This past weekend I celebrated Mother’s Day with my children. It wasn’t Mother’s Day, but my adult children have busy lives and live thousands of miles from each other, so any time I can be with them at once is a celebration. Each of them is a remarkable person in his or her own right — self-sufficient, hard-working in careers of their choosing, volunteering their time to help others, and able to pursue their interests and passions and find joy in their lives.
It is after these gatherings that I pause to reflect on how one parents to raise these kinds of adults, how much of it is intentional and how much of it just happens.
The best maternal model I have seen, was five years ago when I took a trip to the Svalbard Arctic to watch polar bears. Through my binoculars, I was able to see a mother bear find shelter for her cubs in a natural igloo where they blended into the ice so she could leave them in safety while she hunted for food. I saw her swimming with her cubs, only occasionally stopping to look back and make sure they were following. And, I was able to approach by kayak close enough to see a mother bear standing guard while her cubs feasted on a whale carcass. My favorite sight was to watch the cubs at play, rolling over each other; running and sliding on the ice; splashing in the water; pawing and nipping and yes, even hugging their siblings.
Once the young bears are skilled enough to feed themselves and strong enough to defend themselves, they go off on their own. They are curious and bold. They would come straight up to our ship to check us out. They showed no fear of humans. And, they are equally bold in social situations. I witnessed a young male in a power struggle with a tough old bear, trying to secure a spot on a particularly choice sheet of ice. The young bear inched closer and closer to the old bear hoping to unseat him, but in the end the old bear held firm and the young bear swam away. I admired the young bear for his sense of self-worth, and for ultimately accepting defeat and showing respect.
I am confident we would raise stronger, more confident, more self-sufficient children if we were to parent like a mama polar bear.
And the good news for humans, is that even fathers can apply this theory to their parenting as in most cases, we don’t need to worry about human fathers stealing food from their children or eating their cubs.
Polar bear parenting is simple and effective if you follow these five easy principles:
1. Feed your cubs, but teach them to feed themselves. Otherwise they will always come to you for a handout. Both of my children got jobs when they were 16 so they didn’t have to ask for money every time they wanted to buy something or go somewhere. They both turned into hard workers and very good eaters.
2. Fiercely defend and protect them, but teach them to recognize danger and defend themselves. You can’t always be there to fight their battles for them or protect them what life puts in front of them. We did not fight with referees or coaches or teachers on our children’s behalf. If our children thought they weren’t getting enough playing time on a team or a fair grade on a paper, we asked them to handle it themselves. And they have become very successful advocates for themselves as adults.
3. Promote the power of play. Play helps them learn to solve problems, build partnerships, and work as a team. Because my children didn’t have a lot of toys, they used their imaginations. My son took his grandparents on adventures in the “wild jungle” across from our house. My daughter wrote books in her imaginary language.
4. Love with all your heart and then let go. If they don’t learn to fend for themselves when they are cubs, you will be hiring career coaches when they are adults. When she was 15 my daughter lived in a remote village in Costa Rica for six weeks on a dirt floor with five other girls without electricity or hot water, which prepared her for life in New York City after college graduation, living with roommates in a small space with few amenities.
5. Be your own bear. So many of us live through our children. Their successes are our successes. Their failures our failures. I remember meeting with the principal of my son’s junior high because he was in danger of failing 7th grade, and I we must have looked like the world was ending when the wise principal said, “Mr. and Mrs. Sklar, you are not the ones who are failing 7th grade.”
So, I parented like a polar bear, partly because I had to. My husband and I both worked full time, travelled often and while we loved and cared for our children, we gave them a lot of independence. We didn’t have the time to hover over them, or drill them on their lessons.
Pursuing my dreams and passions, has made me a better parent. Being my own bear has helped me raise children who are self-reliant, clear about their values, still very playful, doing what they love, and who occasionally visit their mother.
Stephanie Sklar is a conservationist, advocate for women and girls, poet, mother, world traveler, friend and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.