When seen only as presiding over a child’s growth, parenting can be frustrating and burdensome. However, when seen as an opportunity for personal growth, parenthood is one of the most creative and affirming experiences that life offers.
Parenthood is a career that deserves as much planning and diligence as does a remunerated career. Individuals grow as much, or more, in their careers as parents as in their vocations. Parenthood offers opportunities to broaden personal horizons when parents try to model the qualities they would like to see in their own children. For some parents, rearing their own children offers an opportunity for them to become the parents they wish they had.
PARENTHOOD AS A GROWTH PROCESS
Parenthood necessitates sacrificing personal interests, particularly those related to careers, entertainment, and recreation. It means the loss of privacy, time, and personal freedom. It entails emotional, physical, and financial burdens, not the least of which are worries about the health, behavior, and achievement of one’s children. It means coping with annoying behavior, noise, and distractions. For women, there are health and physical consequences of pregnancy and childbirth.
With all of these disadvantages, one wonders why parenthood is attractive to anyone. But for most persons both childbirth and childrearing are eminently creative processes that fulfill their biological capacities to reproduce and to nurture. Biological and adopted children provide growth opportunities for parents through reliving their own childhoods and through being nurturing adults. When it is a mutual growth process, childrearing becomes an exchange of ideas, emotions, and power as children and parents learn how to respect and influence each other.
Unfortunately, parenthood often is not seen as an opportunity for growth and personal discovery. Consequently, many parents live in households that are little more than way stations for family members who lead separate lives. As the seductions of materialism and individualism encourage the pursuit of personal excellence and purchasing things, many parents and children do not draw upon each other as sources of pleasure and affirmation. Those parents do not fulfill their potentials for growth in family life.
More research has been conducted with troubled and disrupted families than with strong families. However, significant studies demonstrate that competent parenting is both a protective factor that prevents social problems and a positive factor in promoting an individual’s successful life course.
The developmental psychologists Hamilton McCubbin and Charles Figley reported a study of competent parenting in “strong families”. A strong family was defined as one in which there was mutual respect between family members who had coherent, positive views of life expressed through overt displays of affection and open communication. In these families individuals were valued explicitly for what they are rather than for their achievements. Realistic expectations were held of family members, so that children learned what is acceptable and what is unacceptable with opportunities for both parents and children to correct their errors. The parents gave clear directions and enforced reasonable limits by emphasizing the positives rather than the negatives.
In strong families, family life is a mutual growth experience for both parents and children. Parents are not totally enmeshed in their children’s lives. They have clear moral senses that are demonstrated through their words and actions. They have a sense of meaning and purpose in life often related to a spiritual orientation with a trusting, optimistic outlook on life. They treat their children courteously and with respect. Through tolerating irrationality family members can relax, “let their hair down,” and refuel for meeting the rational and irrational demands on them in the world away from home. Most importantly, parents and children acknowledge their own mistakes. They know how to forgive.
Strong family members adhere to family traditions and routines. They share power and decision making among their members. They communicate their feelings, concerns, and interests and listen and respond to what others have to say. Their styles of communication are clear, and individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions. They spend time together but also value individual privacy and pursue independent interests.
Strong families also are involved in the world in which they live. They have supportive attitudes toward each other and toward others outside of their families. A strong family contributes to the development of its members and to the well-being of its community and of society as well. Members of a strong family cultivate their relationships throughout life.
At the core of strong families is the legitimate use of parental authority.
American culture has moved away from the powerful father image that permeated the old-world order of family, church, and state. The image of the American Revolution throwing off the authority of a British king is reflected in the present-day extreme sensitivity to the abuse of power to the extent that even legitimate parental authority has been undermined in American families.
As a result of this anti-authority ethos, many parents are not aware that freedom only has meaning in the context of legitimate restraint so that one individual’s freedom does not restrict the freedom of others. We cannot avoid facing the effects of our freedom on other people. For this reason, legitimate authority is an ingredient of all successfully functioning groups. That authority flows from knowledge, wisdom, and experience that is respected by group members. In families those qualities generally reside in parents.
