Ep. 15 | Maggie Dent | The Road To Resilience Pt. 1
~ Maggie Dent
Maggie Dent is an Australian parenting author, educator and speaker as well as the host of ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast. Known in Australia as the “Queen Of Common Sense”, Maggie specializes in resilience training, particularly in the early and adolescent years. In this 2 part episode, Maggie Dent explains, “Resilience isn’t a trait you’re born with. It’s cultivated and determined by the systems we live within.”
Maggie DentMaggie Dent is one of Australia's favorite parenting authors and educators. She is a passionate voice for children of all ages, specializing in resilience training during the early and adolescent years. Maggie is the best selling author of eleven books, including her most recent, ‘Mothering Our Boys’. Her warm and genuine approach gives her accessible wisdom that has won her the title, Australia's Queen of Common Sense.
Transcript | Ep. 15 | Maggie Dent | The Road To Resilience Pt. 1
Rachel Cram – Well today we’re talking with the Australian Queen of Common Sense, Maggie Dent. I have to say, when I met you, I was kind of expecting to see someone who was 200 because of everything you’ve done in your life. But here you are.
Maggie Dent – Some days I feel 200 Rachel. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Rachel Cram – Well, it is a pleasure. I’m really excited to hear what you have to share today about raising children from your very seasoned platform as an author and parenting advocate. And to get to know you better, I want to open with a question which we often use to start our interviews. Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” So Maggie, is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Maggie Dent – Oh for sure. I was raised on a farm in the wheat belt of Western Australia and I’m the fifth of six children. And I landed on the planet, I think, at the tail end of a family so I could chase everybody else because I was in a hurry to grow up and be clever and smart like everyone else seemed to be. And I guess, on a farm you get exposed to life in its reality. Like we actually had to work. You know, a farm can’t run without the kids working and there were days, endlessly long days, we would be picking up rocks out of a field that was going to be turned into a crop. Or, we would have to help round up sheep that could take hours in really hot sun. So I think the capacity to be resilient and capable was just an automatic given that you were needed and that you’ve got the capacity to work and do things that help grown ups. And then of course, we had dead lambs and we had dead sheepdogs at times, so you’re not protected from the things that can be a bit hard in life. And I think, all of that early exposure of those adverse experiences gave me an understanding of it as I left high school and then beyond there, that life can be tough at times. It can be exquisitely fun. And all of those gave me, I think, the seeds of compassion that some people can deal with it better than others. And I think, yeah, that’s, that’s kind of really where I think I came from.
I came always looking at people, watching people’s behaviour, grown ups behaviour. From an early age I was sitting at a distance going, “Why would you do that? Why would a person say that?”
Rachel Cram – So from a very early age, you were curious about people and I want to pick up on that in a moment because clearly that has continued on, not much has changed but before we go there, you just said, “the capacity to be resilient and capable was an automatic given,” which is wonderful because that is actually where I want to go in the interview with you today. I haven’t told you that yet, but that is what I want to lean into because you have a whole book on that. And as you’re describing your childhood, I think we can think well, we become who we are because of the adults in our life, but also I know from your story that you struggled a lot with the adults in your life. You didn’t have an ideal childhood from your parents.
Maggie Dent – No, no I certainly didn’t. So my mum was, you know there are some mothers who are not naturally maternal? And I definitely had one of those. I had a very weary mother by the time she got to the fifth of six. We actually really think mum may have struggled with postnatal depression every single pregnancy and beyond. So I didn’t have a warm loving mum. I remember at times just yearning to be held. Yearning for the tenderness. But fortunately, making up for that I had an amazing human being for my father. He was a very well educated man with a deep and profound love of nature. I would spend hours and hours with him which you can as a farm kid. So I would just be his right hand girl. And I have learnt over the years to listen to stories and his laughter and the way that he would never put down another human being. And I think those are the gifts, that when you put them all together, was able to sustain me as a child.
Obviously when I grew up I realized I had some issues I needed to do some work with around feeling that I was never good enough. And I really believe I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if I hadn’t gone off to really do some work around that because my story was, not quite a poor me but an angry me. Why did you pick me not to love? It took years later for us to realise that every one of my siblings felt the same basically so.
