Four Strategies to Think Holistically (and be a better parent)

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Thinking Holistically

We all try to do what's best for our kids but, in doing so, are we considering their total well-being? Are we making decisions based on a holistic approach or just because something sounds good and everyone seems to be doing it? 

Stay with me because if you're not already thinking holistically, I know this will help you.

But before you read further, just for fun, stop for a minute and think about how you would define holistic and what the term means to you. 

What Does It Mean? 

To think holistically, according to my earlier training in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is to understand that the parts make up the whole. What affects one part will invariably affect some or all of the other parts. In turn, each affected part will have its own affect on the whole. In English, the word holistic comes from the Greek word holos, which means whole. With that in mind, how do we apply this concept of wholeness to our children?

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When you're thinking about raising and educating your children, you want to think in terms of the parts of your child's being in relation to his or her whole being, and you want to think about maintaining the integrity of the parts in order to preserve the whole. At this point you may be asking yourself "which parts is she referring to?"

The Parts

There are four parts we must consider: his or her physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being. When we fail to think holistically about the decisions we make for our children, we can easily subject them to experiences in life that may seem beneficial for one part of their being, but may be detrimental to another and could negatively affect the whole. 

Let's use the example of deciding whether or not to have your five-year-old child train in a specialized sport such as ice skating, hockey, or soccer, to demonstrate how we might consider this from a holistic perspective.

On the surface, it seems like a great idea, right? Your child will get much-needed exercise, he or she will probably spend time outdoors (something in short supply today), and your child will develop a valuable skill that may serve them well later in life. However, we must look at the implications of early sports training on the non-physical parts of your child. 

Fun vs. Work

Probably, the most adverse affect will be on the emotional part. Sports typically played for fun in childhood become less and less about enjoyment and more and more about lessons, practice, and competition; it ceases to be play and becomes intense work.

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When this happens, the benefits to child development through playing sports—such as building social skills, learning self-competency, and fostering empathy—are significantly reduced. What was once bonding time with friends becomes fierce and occasionally malicious competition. 

What used to boost confidence turns into a source of self-doubt. If your son's identity is based solely on how well he excels in his sport, he may begin to wonder, "Am I good enough?" Eventually, negative consequences like these can cause children to burn-out and lose interest in the sport they now specialize in but no longer love. 

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In "The Elite Young Athlete: Strategies to Ensure Physical and Emotional Health," Todd Sabato, Tanis Walch, and Dennis Caine state, "...reviews have found that intense physical activity performed at the elite level might instead compromise mental well-being, increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression through overtraining, injury, and burnout." 

Competitive sports training when too young, we can assume, is probably not a viable means for facilitating your child's emotional development.

No Time for Books

Might early training in a specialized sport also have negative consequences for your child's intellectual development? If you focus so intensely on your child's athletic performance, he is probably not at home reading Shakespeare, studying botany, or analyzing the defining moments of the Civil War. Instead, he spends his time in lessons, practice, and competitions leaving little time for intellectual pursuits other than the minimum of what school requires. 

And if your child ends up leaving his sport from an injury or burnout, what intellectual resources has he developed to sustain him in life ? The potential for negative effects on his intellectual development because of the over emphasis on competitive sports may leave your child intellectually bankrupt as an adult. 

A question of Character

Lastly, let's take a glance at the spiritual side of things. At the heart of spiritual health is the ability to control oneself and one's emotions. If your child does not have the foundation in place for learning  to self-regulate his own emotions—a foundation that is laid during early childhood—because of the emphasis on specialized training rather than unstructured play, he'll be at the mercy of his desires and passions all his life.

This deficiency of character produces individuals like Tiger Woods, who was brilliant at golf, but his lack of spiritual development and self-control sent a stellar career downhill almost overnight. 

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There is one last quote by Joan Ryan I'd like to share with you from her book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes about elite girl athletes: "The intensive training and pressure heaped on by coaches, parents, and federation officials—the very people who should be protecting the children—often result in eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating injuries, and stunted psyches."

This is a hefty statement which covers the physical (many experts like Ryan think early sport training can also be detrimental to a childs physical health, too), emotional, and spiritual aspects of a child. We can reasonably assume, with that long list, their intellectual learning suffered too.

More to Consider

This is a brief overview, not a definitive conclusion, on the question originally posed because there is still much more to consider before you can make an informed decision. These examples, however, should give you an idea of how to think about raising and educating your child from a holistic perspective.

You can see now that thinking this way will help you make appropriate decisions, not based on isolated considerations or parenting trends, but by reflecting on what's best for your child's overall well-being. 

Does this make sense? If not, feel free to leave me any questions you have, and I'll do my best to answer them. 

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Elizabeth Y. Hanson teaches parents the secrets and skills to raising brighter children with a focus on getting the early years right. She is the founder of Smart Homeschooler™ and has been a holistic consultant and a researcher in children's education since 2001. 

To schedule a free 15-minute consultation with Elizabeth, for new clients, please click here