Two basic principles underlie the exercise of legitimate parental authority. The first is recognition that from the time they are born, children are individuals with valid needs and feelings. The second is to model effective living for children, who are influenced more by what parents actually do than by what they say. When parents model controlling their impulses, their children learn how to behave civilly and tolerate the inevitable frustrations of life. When parents model delaying gratification, children learn how to schedule pleasant and unpleasant activities. They learn the ingredients of effective living.
The attachment bonds that form between parents and children are the foundations for loving relationships with other people in later life. The parents set on their children’s behavior helps them develop respect for other persons. They also learn how to postpone gratification and to tolerate frustration of their impulses and desires. Through beliefs in hopeful visions for the future, children learn how to surmount obstacles in their daily lives. They also gain inspiration for making the world a better place in which to live. All of this is nurtured by an atmosphere of respected parental authority.
Parental authority is exercised through the creative use of power, the practice of morality, the setting of family priorities, the affirmation of children, and a family’s participation in its community and society.
The Creative Use of Power
The word power comes from the Latin poder, meaning “to be able.” Everyone needs to be able, to be capable, to have a sense of personal power. At the heart of personal power is the sense that we are in charge of our lives. By accepting responsibility for our own selves and for our own behavior, we gain personal power.
The two sides of love in childrearing are showing affection and caring enough to help a child learn self-discipline. Although the negativistic behavior of young children is frustrating for all those involved in their care, it is a sign of their growing independence. At the same time, they need reasonable limit setting of their behavior. They also need parental models of self-discipline so that they can learn how to tolerate frustration and to delay gratification of their impulses themselves.
Parental authority is most appropriately exercised when parents gradually relinquish power to their children. The focus is on creatively sharing power among family members, not controlling them. In contrast with authoritarian parents, authoritative parents share power by helping their children find their talents and decide what they want to do with their lives. The legitimate exercise of power is the opposite of mutual victimization that occurs when parents and children struggle to control each other.
Throughout childhood, there are times when a parent leads a child and times when a child leads a parent. The challenge for parents is learning how to appropriately shift back and forth between leader and follower roles with their children. For example, during infancy a child actually wields great power and leads a parent by setting the feeding-sleep cycle. In order to do this, a parent needs to respect and trust a child, and more fundamentally, to respect and trust oneself.
Later on parental power is introduced around limit setting. Many parents do not realize how important it is to set limits for toddlers. It is easy to give in to their demands. The more difficult but rewarding course is to help them learn the limits of their power. During this stage prior to the appearance of the capacity for reasoning, nonverbal communication in the form of physical redirecting is necessary in order to establish a child’s respect for the parent’s appropriate use of the word “No.”
Most toddlers naturally test limits and push for all they can get. They are quick to assert themselves over siblings and peers. They want what they want when they want it. This means that parents are well advised to set clear limits and to help toddlers realize that the parents mean what they say. In order to get this across to toddlers physical redirection and restraint are necessary in order to demonstrate that a parent’s words are to be taken seriously. Verbal commands across a room can be easily ignored so that a toddler can conclude that what a parent says need not be taken seriously. Using one’s feet and hands by directly intervening instead of one’s voice across the room is the most effective way of conveying this message to toddlers.
In the same vein, when the easy way of appeasing whining or tantruming is taken, the message is that those behaviors can be used to manipulate adults. A whining or out-of-control toddler should be placed in a setting that will permit regaining of control without unduly disrupting family life. Letting the child rejoin the parent when ready to do so conveys the message that regaining self-control is the purpose of the time out, not punishment.
The Practice of Morality
Whether we like it or not “good” and “bad” are real polarities in life. That polarity has been the foundation of philosophy throughout the centuries. For young children, “good” and “bad” are the only value judgments that have meaning.
The word “bad” is not appropriate when children do not comply with parental desires or expectations and are exercising their independence through noncompliance. “Bad” should be reserved for mean, unjust behavior toward others. “Bad” and “good” can be dealt with most usefully by facing issues of “right” and “wrong” in the family.
“Right” and “wrong” obviously depend on the perspective of the one making the judgment. The ancient Greeks pondered this question as illustrated by Plato’s observation that killing lambs was right for human beings but wrong for wolves.