Rachel Cram – But you didn’t know that growing up
Maggie Dent – You don’t know that growing up. So, once I was able to untangle that and also realized my mum gave me everything she had and that she was the fifth of twelve who grew up in poverty in Sydney, with a father who possibly was an alcoholic and a gambler. So, that’s why I began to realise, if we can really look at who we are and who our parents are, I really believe Rachel, that every single one of us is doing the best we can. Everyday. I don’t think a parent gets out of bed and says, “Gee, how can I damage my kids today?” We don’t.
Rachel Cram – Well, and often it takes us into adult life to be able to look back and reflect like that.
Rachel Cram – You sounded like you were a really curious child Maggie and I love this quote I found on your website: “Childhood is a state of mind which ends the moment a puddle is first viewed as an obstacle instead of an opportunity,” I sense you take many opportunities for puddles.
Maggie Dent – Oh absolutely! And I am going to say that one of the things we find today is, we’re making childhood far too busy and over-scheduled. Because to have a creative, questioning, curious mind, you need to have time to ponder. And the pondering meant that we were largely unsupervised when we weren’t doing work on the farm. And I still can see myself, just even speaking about this, sitting up on my favourite branch in a giant tree. I could sit there for hours without any interruption. And I know that there were times when the giant rocks on our farm got warm, you could lay on them on a winter’s day, and there’s nothing but thoughts. So my sense is that we are really kind of making it difficult for our children to get to what I call a natural transcendent state of pondering and questioning and being curious. And then of course you put the screen world over the top and that steals more time in those early years where we naturally slip into that state. And curiosity is linked to creativity. So I wonder in our world where we have more anxiety, more children struggling, that at some point we’ve taken away a natural thing of the human mind in its formation to just ponder beautiful awe and wonder moments. What if? So, I encourage parents to sit with your young children and say, “How do you think the moon got up there? How do you think the sun gets up every day?” And listen to the magic of their creative minds before we shut it down. And I think what we often do now in a test driven world is, we are looking towards outcomes. We’re not focusing as much on supporting the creative imaginations to be present. And I know I have Mummy’s say, “I really hate my house being untidy. I’m worried I’m gonna get judged.” And I’m going, “But when did you last have a cubby that lasted a few weeks?”
Rachel Cram – A Cubby?
Maggie Dent – A cubby. A den. Inside. Sheets all over a table. Children go
Rachel Cram – A fort!
Maggie Dent – A fort! There you go. Whichever country you’re in. Got it. We nailed it. Because it might make my house look untidy and I get worried I’m not being a good mummy. But in actual fact what those children do in that,
Rachel Cram – In that fort.
Maggie Dent – It’s the magic we’re talking about that creates the curious and creative mind. Because the part of me that wants to keep everything neat, tidy and controlled, is kind of not supporting that beautiful nurturing of the curious, inquisitive, child mind that can see things differently.
Rachel Cram – The title that has been bestowed upon you, ‘Queen of Common Sense’, it is really a statement on the help we sometimes need to find the sense that was once considered common. You say, “What children need today is what children have always needed.”
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. Nothing has changed in terms of what they absolutely need. It’s just the world around them has changed. We have a very different world than we did from way way back. Even in 30 years it’s changed. So, just the mere presence of the digital world on top of trying and striving to be perfect, good parents, it’s put a lot of pressure on the things that children need, which is to be raised, especially in the early years, as slowly as possible, with as little noise and overstimulation as possible, with as much positive interaction with loving grown ups as possible. And then with us also honoring and respecting that at times our kids will melt down and cry over irrationally silly things like the wrong colored cup. You’ve cut my sandwich in the wrong shape. He looked at me. I think before we didn’t see that as us being lousy parents and we didn’t see this as our children did something wrong. There was just an acceptance, this is the phase they’re going through till they’re developmentally able to manage those things some more. So again, it’s a call that says, ‘our world has changed but the needs haven’t changed. And how can you meet those needs in the world we’re in, because we can all run back to the prairie. So you can see that sometimes our modern world is making it harder for us to be the calm and centered parent we want to be because the expectations have unrealistically been lifted far higher. And then that’s before we put social media on it where we compare each other. So it is a very real world of a lot of overwhelm for parents. I just want to reassure them that it is supposed to be messy. There are days your children’s noise is going to make you want to hide in the bathroom and that is normal.
