We’ve all said it at least once to ourselves in disbelief: “I sound just like my mother.” If you had a healthy and affirming childhood that nurtured you and gave you the support that you needed to thrive, this could be a good thing – although even in the best of circumstances, there are still some childhood experiences that you would not wish to repeat with your children. But if you didn’t grow up with the best parenting, you certainly don’t want to fall back on that knee-jerk reaction and automatically do what your parents did with you. As hard as you try to be the best parent you can be, unencumbered by your past, the way you were parented has a profound effect on the way you parent your children in the present. The good news is that as you learn to parent your children, it is possible to “re-parent” yourself and consciously break the cycle of undesirable patterns once and for all, while giving your children the happy childhood that you may have missed.
All Families Function
In her book, Growing Up Again, Jean Illsley Clarke refers to parenting that has been less than adequate as “uneven” instead of “dysfunctional.” She claims that all families function, just some in healthier ways than others. Furthermore, there are some core beliefs common to those who have received uneven parenting. These include, but are not limited to: believing that one is not loveable, not knowing what is normal, and thinking that there is no way out of the vicious cycle. In addition, some behavioral clues that signal a person may need to “grow up again” include living with a lack of joyfulness, not trusting others, not knowing what one needs, having a tendency towards perfectionism, viewing boundaries as criticism, exhibiting self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and substance abuse, and/or experiencing strong and intense reactions to minor disappointments.
But remember that one’s past does not need to define one’s future. Robert Subby in Lost in the Shuffle calls children who had to live in difficult circumstances and “make unfortunate decisions to survive victims, but adults who continue to base their current actions upon painful past events volunteers.” You can make a deliberate effort as an adult and a parent to change such limiting belief systems. You can choose to make better parenting decisions and go down a healthier path with your family. It is not always easy, but you can make changes to become the best parent possible by utilizing tips and tools from the many supports available to you, such as therapy, parenting classes, support groups, parenting books, and possibly new, healthier role models in your life.
For me personally, this means that I continue to make a conscious decision to erase old, outdated tapes from my childhood and upgrade them to new and improved DVDs that reflect who I am today and how I want to parent. What I’ve learned on my journey is how to re-boot my hard drive and replace it with a better operating system.
The Pendulum Swings
When trying to make up for past mistakes that your parents may have made, you must guard against swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction in an attempt NOT to do what was done to you.
- If you grew up with criticism and strict, often arbitrary rules, you may not set enough limits for your children. Not wanting to be overbearing, you end up not providing the necessary guidance that your children need to become self-sufficient adults.
- Conversely, you may not have learned the skills needed to be responsible for yourself or others, either because you were overindulged and everything was done for you or because your needs were neglected and you were left on your own to navigate life. You may want to change a legacy of indulgence or inattention, only to end up on the opposite end of the pendulum, setting too-strict standards for your children and forcing them to be overly responsible.
Finding the “Right” Balance
A balance between being too strict and being too over-indulgent is what is needed. But how do you achieve this? Clarke specifies two critical skills that you need to incorporate into your parenting: Nurture and Structure.
Nurture represents unconditional love; it doesn’t need to be earned. First, it involves assertive care, in which a parent responds to the needs of a child in loving, trustworthy ways without being asked to do so. Second, it involves supportive care, which is offered but may be rejected, accepted, or negotiated; it is there if it is needed. For example, upon watching a child struggle with a writing assignment, a parent using assertive care may sit with the child, ask the child to read what he has already composed, and help him plan out the next steps. A parent using supportive care may say to this same child, “I am available if you need any help planning out your assignment.”
But children also need to learn healthy limits, to develop values, and to become responsible for themselves and responsible to others. That’s where Structure comes in. It involves the creation of two types of rules: non-negotiable and negotiable. Non-negotiable rules keep children safe. They involve setting boundaries about health and safety and following the laws and morals of society; for instance, “We don’t ride bikes without a helmet,” or “We do not steal.” Negotiable rules teach children how to think for themselves and typically involve such issues as money, grades, chores, or social manners. For example, “To pay for half the cost of your video games, you can earn money by doing chores around the house or by getting a part-time job. We can talk about what you want to do.”
It is helpful to think about Nurture and Structure as existing on highways. In the center are the safe, paved roadways where you want to drive; you then have the shoulders – areas you occasionally venture into, but hopefully pull yourself out of and back onto the main road. On the far edges are the ditches, which you need to avoid. Assertive and Supportive care as well as Non-Negotiable and Negotiable rules form the center lanes from which you want to parent your children. At times, though, you may find yourself offering conditional love, being critical, or being overly-indulgent and not providing firm structure; these represent the shoulders, a warning sign that you are going off the main thoroughfare. If you continue into the trenches, you may find yourself in serious trouble, parenting in ways that are abusive, neglectful, disrespectful of your children, or that otherwise abdicate your parental responsibilities. It is best to keep in the center lanes!
At times, you may question whether you are on or off the road. If you weren’t given a healthy road map to follow in your own childhood, you may not know when you are in the center lanes or when you have over-compensated and are heading to the ditches on the opposite side. That’s where the reading and therapy and having strong support systems help you navigate a healthier and safer ride for your children.
You Can “Grow Up Again”
When you parent your children in a conscious and healthy way, you refuse to be volunteers, blindly continuing the behavior patterns of an outdated operating system. You can’t go back in time, but there are ways to grow up again. Through each phase and stage that you go through in raising your children, you have an opportunity to care for yourself. Some deeper unfulfilled needs may require getting outside help to heal, while others may be remedied by giving yourself the positive affirmations and nurturing that you may not have been given when you were a child. This journey, if you are open to it, is an opportunity that will make you stronger, more capable, and more loving people and parents. It offers you the opportunity to re-parent yourself and thus provides the benefits of the happy, even, healthy childhood that you deserved. And at the same time, it frees you to give your children the same!
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