Children have the inherent capacities to distinguish right from wrong and to be generous, compassionate, and altruistic. They have predispositions to attend to and to respond to others’ emotional states that are evident early in life. These predispositions are reinforced by parental attachment bonds and modeling. They wither away in the absence of attachment bonds to others. Children also acquire prosocial or antisocial values, fashions, and interests from their peers, teachers, religion, movies, literature, and television.
“Good” (right) and “bad” (wrong) can be broken down into manageable pieces. Good revolves around the truth (reality-trust) and love (giving to others). The core issues for the good are emotional honesty (accepting responsibility for one’s feelings and actions) and the creative use of power (influencing others constructively). Bad essentially is deception (altering reality-mistrust) and hurting others (blaming-hating).
The irrational aspects of family life provide ample opportunities for children and parents to learn how to express and deal with “good” and “bad”. Most family conflicts involve parents and children deceiving or hurting each other and, therefore, are opportunities for learning how to accept responsibility for one’s feelings and actions and for learning how to constructively manage impulses to hurt and deceive others.
Distinguishing “right” from “wrong” in family life in terms of justice places interactions between parents and children on moral grounds rather than on arbitrary definitions of right and wrong based on the convenience or desires of parents. It introduces justice into the rearing of children rather than the simple exercise of parental power. For example, children can be expected to be courteous to others because respecting other people’s rights is a moral good rather than because failing to do so annoys the parents.
A strong family is one in which there is mutual respect and in which no individual’s personal needs or desires dominate. But families cannot always be “just” communities. Guidelines about telling the truth or about not interrupting when others are speaking tend to be unequally enforced for parents and children. Parents expect a degree of privacy that they do not accord our children. Often one family member is expected to do most of the compromising or another tends to be unjustly accused of starting squabbles among siblings. The best efforts to establish justice in a family cannot succeed completely because a family is a flawed institution composed of imperfect creatures. Consequently, family life, as is all of life, is a struggle between right and wrong and the quest of justice. Being questioned and challenged by children compels parents to clarify their own moral values and become stronger persons themselves.
The family is the ideal proving ground for coping with human frailties by being slow to lose patience and quick to be gracious; being understanding when provoked; trying not to impress others with one’s own importance; thinking the best, not the worst, of others; and not gloating over the faults and failures of others. Most mistakes in family life are harmless omissions and errors in judgment resulting from selfishness, jealousy, and irrationality rather than “bad” actions or omissions.
Still, because family emotional bonds are so intense, family members’ faults can be the most difficult to forgive. At the same time, because it is impossible to hide human imperfections in a family, it is the place in which forgiveness is the most needed and appreciated.
Parental authority involves setting family priorities for mothering, fathering, homemaking, careers, managing stress, and family routines.
Because parenthood involves costs that are not borne by adults without children, parents must plan for financial consequences that increase as their children grow up. An appropriate balance needs to be found between childrearing, financial, and career objectives. Seldom can they all be met completely at one time in life.
The prudent management of family income and time based on the values and goals of a family is an increasingly urgent issue. It involves at least:
• family financial planning,
• care in purchasing to assure value received,
• ongoing maintenance of a residence and personal needs,
• planned use of time for personal, family, and community opportunities and obligations, and
• adequate nutrition and health care.
Most importantly, financial goals need to be guided by setting a lower priority on material things than on family time. In later years, many parents wish they had spent more time with their children and less time making money.
Stress in families can be minimized by programming family time for relaxation, recreation, and play. This includes scheduling time away from children for parents. Otherwise, busy schedules, television, and computers leave few informal moments for parents and children to enjoy each other.
Family administration includes planning activities that can be programmed, such as traditions, celebrations, and routines. Traditions are celebrations of the past, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Celebrations are special events that accentuate the present, such as anniversaries and birthdays. Routines are regular daily and weekly activities.
A useful principle for guiding housekeeping routines is that each member of the family is responsible for contributing to the common good of the family as much as they are able to do.
Internalized mental images of our parents and other influential persons are central components of our personalities.
Each of us grows up carrying an assortment of “good” and “bad” internalized images that carry previous family interactions with our parents and siblings into our present lives. These images constitute the “internal family” that stays with each one of us throughout our lives. These internal images “look over our shoulders” in present interactions and influence them. They can cause us to react inappropriately when unresolved conflicts from our own childhoods are activated. In turn, as parents, we become images in our children’s internalized families.
