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Member Essays

Giving Caregivers the Gift of Grace
By NPEN Member, Michael Finlay

We had just barely fallen asleep when she began crying again, only this time it was louder and more uncomfortable and unfortunately it wasn’t stopping.  My very brave and independent 5 year old daughter was having a really tough time with the sleeping part of our fun backyard camp-out.  My wife and I could tell that this was the type of cry that wasn’t going to be soothed quickly so rather than risking waking the whole neighborhood, we picked her up and took her back in the house and my wife laid down in bed with her to comfort her.  A very enjoyable family camp day was ending on a sad note.

My daughter had been so excited for our backyard camp-out in the days leading up to it and spent most of the daytime hours playing with her stuffed animals in the tent, yet when it came time to finish the day, between the darker than she thought darkness, less comfortable than anticipated sleeping bag on the ground, and summer heat giving way to nighttime cold it was no longer as amazing as she’d thought and hoped.  

I feel like this sums up a lot of our parenting experiences with our children.  Amazing and beautiful moments, great anticipation and excitement and then plenty of moments where the hype and reality don’t quite meet.  We’ve learned along the way that grace (sometimes lots of it!) is an essential ingredient to parenting young children and not going crazy along the way.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t have plenty of moments of grumpiness, frustration and even anger (because of course we do!) but what it does mean is that we try as often as possible to take some extra breaths, swallow our words and frustrations, and find a way to give a little extra sympathy, a little extra love and move on to plan B (or C or D, etc.).

As a Parent Educator I also try to utilize this with the caregivers I see at my workshops.  However, I don’t just focus on encouraging and talking with them about how to do this with their kids, I try to model it in my interactions with them as well.  I have experienced many frustrations with my sessions.  Getting people to sign up in the first place is one of the more difficult ones, but also people signing up and not showing up, people showing up halfway through the session, people dropping out 2-3 sessions into our series without any contact, and people showing up and being there but not fully participating leaving me to try and minimize the awkward silences while still pausing for sharing and reflection.  With each of these different difficulties I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is practice giving grace.  This doesn’t mean that I let people cross boundaries or that there aren’t consequences, but it does mean that I do everything I can to understand where they’re coming from, offer sympathy and understanding and try to meet them where they are at.

In practice this has played out by starting sessions 5 or so minutes late while engaging with those who have already arrived.  I’ll welcome people who join 30 minutes or more into the session simply by saying “Hello, if you’ve just joined us we’re really glad you’re here!  We’ve been talking about this and would love to know if you have any thoughts and are happy to keep moving on if you don’t”.  I’ll also follow-up between or after classes via text and email reminders and offer to help with troubleshooting as I’ve found that Zoom workshops can still provide a lot of headaches and difficulties for people.  

I’ve discovered that when I do this I actually tend to have more buy-in and more participation as the people I work with tend to feel less judged and more understood.  They feel less pressure and more of a desire to show up and participate.  This world is crazy and difficult and many people, especially parents and guardians of young children, feel strung out, stressed and judged.  As parent educators, supporters and coaches let’s make sure that we do everything we can to make the spaces that we provide feel as safe, welcoming and encouraging as possible.  Let’s strive to make our spaces ones that are filled with understanding and grace, because often people who are given grace will tend to be more motivated to give it to others as well.  In our line of work that produces the best possible outcome: happier and healthier families and children.  

(And if you’re wondering, my daughter woke up the next morning and was very excited to go back out and play in the tent in the morning.)

Michael is a parent educator and advocate for fatherhood. He runs This is Fatherhood, LLC and This is Fatherhood Blog and is the Veteran Dad Recruiter and Community Manager for Boot Camp for New Dads.

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