Ep. 43 – Maggie Dent – The Road To Resilience
- How to sense, support, and sustain moments of imagination with our children.
- Why your children’s noise is going to make you want to hide in the bathroom, and why that’s normal.
- Why we use predictable routines to soothe and support our child’s brain and behavior.
In this episode, Australian author, educator and host of ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast Maggie Dent, generously and humorously shares from her 3 decades as a parenting specialist.
Maggie specializes in resilience training, particularly in the adolescent and early years. In this episode she explains, “Resilience isn’t a trait we are born with,” so when parents start to embrace adversity as a powerful teacher for their children, disappointments become the road to inner strengths that will sustain their child for the years to come.
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. 43 – Maggie Dent – The Road To Resilience
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 up’s 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 I also 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, were 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.
Maggie Dent – Yeah.
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 overscheduled. 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 Mummys 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.
Musical Interlude #1 10:00
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 – Right! And we need that reassurance Maggie. Thank you. Now, 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 these 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 the 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’t you. Pegs. Just simple pegs in a basket.
Rachel Cram – Pegs.
Maggie Dent – Plastic. Yeah like, oh you don’t even use pegs over here.
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. Real beauty. And 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’m 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 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. So in 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’s 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!
Musical Interlude #2 20:00
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?” Now 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. 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. 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 – Yeah, it’s tough. So, we need to allow for stressors and it does suck sometimes. What are protective factors that help us to thrive in these difficult moments? You, Maggie, you talk about rituals.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, so the balance to learning that life can suck at times, is I need to give you experiences where life is full of beautiful joy and exquisite connection. So I love reminding families about the importance of rituals, welcoming and farewell rituals, as we leave the house each day. If you’ve got young children, what is your farewell ritual? Quite often with separation, distress is a very normal part of children’s development.
Rachel Cram – So you’re thinking as children are going off to school?
Maggie Dent – Yes. Yes. So Mummy kisses inside the left hand and Daddy kisses inside the right hand. And so when they put the hands together they’ve got mommy and daddy kissing as well, which is pretty cool. And anytime they feel sad, they put those hands near their heart, and in that lovely imaginary world of young children, that’s real. For others, we recommend drawing the little heart in their hand. And Mom and Dad have it. So later, you put them back together. So it’s kind of like, how do I create connection when we’re apart?
Rachel Cram – Do older children need that as well?
Maggie Dent – In a different way. Just the farewell thing. Just basically as they’re leaving it’s a sense,“I’m going to miss you! Have a good day!” And even with adolescents, even if they’re grumpy and rolling their eyes at you, not wanting to talk to you, every single day do the same, even when they don’t deserve it.
Rachel Cram – Even more so then, I think.
Maggie Dent – Even more so then. Because can we love them when they can’t love themselves? It’s a really bumpy ride.
Another one is, what are your meal times like? What are your birthday celebrations like? What are we doing each day of the week that reminds our children? So I encourage things like, ‘Pancake Thursday,’ or ‘Fry Up Sunday breakfast,’ where we linger in our pajamas if we can. Whatever day you can work it, do a ritual that is sometimes centered around food because we do know as humans we’re biologically wired together around meals. Do it so that when they’re older they remember it, and they can’t wait to get home for it. Because our hunger to connect has to work when we’re not in the same space. So those work beautifully. And the other one I absolutely love is the bedtime ritual you do most days of the week.
They need to know how big your love is for them because love is a difficult concept. And in my work I know around with boys; boys are incredibly sensitive to when mommy or daddy yell at them. They actually think you aren’t loving them then.
Rachel Cram – That’s really important to be aware of as a parent. That is how they’re interpreting that.
Maggie Dent – That’s how they often interpret it. Girls? No! They know you’re just losing it. They’ll be fine. They’ve got it sorted. They’re a bit more emotionally savvy. Boys? They think, “Oh my God! They’ve stopped loving me!” So if they don’t get a bedtime ritual somewhere in that week, you’re running a boy under intense stress!
Rachel Cram – Of disconnection.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely! So he’s in panic mode because, “Until I get that heart thing going again, no one’s out here looking after me!” And often that comes out in really awful behavior.
