From where does your parenting come? Do you know? Have you considered what it is that motivates, informs, and drives you in dealing with your children? It’s a silly question really — and if we were raised in a healthy, natural manner, we probably wouldn’t need to consider it much.
As it is, we still live in a culture that expects us to know what we are doing without ever really giving us a chance to study it. We are not given the opportunity to help much with our siblings or cousins, because we are all sequestered in school, learning about algebra and history instead. And outside of being given a bag of flour to carry around for a week in high school, we aren’t given much in the way of information about how kids work, or how we can constructively work with them either. So we wind up being faced with a newborn human and having little more to go on than what we have gleaned from TV, chance people-watching, and how we were parented (which often remains subconscious until we see ourselves doing the things our parents did).
Since we were raised the way we were, the question of where our ideas and strategies for raising our kids come from does actually bear some consideration — at least if we want to be conscious about it. There are four main influences I know of that regularly inform the parenting that most of us are doing — they are: instinct, how we were parented, how we are feeling (generally and daily), and what we intend.
Instinct? You mean I have some of that when it comes to parenting? Yes, believe it or not, you have a built-in framework for how to be a parent — all of us do. It is just that, more often than not these days, our instincts have been quashed by our upbringing and training. For instance, some parents, acting on what they’ve read or how they were raised, attempt “letting the baby cry it out” (CIO, as it’s generally referred) only to find that they haven’t the emotional fortitude to stand it. This is because our instincts tell us that it is completely absurd to leave our babies to suffer without us. Instincts can guide us in all sorts of ways — the trick for us (ultramodern parents that we are) is to listen to what our guts say: to trust ourselves to feel what is right for our family in the moment, and to follow our feelings.
As I’ve already intimated, the way each of us was parented has a profound effect on what we do when we become parents — and not just what we physically do, but also how we think about it. People raised with the rod, so to speak, will quite often also rely on corporal punishment themselves. The interesting thing about this tendency, for us to emulate the parenting we endured, is that we do it even if we disagree with what happened to us — whether we disagreed only at the time, or continue to disagree in the midst of doing it to our kids. Either way, the impulse and programming to do what our parents did is so strong that one can find themselves instantly transformed (after having children) into the parents they never wanted to be. That is unless they make a concerted effort to do something different, find and use the information that resonates more with how they want to be, and work with themselves regularly to reprogram how they choose.
On a day to day basis, however, the way we feel may be the most prominent factor affecting our parenting. We may have solid instincts that speak loudly and clearly to us, we may have had stellar parents, and/or have done a lot of self-training to become the kind of parents we envision, and yet, give us a crappy night’s sleep, or some stress, or a bad hair day, and our whole scene is blown to bits. Or worse yet, maybe there is a brewing feeling under the surface, telling you that you are deeply dissatisfied with some aspect of your current life, and try as you may, you just can’t get passed it to parent the way you’d prefer. And in this place, more information, or a greater trust of your instincts may not be of any assistance. What generally does help, however, is to be honest about it, to let the feelings have their space, and to accept them as they are, and maybe even pull out the self-empathy skills if we can muster it. Then, if we have gone for a spell in the “wrong” direction, the work to be done is to forgive ourselves, and/or the situation, and/or our kids, and to apologize when appropriate. There is always a new day to pick up where we left off with our parenting vision.
In the end, it is that vision — that is, what we intend and the goals we have for our parenting — that will have the broadest impact on our parenting choices. The trick, however, is to keep those intentions in mind when the kids are throwing rocks at the windows, and when we’re feeling cranky, and when we want to “teach them a lesson they will never forget”. Those wholesome intentions can get awfully slippery in the heat of the moment. But when we consider, really consider, what we want for ourselves and for our children (specifically, when they are grown), innumerable actions begin to bubble up to the surface that coincide with our intentions. At the same time, other actions begin to sink out of sight and mind. In fact, one of the exercises (borrowed from Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting) that we always get our parents in workshops to do is to create a physical list of all the things they want for their kids by the time their kids are out on their own. Things like, to be compassionate, to have strong self-assurance, and to be happy, often end up on such lists, and there are specific parenting choices that align with these desires (and many that don’t as well). The point is that when we have a sense of what our long-range goals are for our children, we can then choose methods of parenting that actually complement those goals.
So when it comes to the question of where we get our parenting modes, methods, abilities, or style, the above are some places to look. When it comes to choosing how we want to parent, then it is probably the last one that is going to be of the most service to us. Regardless of what we choose, though, considering and reconsidering (and re-reconsidering) the questions of why we choose what we do, to what end, and how it worked, will serve to inform those choices in a way that can only be beneficial. We just have to remember to keep looking. Aaaand looking…