Bottom Up in a Top Down World

Over the years of parenting, I’ve gleaned a lot of knowledge that has rocked my mindset on how to raise my children.  Through all the rocking, I’ve been turned up-side-down, and, all of a sudden, it all makes sense. I’ve tried to explain my parenting journey of becoming bottom-up in a top-down world.

Education is a wonderful gift, and educational opportunities are accessible in Australia. In this educational driven society, I believe there is a risk of establishing benchmarks that children are made to fit under. I value education so very highly and yet when it is a significant top-down goal from such a young age, I do feel concern. In terms of parenting, in my experience, a top-down approach is not helpful when raising children. So, over time, I’ve had to re-train my thinking to include a bottom-up approach.

An example: Many parents, myself included, diligently set goals for their children, for example reading and writing. There are flash cards, alphabet posters for the wall and, of course, television programs like Sesame Street throwing letters out every few minutes in an effort to give a head start for children in terms of literacy. There is nothing wrong with these things! However are we, as a society, focused too much on academic education so other stepping stones are overlooked? It’s a question worth asking.

Another example is in my post The Anxious Child: Red Brain Green Brain where I discuss the trap I fell into of intelligent parenting while counselling my anxious child. In summary, I focused on the dealing with the problems arising rather than on the emotional wellbeing of my child first and working my way from there. Changing the way I approached parenting in this situation made an enormous difference to the outcome for both my child and myself. 

A top-down approach describes the process where by little attention is given to details. Rather, one focuses on broad and general information or the big picture¹.  In contrast, the bottom-up approach is when each detailed component is completed and built on to achieve the ultimate goal². An example of bottom-up parenting is best explained by the diagram below, used by Occupational Therapists, where a set of visceral skills become the foundation by which eventual academic success is achieved.


Imaged source

I wished I had learned this earlier on in parenting! Personally, by default, I’m a top-down, goal-orientated person. My husband often laughs at the lengths I go to to achieve what I set out to do. No one get in the way of me and a goal! It is a useful mindset for productivity, however I have found this kind of thinking to be a hindrance in terms of parenting, so I’ve had to re-wire the way I do things with my children. Although the top-down approach can be useful for (some) adults and organisations³, children are, in essence a ‘blank sheet’ and I’ve come to believe strongly they need the opportunity (and time and patience) to build from a foundation level.

Let’s talk Lego for a moment.  

top down verses bottom up approach in parenting

Top-down Approach

top down verses bottom up approach in parenting

Bottom-up Approach

top down verses bottom up approach in parenting

The end result is the same, yes. Arguably, a top-down approach is more efficient on a large scale and there is a lot of value here, however it doesn’t allow enough space for a grappling that I value so much in the learning process. I have discovered over 16 years of parenting that this grappling leads to a deeper understanding of one’s person and with that comes a confidence. Over the years, I’ve come to question the focus of top-down parenting. Instead I’ve learned (am learning) to focus on:

  • the emotional wellbeing of my child before I tackle a perceived problem;
  • challenging my children rather than doing it for them;
  • asking questions instead of providing answers;
  • the importance of slowing down,
  • the development of resilience by adopting the family value of being an overcomer;  
  • providing my children with opportunities to explore in unstructured places so they can learn to understand risk and problem solve;
  • letting go of striving towards my own (often fuelled by my expectation or outer expectations) desired outcomes (whether that be behavioural, developmental or academic) and instead allowing compassion to be a starting point in how I tackle parenting. 

In essence, it’s about being a facilitator to my children’s development, and whatever that looks like for each child individually.  There’s has to be a trust in the process, because it’s one of those things that takes (a long) time, and unlike a top-down approach, you can’t measure easily (i.e. they know the alphabet by ___ age). I might mention here that there is still value in a top-down approach, because I think it’s useful to have goals and even benchmarks as a general guide, but for me, this has become more of a consideration than a driver. The process of changing my way of thinking has been challenging for me because it goes against my natural bent; however I’ve become so much more patient as a parent because I know why I do it. Oh yes, the rewards do come! Becoming bottom-up in my parenting has enriched our family so very much, and I admit, that it’s even rubbed off on a hardcore goal-focused person like myself. And I’m a better person because of it.

  1. Top-down definition
  2. Bottom-up definition
  3. Business and Goal Setting (Top Down Approach)

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  • Reply
    Joanna Myers
    November 30, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Dear Kelly,
    I have really appreciated what you’ve shared in this article. I too am in the process of re-evaluating how I do parenting with my four kids. The teen years have forced me to think differently about many things. So thank you for your insights.
    BTW: I really love your website.

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