For these reasons, children need to develop “good internal images” that flow from having their maturity affirmed by parents who expect and respect the highest level of maturity of which their children are capable. From the beginning, children need affirmation of their individuality and of their competence. Parents, in turn, are affirmed when their children become competent and responsible persons in later life.
Learning to Communicate Ideas and Emotions Verbally
Affirmation in family relationships relies upon open communication, so that parents and children understand each other’s ideas, emotions, and needs. That communication depends upon listening, expressing ideas and feelings, and reaching mutual understanding.
Children especially need to learn from their parents how to find words to communicate their feelings to others. They are inclined to act out their feelings rather than use words to express them. Parents can model communication by verbally expressing their feelings instead of simply acting upon them. For example, an explanation that a parent has a headache helps a child understand a parent’s irritable mood more than do angry words.
When helped to learn to use words instead of actions to communicate their feelings effectively, children gain confidence in themselves. When they do not, they ineffectively relieve their tensions in emotional outbursts. Misunderstandings because of faulty verbal communication lie behind most family conflicts.
How we handle our emotional reactions to other people is our personal responsibility. We can counterattack emotionally, or we can use words to express our feelings. The most useful response when others hurt our feelings is to honestly say that our feelings are hurt. We are better served by verbally communicating our feelings to others instead of blindly acting upon them.
The ways parents handle their own arguments provide models for their children. Still arguments between siblings tax the ingenuity of parents. Separating them until they “cool off” usually is more effective than taking sides. In spite of the emphasis placed on sibling rivalry, most sibling relationships are congenial over the years.6 Siblings usually are not as close to each other as friends during adolescence or as spouses and children in later life, but they do feel loyal to each other and see themselves as good rather than as best friends.
When parents and children are able to verbally communicate their feelings and needs to each other, blind emotional outbursts are minimized. They are able to put themselves in the position of the other person. This promotes children’s capacities for empathy.
Building Self-Esteem by Affirming Individuality
Affirmation of each child’s individuality facilitates developing that child’s self-esteem. In turn the evidence of self-esteem in a child enhances a parent’s self-esteem.
Affirmation differs from approval because seeking approval can lead children to conform to expectations and to squelch their own individuality, whereas affirmation of children enhances their individuality. The aim of parental affirmation is to build a child’s self-esteem. On this foundation of affirmation, there is an additional need for approval and disapproval, so that children can learn to recognize and regulate the impact of their behavior on others.
Affirmation of a child begins with mirroring a child’s innate sense of vigor during infancy through eye contact and mimicking sounds. This reinforcement of an infant’s spontaneous expressions fosters development of the child’s true self in contrast with an imitative self. When a parent does not respond to an infant’s gestures, but instead substitutes his or her own, imitation is encouraged rather than individuality. In the same vein, parents later affirm when they touch, kiss, hold, wrestle, and play with their children. Younger children who are not touched in these ways may regard themselves as unattractive and ultimately unlovable.
Building Self-Esteem by Affirming Personal Competence
In addition to affirming a child’s individuality, affirmation of a child’s personal competence also builds that child’s self-esteem.
Happiness is not a series of isolated pleasures. It is not “fun” from pleasurable or exciting activities. It is a feeling that one’s self and the world are in harmony. It is a subjective sense of well-being and satisfaction, the intensity of which varies from one individual to another. It is reflected in self-esteem that derives from early childhood experiences of being able to master one’s body and of being effective in the world. Its prototype is a baby’s smile on taking the first steps of walking. The feeling of self-esteem is an inner measurement of personal competence.
Self-esteem is enhanced by using language to guide our actions. As a medium of thought and communication, language enhances problem solving, learning from the consequences of one’s actions, forming rewarding relationships with others, and engaging in long-range planning. When thought accompanies actions, there need be no conflict between our basic drives and our self-esteem. The self-esteem that flows from personal competence is not so much the result of suppressing our innate drives as integrating them into the thoughtful pursuit of our legitimate interests.
