dovilė. Truly. Another teacher is coming into my life, and I think it will be a new level of learning, and many new things. It will seem like I knew it all but I will have to change strategies, because she will be a different little person, with different emotions, different experiences. A very interesting journey awaits. But thank you very  much for the conversation. I look forward to our paths crossing again.

Dovilė: Thank you once again. Wishing you beautiful moments of waiting and meeting with your little girl.

Asta: Thank you, Dovile. All the best!


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