Maggie Dent: The Queen of Common Sense

illustration of maggie dent reading a book of parenting advice for lunch lady magazine

Teacher, counsellor, mother of four boys + author of six parenting books—Maggie Dent knows a thing or two about raising kids. 

How were you parented?

I’m a 1955 baby, so anyone born in the ’50s and probably early ’60s was raised with very firm parenting. My mum, particularly, was extremely quick with the clip around the ear. The shaming and criticising we got in bucket loads, too. At the time, that’s exactly what was the social norm. If you weren’t firm with your children, they would turn out terrible.

It was interesting because Mum wasn’t a maternal person. They often say that the trauma of your childhood becomes your gift to the world. The first story I told myself was that my mum didn’t love me. When, in actual fact, all us kids had the same kind of perception, because she just wasn’t a tender, demonstrative mum.

She was an amazing cook, a great gardener, took great care of my dad. All of the things that were very traditional then. I must have given her nightmares—I was a feisty child, her fifth child. I was a rooster, and I questioned her, and I questioned the choices.

My dad was beautiful and tender, and I escaped with him a lot; it gave me the capacity to really be immersed and marinated in the male view of the world. And my youngest brother, four years younger than me, was a lamb.

I actually grew up knowing there was a tenderness in boys. It was the perfect environment for me to grow up to be who I am, and do what I do, and know what I believe in. 

You coined the idea of children either being roosters or lambs. Can you share this idea with us? 

If you can imagine, there’s a continuum, and at one end are feisty roosters, who are actually born with a heightened sense of their own self-importance, with no question. They’ve got more energy, more sass and they argue about everything. They don’t want to share nothing. They want to win at all costs and are highly competitive, and they don’t want to miss a thing. I think they start arguing before they’re verbal.

And of course, to get a rooster first—when other people have lambs who are tender, gentle sensitive children that like sleeping. They don’t even know you’ve got boundaries. You never have to raise your voice to a lamb; it’s the opposite for the rooster.

The temperament was something I got a great lesson on when I became a mum. My first was a rooster. My best girlfriend’s little boy was a lamb. I thought I was unlucky, and I thought it must be because I’m a terrible parent.

Then I got my second son, and my second was a tender, gentle lamb. I thought, God, I’ve got it nailed. I’m obviously doing something so much better here, second time around. I kept telling myself a different story.

Then I unexpectedly fell pregnant with the third, and he turned out to be the biggest rooster of all. I suddenly realised it isn’t birth order, it isn’t inexperience. It’s temperament.

We don’t want to crush that rooster spirit, because they end up doing stuff they need that for. But we also don’t want to leave our little lambs too wimpy, because they can become victims. Our job really is to help them access the middle of the temperament spectrum so they can be assertive and strong when they need to be, but also empathetic and soft at times. That’s the challenge, I think. 

Let’s talk how overwhelming parenting is right now, with so much information available.

Yes, no question. We used to get our information from the most trusted older woman near us, whether it was your mum, an auntie or an older friend. It was often grounded in common sense and didn't come with truckloads of research and endless books.

Now not only do we have lots of people writing in the parenting space, it’s also online. And it’s also on government sites. That means we’re constantly judging ourselves and internalising. That’s why we can’t fall asleep. We’re going, Geez, I didn’t do that well. Oh, I didn’t eat properly today. Heavens, I need to do that better.

We also live in the future and the past more than men. Men are in the specific moment right now. Too much information mentally weakens a mum’s capacity to listen to their core self, who lives with the child, who they know best. That’s a big part of my message.

I may give a whole heap of suggestions but I’m never going to tell you what to do. I want you to sit and really feel what feels right for that child right now. Next week, it will also be different. Nothing is fixed.

Do you think that that’s the difference between 1960s parenting and now?

Yes, it’s the information overload. There are two other things I think impacts the pressure on parents. Career wasn’t even a word then. You were a parent—you raised children. We had this major shift around mums all heading off on career pathways and fitting babies around the edges of careers. That really creates a whole new dynamic as well. You have to have a new industry that helps you facilitate that. How many of us have a mum or older aunt who’s going to look after them down the road? That creates a lot more pressure on us as parents.

On top of that, there’s social media. If you keep seeing images of mums who have it all together, who look amazing when they drop their children off at 8.30 in the morning, and you didn’t even get to clean your teeth or put a bra on, then what you do is internalise and beat yourself up.

Can you share your idea of building love bridges or micro moments with children?

There are two things that unintentionally get assumed about parenting, and I really want to correct them. One is that the more you do for your child, the more you obviously love them. That one doesn’t build their life skills and capacity to take care of themselves. 

The second one is quality time. If you can’t do a full day or a full afternoon, you’re a terrible parent.

I want to let parents imagine there’s a metaphor of a love cup inside every child. Yes, quality time does put a good chunk of love into that cup, but so does the kiss on the head in the morning. So does the snuggle in bed before you get up. So does the grin and smile and “how is your day”; so is the “I’ve missed you” and the mingling and the extra story. Little things count, too. You do them over and over, and it becomes a bit like a family ritual. Then the family ritual gets anchored into the unconscious, which means when they look back at their childhood, they get triggered by those memories. Often, they’re quite small things that we do over and over again.

I’m crazy about bedtime rituals, because I know they’re really powerful. Telling them how much you love them some nights. It doesn’t work every night. It’s not about perfect. When we have a personalised bedtime ritual we can share it with Nanny, Poppy, Grandma and Grandpa. If they pop them into bed some nights, it’s a comfort, a reassurance. Kids can think: Even though I did draw with lipstick all over the wall, or I did block up the toilet, because I’m an inquisitive toddler, I’m going to go to sleep knowing I’m loved.

How are sensitive kids best parented?