Rachel Cram – We can think of overstimulation as a choice from day to day. And we can see it as just a matter of having a busy life. But there are real biological implications for our bodies. When we are overstimulating our children what is happening in their brains?
Maggie Dent – Beautiful. I think what we have to remember is that it’s a sensitive developing brain. So when babies’ brains are born they are just neurons with no connectors. So every experience from then on is trying to build those connectors and it’s explosive in the first five years. So can you see how it’s easy for our toy producers to have thought, “Oh gosh. Let’s put on our things to make the pressure for parents to buy toys educational and stimulating.
Rachel Cram – Children are a marketing opportunity.
Maggie Dent – They’re a marketing opportunity. And we are loving parents who wanted to make sure they’re stimulated enough. What we don’t know is that everything in our babies and toddlers world is interesting and stimulating until they’ve done it so much they don’t want to do it again. So what happens is the brain is developed to look at one thing over and over for a bit and try and work out if I can predict what it does. So sometimes looking up at a cobweb on the ceiling,
Rachel Cram – It doesn’t have to be a mobile with music
Maggie Dent – No, no! With bells and whistles. And some children their brain works that out very quickly. They only need it for a day or two. Other children, it may take six or seven days and then they go, “Okay,” and their hand may land on their face. And they’ll go, “What’s that? What’s that thing? What is it?” So it is a real gentle unfolding of it. What we’re doing is trying to soothe the brain, which means we use most predictable things for babies and toddlers brains. That’s why we talk about bath time and bedtime routines, because there’s, “I know what’s going to happen next.” But one of the challenges I’m going to say is the size of today’s TVs. So in the olden days they had legs and a knob at the side.
Rachel Cram – And three channels.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. And you have to get up and turn the knob which is why we were so fit and slim. But when TV’s got bigger, they also went from analog vibrations to digital and according to the neuroscientists that’s faster. So then we have bigger screens, so you can imagine on a sensitive, developing brain, if it’s huge, you are overloading their sensors. And if that is left on in the background when a child is starting to lay down their pathways for sound, they can’t tell the difference between foreground sound and background sound, so they can’t hear Mummy because she’s become a background sound. So the things that we need, is a lot less of the things that are pushed onto us as being important. I’m a massive advocate for the simple things. Car keys used to be wonderful.
Rachel Cram – To hand a baby.
Maggie Dent – If you can get a whole set of keys still and jiggle, you can keep a baby entertained in a doctor’s surgery can you. Pegs. Just simple pegs in a basket.
Rachel Cram – Pegs
Maggie Dent – Plastic. Yeah like, oh you don’t even use
Rachel Cram – No, I was just clarifying that you were not saying pigs.
Maggie Dent – No no…
Rachel Cram – I was translating the accent.
Maggie Dent – That happened in Ireland. They thought I was saying pigs in a basket. Just simple things like a plastics drawer for the developing toddler brain. That is fascinating. And I actually wrote a little picture book about this because I needed parents to realize that our children go to that each time and they memorize what’s in there. And then you’ll find them stacking the same colored containers together quite intuitively without your help. Other days it’ll be the shapes. So what’s going on is, that child is curiously making sense of the world independently of your help. And when it’s close to where you’re cooking, then they’re close to you as well. So there’s a sense of “I’m right close to Mommy, this is good” . If you put something new in there they’ll look at it going, “What’s that?”
Rachel Cram – Something new in the drawer.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. “What’s that?” Right? And there’s that trigger again of, “I don’t know what that is. I’ve got to look at it and I’ve got to taste it and I’m going to push it.” So you can see there’s a natural sense of exploration. So I think what we’ve done is we have actually made parents feel you have to entertain your children, babies and toddlers and that you have to get stuff to do that. Have you ever seen a toddler open a Christmas present with crinkly paper?
