PARENTING AS RELATIONSHIP
"Why does parenting transform a typically logical and even-tempered adult into a screaming banshee?"
Parenting is about growing humans, ideally into well-minded, balanced, healthy, and happy individuals. Parents work tirelessly in supporting children in mind, body, spirit, and soul into reaching their fullest potential in life.
Behind the pictures we post on Facebook of perfectly happy children and contented families, exists the true parenting experience which can be a roller-coaster of intensity with high highs and low lows. There is no greater insult or depth of shame that one can have as a parent than to have their parenting judged. Call me ugly or other expletives, but when I have to do the walk of shame carrying a screaming child out of Target, I immediately wish for a hole to disappear into. While having lunch with a colleague where we were complaining about our struggles to grow our young humans, I exclaimed, “Parenting is like a life-long practice in gas lighting”. I had a ludicrous conversation with my teenager over his homework the other night which was basically a recreation of the “who’s on first” Abbott and Costello sketch. I don’t know why, but I was stuck in a stupid loop of communication with him which landed me in a place where we were arguing senselessly. “What are we talking about?!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know!” I said. But somehow we were both upset with each other, feeling personally hurt and injured by the other.
Why does parenting transform a typically logical and even-tempered adult into a screaming banshee?
Parenting is essentially a relationship. One of the most common questions I get as a parenting coach is, “Can you recommend a book to me about parenting?” Parents are often left sifting through a sea of books trying to figure out how to get it right. Take the issue of sleep. There are thousands of books for desperate, exhausted parents to buy via Amazon Prime. The truth is that no one would accept one book telling them with great specificity how to conduct their romantic relationships. As a couple, instructing on how you should sleep and what you should eat, how much TV to watch, and how you should conduct your schedule. Why? Because we understand that our romantic relationships have everything to do with who we are as a person and who our partners are as a people.
As we have come to learn, we are “hard-wired”, meaning biologically designed, to be in relationship (Allan Schore). This means, we rely – on a non-verbal and visceral level – on relationships. It means that our parents and our children and our partners can induce a dysregulation in us that can feel physically like life threat or remind us of a time of life threat, if we have been harmed by others in the past.
If parenting is essentially a relationship, why then do we treat it like a job or a thing we do? It is part of who we are as it relates to a pre-verbal sense of who are children are. It not only is part of who we are as adults, it has everything to do with who we were as children.
The intergenerational patterns, traumas, resiliencies, and truths are in the room. In her article, “Ghosts in the Nursery”, Selma Frieberg discusses how intergenerational patterns emerge at the start of every new generation.
“In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents ... Under all favorable circumstances the unfriendly and unbidden spirits are banished from the nursery and return to their subterranean dwelling place … the bonds of love protect the child and his parents against the intruders, the malevolent ghosts.”
Frieberg speaks to the generations of learnings in which we are all rooted and how they impact our sense of self, others, and the world, starting in the dynamics of each caregiver/child relationship.
Attachment-parenting, a common orientation of practice in current times, guides parents in how to think of themselves as a “secure base” allowing their child the security of relationship so that they can venture forth into the world freely. However, what it doesn’t always hold is the temperament of the child and the parent and what type of match the two are. It also doesn’t always hold well the context (socio-political context in which that parent has to parent and to what degree do survival tactics have to override emotional processing).
Reflective Parenting is about understanding the parent and the child as individuals in context of their relationship. It takes into account temperament and meaning. Our ability to relate is quite sophisticated and we do lightning quick evaluations of the intent of the other person based on a complicated social engagement system. Teaching my child about the “tone” in which he says something to me was incredibly difficult to articulate and express, for example, because it relies on what my eyes see in the micro-movements in his face, the fluctuations of his voice, and the nuances of his posture and stance.
Reflective functioning, as defined by Peter Fonagy, is about “ability to imagine mental states in self and others”. It involves our ability to understand how we are impacting others. When I run parenting groups, I often get parents to understand this concept by having them recall clueless people they have talked to. People who stand too close despite the person stepping back a few times. The co-worker who drones on and on even though you’ve said you have a meeting to go to. The girlfriend who complains she can’t put on weight after you’ve discussed your dieting woes.
The Reflective Parenting model is my favorite parenting group to run because it creates safe space for parents to collectively unpack what is in the room, what ghosts loom, in their communications with their children. Often when running groups with parents who are people of color, we get to unpack what our parents did to survive and ask ourselves what we need to keep in practice and how we need to shift. Through mindfulness practice, the practice of observing without judgment, we build collective insight that can inform effective problem solving to the ever-present parental question of, “Yeah, but what do I DO?” Often, when conducting my parenting groups a parent will present to me a scenario of daily annoyance. Getting ready for school is a recurring one. They will initially look confused when I ask, “What story are you trying to teach your child?” What I am getting at is that there usually is an implicit value that is fueling the parents’ agitation or annoyance. Getting at the lesson or the family generational wisdom that is trying to be held forward can often open a parent into being more intentional about their parenting, and therefore less reactionary. A parent might say, “I want them to learn respect for themselves and others, which allows us to unpack what that has meant for them individually and in context of their family. For a parent descended from Jewish Holocaust survivors, for a parent who came to this country as a Vietnamese refugee, or for a Black parent who grew up during the civil rights movement, each of these parents holds a generational story of resilience and survival. Fairy tales and other oral forms of communication have been passed down from parent to children, carrying wisdoms essential to survival and warnings to children, shaping behavior and identity. Reflective parenting groups can help us uncover the implicit stories we carry as adults and unpack them for our children, discarding what is no longer needed and keeping what we choose. Especially, for parents of color, for queer parents, the power to unpack and choose can be a lifeline for their individual and collective wholeness and interconnectedness.
The perspective of parenting as a relationship not only offers a child resiliency through the eating, sleeping, educational woes obstacle course that parents travail through, but it also allows for empowerment, healing, and wholeness, building the foundations for generations to come. Coming to understand parenting as a relationship offers a respectful, flexible, and healthy foundation to a child understanding himself/herself/theirself in a truly empowered fashion. It alleviates the parent from perfection, and into a multitude of opportunities.
If you are still sitting with a “BUT WHAT DO I DO?”, I’m also offering frequent parenting hacks, knowing that if I truly had 100% effective parenting hacks, I’d be a rich woman and the world would be immediately a better place. Take them with a grain of salt.
PARENT HACK #23:
It drives me crazy to have my children lose their jackets, lunch boxes, water bottles, etc. These were things I treasured as a child because we did not have a lot growing up. As a child of immigrants, I basically won most of my toys at Circus Circus. I also grew up outside the immediate gratification culture of Amazon Prime.
At the beginning of the year, I give my children $100 and write a list of supplies I have bought them for the year. If they lose something, they must replace it with an amount subtracted from the $100. If they keep all their things, they get to keep whatever is remaining from the $100.
This hack, like any parenting hack, relies on your child’s ability to one, care about money, two, understand cause and effect, and three, their developmental ability to understand what money is. It also relies on your ability to track what you gave the kid in the beginning of the year and also requires that you have $100 to spare.
It may not keep your kid from losing things, but it will teach them a few lessons about cause and effect, and you can incorporate some financial management lessons.