How to Help Your Child March to Their Own Beat

At the age of 16 I bought a pair of leggings while on school holidays in Sydney. They were completely psychedelic. Brighter than the sun on the shiniest day and as colourful as a rainbow, they were pretty awful, but I loved them. My mum called them my “lairy” pants, and I wore them everywhere. Looking back, I imagine my mum seeing me in those awful pants and loving me with all her heart nonetheless. Amused and curious at worst, delightfully in love at best.

When Summer, my daughter, was born, she was such a symbol of hope for me—a girl after two boys; a treasure that would surely help to ease some of the loss of losing my mum several years earlier. Fast-forward four years, and Summer now also owns a pair of psychedelic pants. They have this weird tiger face all over them, with glittery accents and a sparkly waist band. She noticed them while we were shopping at some markets one night, and screamed like a crazed animal when she saw them. They are awful. You can’t even imagine how awful they are. Like my own mother two decades earlier, suddenly I found myself amused and curious, but absolutely delightfully in love with that individuality.

How do we ensure that despite our similarities, our children still march to their own beat? How do we become the percussion in the background to begin with, and slowly fade into the supporting music? Most of all—how do we ensure we are really listening to their dreams?

This is Tom. Tom is my 6 year old and on any given day might change his mind about what he wants to be when he grows up. Last week it was a builder and the week before a goalie in a soccer team. Who am I to disagree?

There is no doubt in my mind that we need to champion our kids’ beliefs about themselves and what they have to offer the world. So I want to share 5 proven things I have done to encourage my children’s dreams and individuality.

1. Listen more

Think about those afternoons when you pick up your kids and they are dying to tell you information or they might chat to you while you are feeding the pets. Those are the times I remain as still as can be and offer words that simply encourage more conversation from them. I nod and I uh-huh and I say “tell me more”. I often say things like: “wow! Is that what you did!?”, with a smile.

If your kids need help to open up, then I suggest implementing a dinner conversation starter. We have done this since the kids were little. It begins with, “what was the best part of your day?”, followed by, “what was the worst part of your day?”. Then whoever is leading the questioning gets to add their own question. This is just a start, but what it will do is help you to understand what your children find interesting, worrying or exciting. It will make it easier for you to have conversations to help them open up about their dreams.

2. Don’t judge their style

This took me a long time, and I still struggle with it sometimes. Master 9 in particular likes to leave the house with one glove on, and Miss 4 always insists on her pink cowgirl boots even in the middle of a hot summer’s day. I will comment on their potential level of discomfort, but if they are neat and tidy, (and dressed), then I am winning. The cowgirl boots are of course another nod to Sheriff Callie and Summer’s dream of riding a horse. This kind of quirky style is so much about their individuality; why would I want to interfere?

Sheriff Callie

3. Don’t push your own dreams onto them.

I love the Princess Sofia quote “Believe in your dreams like I believe in you”, because your children’s dreams deserve the power of a parent’s belief behind them. My husband played rugby all throughout school and beyond. It is his thing. When our middle child showed interest in sport, my husband was keen to sign him up on the spot and buy him a rugby jersey for good measure. It turns out that Tom is a football player. He likes that there is a goalie. In fact he has his heart set on being the greatest goalie the world has ever seen. You can see why it is helpful to understand why children like or dislike something, and really listen to the answers from their perspective. Doing this with Tom helped me to appreciate why he had this dream and then it was up to me to be his biggest cheerleader. 

4. Allow time for lots of free play

Our family has purposefully left a lot of space in our week wide open for free play at home. Do you know what I hear during this time? I hear lots of make-believe. Lots of character play. Lots of character building. By playing together in this very safe home environment, my kids are intrinsically validated because there is no one else to compare themselves with and no one to judge their choices.

5. Let them have their dreams!

Your kids will have dreams that seem so strange to you and me, and dreams that carry them to faraway places and worlds that don’t even exist. We love to read books that encourage BIG and OUT OF THIS WORLD thinking, and our family talks about different people in history who achieved big dreams despite adversity. My advice is to talk to your kids about their big dreams and about how they might feel to achieve those dreams. Talk to them about people who achieved similar dreams. Talk to them about how it would feel to fly. Anything is possible. 

What do your kids dream of?

More ways to encourage kids:

Main image: Getty / Other images: Ngaire Stirling