Rachel Cram – The paper’s the best.
Maggie Dent – Yeah and the cardboard box. So I’m going to say you can raise exceptionally curious, healthy children with less stuff and that the whole toy room you have may actually be making them less creative, independent learners. That doesn’t mean to say throw it all out. Cull it to a third, put the rest in your garage, let that be the thing for a while and then you take that out and rotate it. Well next time it comes around they play in a different way. They’re actually already biologically wired to use play to work out, ‘How does the world work?’
But sometimes the choices they make being that little scientist, really make us cross. Because it’s the fascination with putting things down the toilet with you know, “All gone!” You know, it’s the unrolling and unraveling of the toilet roll, the paper, because that’s a physics experiment. Yeah. It’s not a child going, “I’m wanting to mess your house up.” And I think when you start to reframe seeing your children, especially young children’s behavior, as a sign that there’s a potential genius inside, even the lipstick picture on your wall,
Rachel Cram – is a thing of beauty.
Maggie Dent – Is a thing of absolute beauty. Beauty when you reframe that Oh I see parents relax so much going yeah. Another genius moment here. You know and I get a little bit worried that sometimes we put images up online and make fun of that. And I think that’s incredibly disrespectful.
Rachel Cram – To make fun of our children making messes.
Maggie Dent – Yes yes. We put it up thinking let’s all laugh at that and I thinking that’s actually disrespectful because that isn’t what the child did that for.
Rachel Cram – That’s really an interesting way to look at that. I appreciate that. These experiences in life, they all tie into what we really want for our children, the ability to be resilient. You have a whole book on that. We we want to build their capacity to bounce back from adversity in life. The other night I was listening to you speak on resilience at a parenting seminar and you wanted to pull up a video on ducks but you couldn’t pull up the video. So you described a video of a mother duck leading her brood of little ducklings across an Australian sand area. And you said in Australia often these sudden storms will come through with this video that happens and all these ducklings go flying all over the place. Can you pick up that video from here, because that was to me a fantastic image of what resilience is about.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. So it’s a beautiful metaphor for how life can just absolutely decimate us and knock us flat. So these little ducklings are rolling all over the place because it was really a strong wind. Even the mum went upside down and then she stood up and shaken herself right and then she’s looked around, and she’s looking, the little ducklings shaking themselves and done a bit of a head count and they’ve all just gathered right behind her again. And then she’s continued on her journey, and it’s such a powerful, especially when it works because the music’s great.
Rachel Cram – We can put a link to that on our website.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, Against The Wind. It’s brilliant!
Maggie Dent – The duck just got on with it and what we tend to do a little more today. We tend to catastrophize adversity as always bad, and to be avoided at all cost and something wrong with us and what did I let go of so I could control it – whereas it just can happen in life. And so the ducks just kept moving. She didn’t turn around and say “OK I’m going to sue the wind, who can I blame?” And it is those sort of little patterns that we can pick up in our families and our schooling systems sometimes we’ve become a bit blamey.
Rachel Cram – Oh, we sure have.
Maggie Dent – I remember being told about a school in America where a child fell over the hose on a footpath and sued the school. We’re not letting it be okay that we can actually have accidents or make mistakes or poor choices. I’m pretty sure I have had a lot of those, and I’m sure you have Rachel. And I think that is one of the problems around resilience is we have made it seem like we’re supposed to live perfect lives where things don’t go wrong.
So when I look at resilience, I think in childhood we need to embrace that adversity can be a powerful teacher; that failing is a wonderful teacher. And one of those stories I do share is that I have such a good dad who identified I can’t run fast.
Rachel Cram – I love this story.
Maggie Dent – It’s such a good story because he said “Look, you can’t run fast darling” and I think we need to have conversations with our kids that they’re not good at everything. But he said “If it feels awful always coming last, why don’t you wave at the crowd?” And that strategy. Oh my goodness, it just changed me feeling like a loser to a winner. And sometimes I’d wave so much I fell over which was also quite funny. And then I learned about caring for the person who was also coming last with me so I often hooked arms with people. But the second side to that and this is one of the most important concepts of resilience is my dad had said, “I always want to have it go. So..
