Possibly the happiest and most terrifying moment in a person’s life is when they become a parent for the first time. All story book expectations are blown to bits. That is probably why parenting books have always been popular. People want to do well by their progeny and not fall apart in the process. First, it was mostly the physical care of the child that was addressed, as in Dr. Benjamin Spock’s iconic guide to good parenting. Later, these books also included how to instill proper values and high character in our children. It would seem that parents in the Western world have a similar construct of what children who have been well parented look like and they want to be in on the success.
We’ve all been part of this conversation. A good parent has children who are respectful, helpful, honest and “listen to their elders”. More often than not, they are also studious. Sounds like a budding solid citizen. The thinking here goes that these children behave so well because their parents have “molded” them carefully. More often than not, most parents (and I sheepishly include myself in my early parenting days) look at the goal – ending up with a “good kid”, as the only acceptable outcome. In this mindset, therefore, the child is seen as the barometer of the parents’ investment. The living proof that they did all that they could possibly do to give the world a decent citizen. If their child is a “success” it is because the parents taught him/her well. While this is often the case, it is not necessarily a given. Values like honesty, integrity and kindness are not inherited; they are learned from observing and living in environments where these traits are a given and people are expected to live by these values. Everything else is determined by the child’s wiring which may not reflect that of his parents. That means that the daughter of a very active, political mother may prefer to do things behind the scenes and will not even go on Facebook. Her mother may see her as strange or even “lazy”, but it is what this young woman is happy comfortable with. Her mom would do well to become more comfortable with it. It is not a “failure” of the mother.
Another area that parents are very preoccupied with is keeping their children safe. From protecting them from physical harm, monitoring possible drug and alcohol use to cutting down on screen time, being a responsible parent today is really difficult-a far cry from what it was even a decade ago. As the world that children live in becomes more complex, is there anything that a conscientious parent can do to help their child? The answer is a resounding YES!
The first thing that must happen is a major paradigm shift. From seeing the situation as a vertical relationship, that is, parents on top and in charge, to a more horizontal one. While kids need to respect parents, it is much easier to do when the parents are seen as helping the child/teen navigate their world. At this point I would like to refer to a short clip that I got in my WhatsApp this week. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/_KYuFYwDdvM
This is much more than an “adorable” kid calming his baby sister. It is a look at what we can do to help our children deal with their fears, with being overwhelmed and to recalibrate themselves. It is clear that this big brother learned how to navigate his fears and discomfort from someone who cared enough to show him how. It worked so well, that he is now imparting the information to his sister. Who stops crying. She actually watches as he inhales slowly. If these children’s parents had reacted as many parents do when their children begin to cry “for no reason”, then Mom and later, brother would have responded with a curt, “stop crying”, or “stop crying, I can’t concentrate.” That would have accomplished something in the short run- it would be quiet. In the long run, this scenario would go on to repeat itself and get worse, because nothing is being done to assist the child.
In my opinion, we have been looking at the very important job of parenting from the wrong vantage point. We see it from the point of view of the parent. From, “how does my child reflect me and my values” to “how can she keep crying when I’m trying to finish this report for my boss”?
If being a parent means being a teacher, then modern research is uncovering an amazing new and very important role for parents and adults who work with children. Now, thanks to research and writing by the likes of Stephen Porges, Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine and Dan Segal we are seeing something remarkable. The way we react in the face of fear or adversity is learned behavior based on the fact that our bodily feelings inform our thoughts which go on to affect our behavior.
These experts, among others, are teaching us that it possible to “re wire” the brain so that what used to frighten and even immobilize us can be recognized as harmless. In other words, with some working at it, we can learn to respond differently to certain stimuli, stressors, and triggers. Here is the area of great change and opportunity that most parents miss. That is the area of teaching our child/ren how to respond better, more calmly and more effectively to stress or adversity. Given the present state of the universe in this corona age, this is a very important and useful ability to cultivate. It goes without saying that parents must master this skill first. When they do, instead of giving their child “a good talking to” they can connect with their child on a much more meaningful level by acknowledging the fears and discomfort and then presenting a relatively easy solution. For a parent to be seen in this way by a child creates a really close, trusting bond between them. It cannot be overstated how much this can positively affect their life. As Prof. Bessel van der Kolk states, “the parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.” Enough said.