So boys often channel that sense of feeling unloved, and being judged as naughty or bad, in their behavior because they haven’t got the words. They can’t articulate it. So basically, so much of a boy’s inappropriate behavior is a sense of feeling disconnected from the key caregivers in their life.
So that’s why we talk about, ‘what are the nonverbal ways that you can connect to your boys,’ with the gentle punch on the arm and the tussle on the head. That is huge. A girl may love to hear the words. But a boy? Often it’s, ‘What’s your gesture? Are you looking at me in the eye? Are you smiling at me? Are you winking at me? Because those things make me feel you’re still with me.’
And of course these are the little rituals. Handshakes can be rituals; secret ones.
Musical Interlude #3
Thank you for listening to family 360. Today we’re with author and parenting specialist, Maggie Dent.
Our next release is with author and therapist, Ted Leavitt, who describes perspectives and practices around ADHD – in his own life and in the lives of the children and adults who come to him for counsel. His episode is called ADHD: Now Playing In A Person Near You. Join us!
And now back to our conversation with Maggie Dent as she continues her discussion about the importance of family rituals and routines.
Rachel Cram – I want to come back to the concept that a ritual has nothing to do with the deservedness or not.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – And it takes off the necessity for us as parents to be deciding on it because every decision that we make takes something out of us in the day. It just becomes something that we do. That can be expected. And that carries over a lot of disappointments that are going to happen. Times that we lose. Because those things will show up.
Maggie Dent – This will work for lots of teens. Sometimes coming home into the home space with they’re stressors, guess where the protective factors are? Home. The safe space. But if they’ve got nothing left to be able to offer us, a warm cheery welcome, because they’re just drowning in cortisol with the stress they’re living in, then they’re less likely to be pleasant. And sometimes we have to be the big person that knows this is another stage of us being their safe grown up.
And if one of my boys has done that in those days and slammed the door at me or something, twenty/twenty five minutes later, I’d go down, knock on his door and lean in with a lovely hot chocolate, a home baked cookie, and I’d shove the dog in and then shut the door. Because I need him to know we’re okay while he’s not okay. And it kind of became like the olive branch. If I can’t put things into them even when they don’t deserve it, who will?
Rachel Cram – And it doesn’t have to be a big conversation,
Maggie Dent – No
Rachel Cram – In fact it’s better if it’s not.
Maggie Dent – Well, particularly boys. They don’t want to talk. But even in the heat of the moment, we’ve got to realize, ‘What can I do right now that can add to the coping capacity of my son or daughter, right now,’ because they are struggling. They still haven’t the prefrontal cortex that can make sense of this, which is your finished brain. I mean, we’ve got a finished brain and we can still struggle and traffic. So can you imagine, with the underdeveloped brain, that is in massive growth mode, why sometimes the loving gestures of those they love the most can be actually fundamentally life saving.
Rachel Cram – The finished brain. When does that kick in for us?
Maggie Dent – Well, this is kind of not all good news really. We used to think 18. See you later. Out the door! You know, you’re not a teenager. It’s great! No, no, no!
So what we now know is, girls again, because they go into puberty before boys, tend to come out with a complete brain a little earlier; around twenty-two to twenty-four. Boys. Now they’re thinking around twenty-six/twenty-seven. So sometimes our expectations of a 6’ foot 4” boy, who might be doing really well in his sport, in school,
Rachel Cram – Adult body.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. He isn’t going to make a mistake driving that car. Oh! That’s the whole point! Impulsivity and inability to plan for the future. Being mindful of how my actions impact others. Empathy. Motivation. Delaying gratification. None of these are really good in our kids until their 20’s.
Rachel Cram – Which can be so confusing for them and for us because we’re getting angry for something they can’t control.
Maggie Dent – Very much like a toddler. It’s very very similar. The regression in that particular stage of 12 to 15 is they go almost back into toddler mode. Egocentric. About me. And then the changes mean, “I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to be brave. I want to be fearless and I don’t care much.” And then on top of that, just the mood swings. So while the brain is trying to grow really fast, it’s not doing it evenly.