Rachel Cram – even if you’re not going to win.
Maggie Dent – ...even if you got no chance of winning, like you’ve got none at all, I want you to turn up and have a go.” And that really is one of those kind of mindsets that really helps us become resilient later. And also what happens, if I fail my spelling test when I come home and I’m feeling ‘yuck’, you know that failure is a moment where I have to go ‘on the day it didn’t go how I planned I’m not any less worthy than I was the day before or the day after.’ So we’ve made it a bit wrong especially with our test driven world that somehow or other sometimes our children are feeling that if I don’t pass the tests my parents won’t love me the same. So the ultimate journey is we can learn from mistakes and that sometimes they can happen randomly or because we just didn’t put enough effort in. But you are loved exactly the same.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. On this pathway towards resilience you have said that we need stressors and we need protective factors to thrive and survive in difficult moments. Can you explain more about what you mean by that? And how do we allow our children to step into those moments. Those really tricky moments when they’re so upset?
Maggie Dent – Can you see now why when we go back to the meltdowns in childhood, actually they’re stressors. And how do we deal with a child who’s melting down in that moment
Rachel Cram – And seeing it as stress. I think that changes your optics on the whole situation.
Maggie Dent – Totally, cause they’re developmentally unable to regulate when the big moments, big, ugly feelings feel yuck
Rachel Cram – And we can think it’s just them being naughty.
Maggie Dent – Exactly. And I think, also we’ve conditioned children in today’s world too much with external rewards. So you’ll get a sticker for this. And I jokingly say I think some children are getting stickers for breathing at the moment. One side that doesn’t build resilience is over-praising and over-rewarding your children. We want them to feel the sting of disappointment. I’m well known for attacking Pass The Parcel that changed its rules. Pass the Parcel’s a game in Australia where you have a parcel, you keep unwrapping it
Rachel Cram – We do that at birthday parties here too.
Maggie Dent – and here, but there was only one prize. And then now there’s lots of prizes. So I’m going to tell you one to five is the best age to start working out that you don’t always get what you want.
Rachel Cram – Not everybody gets a prize.
Maggie Dent – No. And what does that feel like we need to justify that we need to go back to that that the musical chairs only has one winner yet the pin the tail on the donkey or the dinosaur only has one winner. And in birthday parties because we’ve already got other stuff happening you can recover quite quickly and I think because later the failing the test, the failing the soccer match, the failing the whatever, it will sting way worse if you’ve never experienced disappointment and learned that this is a normal feeling after it doesn’t work. So if a child comes up to you when you’ve changed the rules and says, “Oh I didn’t get a prize and I feel really sad.” we validate that and say, “Gee doesn’t this suck.”
It feels awful for us. Come on we don’t like losing. But what do we do when we lose? You’ve got to practice losing. And I’m going to say that is huge in adolescence when our emotional world becomes far more intense. I can tell the kids who have been allowed to lose and marinate in it and move on, and the ones who have had a parent say “You know it’s their fault they shouldn’t have done that, I’m going to go up and fix it.” No no. We need to know that sometimes life doesn’t work out how we want it and it’s going to do that over and over again. Disappointment is a valid emotion. But what do I do with disappointment? What do I do when I feel I have failed and what strategies do I teach my children in those moments?
Rachel Cram – Maggie, I love where you are going with this and I don’t want to rush our conversation. I know there is so much more we can talk about. I’m wondering, let’s wrap up this as a part 1 of your interview, and the rest of the conversation for a sequel.
Maggie Dent-Yeah, yeah this is why I love doing podcasts.
Rachel Cram – Ok, great, we’ll keep going then. And in part 2 l’d love to dig into the importance of individuation – how our children need to stretch and grow and separate from us as parents. Which can be very challenging for kids and parents!
Maggie Dent – Absolutely
Rachel Cram – Ok, so let’s stay tuned for part 2 with Maggie Dent
Maggie Dent – laugh
As mentioned in Maggie’s interview, here is the YouTube link to the Duck video: Against the Wind