It frustrates me when I hear parental responsiveness being discussed as if responsiveness were a matter of following specific rules. This can make parents feel confused and guilty and it just isn’t correct. It also suggests that all responsive parent-child relationships look the same, when in fact, responsiveness is flexible and creative. Responsiveness is, by definition, following your child not following rules. There is also plenty of room for ordinary human error within a responsive, loving relationship. Responsiveness is a pattern of care over time; with even responsive parents frequently behaving in an unresponsive way in particular interactions. Mistakes usually don’t matter. Intention matters. Your ongoing pattern of interaction matters. Being compassionate to your child matters. Doing the best you can matters.
We understand this easily in other relationships. For example, imagine you were at home with the children and your partner was at work. You become sick. You need support. You have a vague memory of your partner saying that they will be home late tonight so you pick up the phone. You ring your partner, explain that you are unwell, and ask them to come home as soon as possible. Unfortunately, you find out that your partner will still be late. You reached out for help and your partner let you down.
Now imagine these three scenarios:
Your partner was compassionate during the phone call. They wanted to rush straight home but they have an important late meeting at work, a meeting that is impossible to reschedule and utterly crucial to their career. It is the kind of meeting that is likely to lead to new opportunities and a better income. You receive several supportive text messages from your partner throughout the day. When your partner comes home they find you in bed, give you a cuddle and ask if there’s anything they can do.
Your partner wasn’t compassionate. They are catching up with an old friend after work and simply don’t want to cancel. After the phone call you don’t hear from your partner again. When your partner comes home they slip into bed beside you.
Your partner wasn’t compassionate, if in fact, your partner responds to your request by saying that you rely too much them. Your partner says that it is time for you to learn how to manage the kids better, even when you are sick. They are catching up with an old friend after work and aren’t going to cancel. Your partner says that you shouldn’t ask them to come home early just because you are sick. After the phone call you don’t hear from your partner again. When your partner comes home they slip into bed beside you.
All scenarios involve your partner letting you down and mean that you have to get through a full day with your kids, while feeling very unwell. But they are very different, aren’t they? Your partner’s intention matters. Your partner doing the best they can matters. Your partner being compassionate to your needs matters. All of that matters to your children too.
Apply it to your life: Let go of the rules and follow your child instead, with the intention of meeting your child’s needs as best you can.