Rachel Cram – So as parents, we need a bit of a plan so we don’t lose our bearings, or our sanity. So, Maggie, you have said, “What we start early we can build on later.” Which gives us a continual opportunity for growth and discovery with our children. And I know that you’ve got a fun story around AC DC with that. Do you want to share that?
Maggie Dent – And it’s such a simple one too. So what we know is that what you do over and over again with a parent builds that anticipation and sense of ritual and connectedness. So I often talk about how singing in the car, endless nursery rhymes, can anchor that for your children. And I was speaking about singing songs and a dad came up to me after a seminar and said, “Ah Maggie, I just want to tell you a story. When my daughter was born I used to take her quite often in my car, and I didn’t do nursery rhymes Maggie, I did ACDC. So she was raised from very early in her life, in the car seat next to Daddy, with ACDC. She knew every word, every song by the time she was in her primary school,” and then he got kind of a bit emotional and his Adam’s Apple was going up and down and he said, “I just wanted to tell you that last weekend my daughter and I flew to Sydney for an ACDC concert together. She’s 19.”
And the tears just poured out of my eyes and his eyes and I said, “That is for life.” So that girl, everytime she plays ACDC, her daddy is right next to her just like before.
And sometimes they could be simple rituals like, taking our kids out and watching the full moon. I have dragged my sons out to so many full moons. I’ve said, “Make a wish on the full moon,” and they’ve always thought I was a bit wobbly. But there was one year in Australia where the half Crescent Moon had two stars above it. It looked like a face. It was a really spectacular moment. I got four pictures sent from each of my four sons to say, “Hey Mum. Did you see this?” That triggers a memory of the times we went outside. And they’re the little things I want people to know really matter. I call them Bridges of Love to our children’s hearts. They must have lots of bridges, patterns of predictability. The simplest of things can make such a difference later, especially when we think we’ve lost them in adolescence.
Rachel Cram – Well as parents there’s this battle back and forth. We want to hold on but we know they need to break free as well. And so having some of these threads that we weave through their life so that we can remain connected in beautiful ways, that are healthy ways, is so important. But that individuation process can be very painful for parents.
Maggie Dent – I know. I know. It’s really tricky for us because we’re biologically wired to love our children and keep them safe and that means that at times we will have what a good friend of mine calls, “white knuckle moments,” as they climb up that tree, past where you feel they’re going to be safe. And every fiber of our being wants to get them down and keep them safe, while every fiber in their being wants to go to as high as they can go today. And that is exactly the biggest challenge for us as parents; to know that I need to trust when my child is stretching that that is exactly what they need to do.
We know it’s a biological wiring in them. They are actually wired to go to the edge of their own fear if we don’t interrupt it. So in other words, if you put your fear over the top, you’re messing with their fear. And you’ll sometimes see that. A child climbing high up suddenly gets somewhere and their leg just goes, “Do I want to go one more? No, no. This is it.” Whereas, if a parent rips in and takes you down…
Rachel Cram – That’s a metaphor for all of life isn’t it?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. And see, once again there is a risk. They will make an error of judgment and they may tumble. And then how do I manage that? Do I make that, “Oh, I feel bad about me?” Or do I say, “Wow, you look like you tumbled a bit. Do you need a grown up’s help? or, “Are you okay?” I can tell you, if you are reassured in that moment they’ll want to go back up and do it again. But if you scoop them up and say, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you. Oh my gosh you will never do that again,” you’ve just disabled them again.
Rachel Cram – It’s hard to hold back our words in those white knuckle moments, as your friend says. So what could we say? What does build a brave child?
Maggie Dent – So sometimes the things that build a brave child and a brave adolescent are things that are a little difficult and unpleasant at the time. And our job is to be our kid’s encourager and champion. Yep. They may need a Band-Aid when a bit of skin comes off and they’re going to really struggle when it didn’t work. And we’re going to go, “I reckon you’re going to do this. You’ve got this.” So that,“You’ve got this,” is something I want to build into children. It might not come easy.