What you do is create an environment for that child to gradually develop their own sense of self. And guide them in moments of conversations where you’re constantly letting them know it’s okay to be who they are. It’s okay to hang onto my legs when we turn up at Grandma’s even though you know Grandma. Letting them know when they feel safe, when they can come out. And it’s about encouraging their bravery to come from within them, rather than being something they’re trying to do to please you. Allow them to emerge from within themselves and develop their own pathway to building confidence. If they love climbing trees, don’t rip them down. If they like riding their bike really fast, don’t stop them. Just know that some times there will be an accident.

Parenting small children can be hard. How did you find the joy in parenting amongst all the doing?

If we can see the world through the eyes of our children instead of the eyes of stressed parents, then it’s pretty easy. Laundry will always be there. You’ll never get in front. However, that moment of going out and mucking around with the kids or sitting down for a pretend tea party, that matters to your children. Fun, joy and delight are what they want to remember.

I remember one perfect example of this, when I had little boys. They were six, four and two-years-old. I accidentally tipped a cup of rice on the floor and I had a slate floor at the time. As I went to clean up, I had socks on and nearly tripped. I ended up getting all the boys to put socks on and I tipped a whole kilo of rice all over the floor. We spent twenty minutes skidding in the kitchen on the rice. And I realised then that I had to lighten up. Every now and then we can shift the neurochemicals in children’s brains by going to lightness, laughter and novelty.

A messy house drives me crazy. How did you deal with four boys and a messy house?

I think it’s linked to this whole notion that your house has to look like House & Garden. Realistically, we’ve got far too high expectations for young children. They’ll put an empty milk carton in the fridge and can’t understand why you’re losing it.

My challenge is, if you can, do some work around this. It’s been conditioned into us that tidy houses equal a good job. I realised one day how much time I spent folding up their washing, and I just thought: I’m not doing it anymore. There was a single bed in a room and I said to the boys that that’s where they’d find their clean washing. I realised I was spending hours folding every week, and no one appreciated it. So we had the lucky-dip bed. Your washing is clean. Go find it yourself.

But I do have a secret that helped me feel good. There was one room in the house that was always tidy. It was the good lounge. They weren’t allowed in there. And there were times I’d just walk in the middle of that room and look around and think, Gosh, this is a beautiful room. That sort of filled that cup—to think I’ve got one bit that’s working. It made me feel so much better.

What’s your take on chores?

Mine was: we’re all part of a team. We’d take turns at cooking—it was everybody’s job. I didn’t pay for household chores. But if they needed to earn some money for new trucks for their skateboard or something, there were two jobs that took an hour and which I’d pay ten dollars for: washing all the windows in the front of the house, and sweeping the driveway.

I wanted them to know that families are all part of a team. Also, they could negotiate with me about days, if they wanted to swap their chores around. It was a negotiated responsibility rather than a mandated and forced responsibility. I’d say something like, “Dan, it’s your turn to do the dishwasher. Do you want to do it now or just before dinner?” In other words, there was still autonomy when you did the chore. That’s something mothers aren’t very good at. We want it now. I didn’t nag. I’d rub or tickle them on the back and say “dishwasher”. Connect with that micro connection, rub their hair or put a Post-It note on their phone. Anything that’s a big light. I do see chores develop character and ability. And I do think we have to keep building more and more of those things. I want kids to be able to mow lawns by the time they’re fourteen or fifteen. We’re building their life skills through chores as well as helping ourselves not have to do all of that.

What did you imagine being a mother would be like, compared to the reality?

My dad had such a great sense of humour, and he was a trickster. I realised I’m also a bit like that. All my boys will say, even today, that I’m mad. Sometimes I would drop farts in a shopping centre, just to make them laugh and do spontaneous weird things all the time. I wanted to be the mum who wasn’t going to nag and shout. I wasn’t going to hit, shame, criticise—all the things that weren’t okay for me. But, I can be firm—and gosh, I didn’t need to change my voice very much, because it didn’t happen very often. It had such power.

Then as I got older, I wanted them to have all their friends at my house; I wanted them all to hang out. I have so many—both girls and boys—who were part of my boys’ lives and talk so fondly about all the time they spent at my house.

Sometimes my kids would have twelve friends over and I would make a chocolate cake. They could just eat it straight out of the tin. I did weird stuff like that. But I was also very generous, and I wanted to be kind, because it was the opposite to what I had received as a child.

I wanted my boys to see an authentic mum who does the best she can. And when I muck up, I made sure they could talk to me about it. They still remind me of lots of my muck-up moments. 

What have you learnt about kids and friendships?

Not all kids are good at making friendships. Some of them just have a gene and they’re better at it.

Boys can be rather hopeless at friendships. I knew that the boys’ father really struggled making friendships, and I could see how lonely he was as a grown man. My dad was everyone’s friend. He was always helping friends, and I just got a whole different version of what friendship was.

I wanted that to be something that we talked about; I didn’t want my boys to just be fair-weather friends. I wanted them to turn up when their parents were unwell, or someone died—not just turn up for the birthday parties.

You don’t always get it right. Boys can be a lot less complicated than girls. They just throw a basketball at somebody’s head if they aren’t happy with them. Next day they forget about it.

I think prioritising how to nurture friendships with other children is important. You just have to expose your kids to lots of children as much as possible, through play, anywhere up to ten. Then they’re going to have the basics of being able to form new friendships, especially through high school and as they leave your home.

What about when you see a kid you don’t like?

You have to buckle up and let your kids work it out. It’s not easy. But sure enough, down the track your kid will come back and go, “He’s a jerk, Mum.” You’re jumping inside because they worked it out. There are times, as parents, that the most important thing to do is close your eyes and hold on tight.


This article was originally published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 21.