In order to foster self-esteem, parents need to insure that their children know that their love for them is not contingent on their behavior. Therefore, it is better to see children as doing “bad” or “good” things rather than as being “bad” or “good”; to help children avoid making the same mistake again rather than criticizing them when they make a mistake; to accept children as they are rather than to compare them with other children; to avoid talking in front of children as if they were not there; and to be aware of children’s sensitivity about their physical appearance and avoid pet names.
Children need firm limits, but how limits are handled determines what they will learn. For example, when children’s behavior is unacceptable, they first can be asked if they understand why their behavior was not acceptable. Then they can be asked what would help them avoid that behavior in the future. This places the responsibility for self-control with the child. When a parent expresses confidence in a child’s ability to do better, that child’s self-esteem is enhanced.
A sense of competence is fostered when parents encourage their children to take risks by giving them responsibilities instead of overprotecting them. They then affirm their children for trying new things even when they fail. This encourages children to master risks rather than to avoid them. There is a point of convergence where fear is met, confronted, and used as a source of both caution and energy. Daring our children to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions has far more to teach about risk taking than any outward-bound wilderness trip.
Learning to cope with failure is the essence of learning to take risks. For teenagers, school work and after-school risk-taking activities, like sports, may be better self-esteem builders than paid work in itself. Earning money for its own sake can build a sense of responsibility for adolescents, but it also can foster self-centered materialism when the money is used simply to purchase luxury items.
For both parents and children, the most important aim is achieving peace within themselves. In order to value themselves as competent persons, children need to develop a clear sense of their own assets and liabilities. They need to learn how to tolerate frustration and to postpone gratification. They need to experience the satisfaction of pleasing others. Then they will be valued by others.
If we value ourselves, we do not need to put others down in order to build ourselves up. Awareness of our own imperfections enables us to accept the imperfections of others. In this way seeking power over others through wealth, physical strength, weapons, and criticism can be replaced by affirming each other.
FAMILY PARTICIPATION IN ITS COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY
Families are strengthened by involvement in their communities and in social and environmental issues. In fact families are the foundation of their communities and of society. They are fundamental parts of the ecosystem in which we all live. The idealism of children and adolescents can be encouraged and at the same time tempered with reality by involvement in social and environmental causes.
The responsibility of human beings to care for the human family and for the Earth can be a central theme in family life. Family discussions and activities can be focused on participating in community, national, and global issues related to peace and the conservation of the Earth. In this way, the family can be a source of support for creative, reconciling community life. These kinds of active participation in their communities help young people relieve anxieties about the future.
Families also can play key roles in advocating and modeling alternatives to violence as a way of solving problems. In so doing they can become involved in movements that oppose injustice and that foster peace. Children can be helped to see that poverty and oppression make people feel helpless and desperate and thereby breed violence. They can be helped to relate the violence they encounter in their own lives to the violence in the world. They can be inspired to be peacemakers in their own realms and thereby develop a peacemaking stance in the broader world.
Childrearing is a mutual growth process for both parents and children. For parents, it is balancing their needs and wishes with the needs and wishes of their children.
The vital issues in family life revolve around intimacy, identification, influence, irrationality, and industry. In symbolic terms, the expression of these qualities of individual person’s “I”s makes it possible to fulfill the “we” of family life.
Intimacy in the family develops emotional bonds that integrate ambivalent love-hate emotions and that balance personal needs for interaction and privacy.
Identification is the process in which parents, children, and siblings reciprocally absorb each other’s qualities and vicariously share experiences.
The influence that family members have on each other is expressed in the power structure of the family and in the behavior of individuals in the family.
Irrationality is an essential part of family life so that irrational fantasies, emotions, and behavior can be expressed and channeled into realistic outlets.
Industry in families is developing the coping abilities of family members through planning, resolving conflicts, the allocation of responsibilities in the family, acquiring tangible and intangible resources, and adapting to change.
Children become mature persons in their families by learning how to be responsible for themselves and for their actions, by learning how to tolerate frustration, by learning how to postpone gratification, by learning how to control their impulses, by learning how to solve problems, and by learning how to work. Children develop self-esteem by identifying with competent parents and by being affirmed as competent, unique individuals in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
Children need to learn that being responsible for themselves and for others is the source of meaning and purpose that brings fulfillment in life. Helping them do so is the satisfaction that parents gain from growing with their children.