Musical Interlude #4
Rachel Cram – Now Maggie you talked about rituals as a protective factor to stress and then you moved into talking about individuation. The process of individuation is historically cloaked in ritual. There’re rituals that we create as a family but there are also rituals that are created as a society. And spiritually based rituals.
Maggie Dent – Yeah yeah. And one of my biggest challenges is we’ve removed ‘rites of passage,’ which is a really big issue around adolescence.
Rachel Cram – OK. I’d love to go into that. Rites of passage. Ok.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. Because it doesn’t have to be religious but they can be.
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Maggie Dent – The organization of mankind and social structures have always needed these things. So you’ll see that at different times families often have a celebration when the child starts school or transitions into high school
Rachel Cram – Graduation type experience.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, although some of those have got a little crazy.
Rachel Cram – Yes, like prom for a kindergartener.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, yeah, they can go too far because we’re in this crazy modern world! And then those ones that are within our religious systems, they are also markers that show, ‘Hey, my child is now going into another stage of their life.’ So as parts of our world are moving away from some of our traditional religions, I’m very concerned that those markers are disappearing from mainstream.
So one of the things I’d love to see is, ‘How do we create a rite of passage for all of our children on that journey?’ And it needs to begin around fourteen.
Rachel Cram – Which interestingly is one of the times where we often, in our religious systems, celebrate young people beginning their journey to adulthood.
Maggie Dent – Where we bring people to mindfulness. And that’s the one that says, “This is the beginning of your journey of separating to become a human being.” And there are some wonderful new programs coming in. We’ve got a couple of really big specialists in Australia that come into schools and the schools are starting to implement them. And part of that is they take their students out to a beautiful location, there’s usually a lake or a river or something, and they actually have to kind of say, “Goodbye,” to their parents symbolically as they’re beginning this new part of their life. And they walk with all the other students to the edge of this place and there they are given wonderful poems and messages from ancient times about how I’m going to emerge into the next part of my life.
And then, throughout the year, they’re given opportunities to be mindful about the life they want to choose. So, we’re actually calling them into a state of, “Wow! Who do I want to be? What would that look like? What values do I have in my life?” So we’re calling them into a place of real consciousness expansion. When these are also happening later I can tell you the difference is profound.
Rachel Cram – Happening later in their journey? Older ages?
Maggie Dent – Yes. Eighteen, nineteen and twenty. Often at the very end of that high school journey, particularly boys, get lost. They end up lost with no motivation, no sense of future, in a void, after school where all the predictability is removed. And suddenly they’re powerless to create any sense of where they’re going.
So it’s these sorts of things I really want families to have conversations about. “How do we do that?” So again, I think this is part of the way the modern world has to come back to, ‘How did the ancient world do these things that marked I am now an adult?’
Rachel Cram – I’m loving this conversation on rituals and I think it’s something we have really stepped away from because I think we’ve put it under the banner of religion, which we want to be so cautious around. But it’s got this ancient truth that we’ve thrown out with the bathwater. There are also rituals that just have to do with being human.
Maggie Dent – Total
Rachel Cram – And I know that you have been a Death Dula, which is a term that I had never heard before until I met you, which is one of those human rituals that I think again we step away from because we were overwhelmed by it. And we don’t have the language for it or the capacity, at least certainly not here in North America.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. So traditionally, way way way back, we were born and we died in our family. So as the western world has become more educated and cultivated we actually outsource it. Sadly, that doesn’t facilitate either of those journeys; birthing or dying.
The young that I worked with over time. Oh my goodness. You can have such power with adolescence around death that I was not aware of if you give them permission to participate. We had one fourteen year old boy who had a nasty tumor on his shoulder and it was unfortunately terminal. So his mates, and there were three boys and two girls; his parents got a king sized bed so that after school his mates could jump on the bed and chat to him and watch telly with him and they were with him unbelievably. They didn’t back away. They turned up. And they would ask me questions from time to time. And then at one point the boy said to me, “Maggie, can you get my casket delivered before I die?”
And I said, “Yes! Sure. What color do you want?”
And he said, “Ferrari red.” And this Ferrari red coffin, I was hoping it would make it before he passed,
Rachel Cram – And did it?
Maggie Dent – It did. And his friends spent almost two afternoons decorating it with messages and things. So beautiful! And at the funeral, this is how magical things can be when we step away from the horror and own what it is: a transition and a celebration, those friends got up to speak about their best friend. And at one point they turned to the mom and dad and said, “Now we’ve got a surprise for you. He has written you a special message on the front of the casket.”
Can you see what a difference that can make? This is just yet another doorway, another birthing that we go through in life. It’s just such a powerful thing. It is a part of life. It hurts. It is one of the biggest things that will gut you to your core. And again I think we need to not hide it away.
Rachel Cram – In speaking about resilience. I remember at five years old waking up right in the middle of the night with this bolt of lightning realizing, my mom is going to die one day. And my children have done the same things. Around 5 years old they look at you like, “Mommy! You’re going to die.” And then they start to realize: and I will too.
There is an important part of resilience in not hiding it away from children. Even back to thinking of the ducks. If we can know that as we follow our mom duck, actually that is kind of the final place for following her to, but if we can get up and shake off our feathers and know how to do that.
Maggie Dent – Beautiful.
Rachel Cram – It’s amazing.
Maggie Dent – I think there’s something exquisite in a really difficult farewell ceremony if you can hear a burp from a baby who’s just had a feed. It’s just like one of those gifts from the universe that says, “Life goes on. It turns up in all these things.” Or a little fart from a boy. It’s, “Life goes on. And this is our challenge in life.”
Rachel Cram – It’s normality.
Maggie Dent – It’s not meant to be a squeaky perfect world. What we now know is that resilience isn’t a trait you’re born with. It is something that we can cultivate and that it’s determined by the systems we live within. So our family system, our school systems, our faith systems, and what resources are available in the systems, and then do we ask for help. So one of your big messages to your children as they grow up, ‘Are we the people who step forward to help? And are we capable of asking for help?’ Because I’ve worked in communities after massive floods and bushfires and droughts and activating a community to recover, I can tell you, you never have to activate one that is already connected.
So in our world as we separate, and I think we have a fundamental hunger for human connection, it’s biological in us; if we become separated because we’re connected more online then we are not going to recover as quickly afterwards. So again, do you know your neighbors?
Rachel Cram – Maggie, that actually I think leads me into what is sadly a need to wrap up this interview, and I’m not wanting to rush you with your answer. I’m wondering, is there a last piece of insight you would like to share around the necessity for deep connection to build our resilience and our ability to flourish as individuals, as communities.
Maggie Dent – I think I’d kind of like to burst into song or something,
Rachel Cram – Burst into song? Ok!
Maggie Dent – All the songs that say that basically, the most fundamental thing that we all need as humans is love. Unconditional and strong. That’s what we need. I can love you when you can’t. I can love you regardless of the color of your skin, your culture, or your sexual orientation. I am capable of it being about us. And until we can be those people that say, “It’s our whole world that matters. And, are the decisions being made about all of us? Or only some of us?” Because the more we become a Me-world the unhealthy we get. The more we become a We-world the healthier our children and us become.
So again my message is, ‘Nothing will ever replace human connectedness as the most important thing in building resilient happy children who thrive.’
Rachel Cram – Maggie Dent, thank you so much for the passion and energy and stories, and love that you’ve poured into this interview.
Maggie Dent – It was my absolute pleasure Rachel. Thank you so much and I’m hoping everyone’s okay with my accent.
Rachel Cram – I think you were fully understandable. Thank you so much.
For boys, adolescence can be a confusing minefield and parents can be bewildered as how to best guide their precious sons.</b>Many parents wake one day to find that their beautiful little boys have grown into silent, withdrawn, sometimes angry and often unmotivated tweens and teens.Well-known Australian author, parenting and resilience educator, and 'boy champion' Maggie Dent, offers parents and guardians a compassionate and practical guidebook, packed with advice and ground-breaking techniques on how to stay calm and:
- Communicate effectively and defuse conflict
- 'Unstick' an unmotivated son
- Teach them to cope with loss and failure, and how to recover
- Help them foster healthy friendships and intimate relationships
- Navigate technology and the digital world.