You and your Child : Being your Own Person (part 2)

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Shared parenting

Raising children together needs to be a cooperative partnership—and the more honest you can be with yourself and with one another, the easier it will be. Although a challenge, this is especially true when parents live apart. Some compromises will be necessary, for the good of your children—and your sanity! It is not always easy to achieve, but it makes parenting a great deal easier if you can manage it. Parents who disagree over parenting principles give contradictory signals to their children and reap havoc in return. Children become confused by contradictory guidelines and may either try to please both parents at once, or “act out” in frustration. No one is the winner and the ensuing “bad” behavior of the child is often the one thing that the parents can agree on. A self-fulfilling cycle has begun.

Discuss the following with your partner:
  • What are your beliefs about parenting?

  • Do you share the same viewpoint?

  • Have you ever discussed what matters to you, and what you would like to avoid as a parent? If not, now would be a very good time.

  • Do you have any moral, spiritual, educational, social, or cultural beliefs or boundaries that need to be built in to your parenting plans?

  • Is one of you a more dominant character than the other? If so, how will you ensure that you parent equally?

A solid partnership

Young children need a clear message so they know what is expected of them. This can only be achieved if you and your partner are in agreement.

Beliefs about behavior

Our thoughts about children’s behavior, and what makes it acceptable, vary greatly depending on personal expectations and our ideas about what is appropriate for the age group and the circumstances. As the questionnaire shows, parents may have unrealistic or inappropriate ideas about what is the right age for a development stage. For example, two-year-old Harriet mimicking a grown-up might be seen as disrespectful by one adult, as creative and amusing by another, and as “going through a stage” by someone else. In fact, mimicry during the toddler years is developmentally appropriate for the age group and part of the learning process. The three viewpoints wouldn’t differ as much if Harriet were twelve, by which time she would be expected to know what kinds of behavior are acceptable and appropriate.

If you are sharing the parenting of your child with a partner or other adult, one of the most important aspects of satisfying and successful parenting is to mutually agree on the behavior guidelines that you want to put in place, especially around issues such as mealtimes, bedtimes, acceptable behavior, and so on.

If you draw up a joint plan in advance of any problems developing, you are more likely to take joint responsibility when things go wrong. In order for any guideline to work, it is important that your children understand that you and your partner will be of one mind on the key issues of the day. Undermining one another in front of the children sends a very confusing message. Throughout this guide you will find age-appropriate guidelines to teach your child to behave in a socially acceptable way—without crushing the essential spirit of childhood.

You are a role model

Role models play an important part in life. Like most people, you have probably experienced the positive impact of being inspired by someone upbeat and contented. Likewise, you may know the debilitating effect of being around someone negative. Children need role models, too—and you are your child’s main influence.

One of the hardest aspects of adjusting to parenthood is self-management and the awareness that you need to remain a positive role model for your child. Easier said than done on occasion—especially when your toddler is pushing all your tolerance buttons to their absolute limit.

Part of the problem is that some parents feel threatened by the transition from babyhood to toddlerhood and find themselves powerless in the face of childhood rages and emotional rejection. The important thing is to know yourself well enough to be able to take diversionary tactics if things show signs of getting out of hand—and to keep things in perspective. To a child, “I hate you!” does not really mean I hate you, but simply, “I’m mad!” It’s not about love or hate at all. If you had an emotionally charged childhood yourself, it can be all too easy to take things personally instead of recognizing it as normal toddler behavior.

It is natural to feel exhausted or exasperated by your children from time to time, and vital to remember that child-centered parenting is not about making your child the most important person in the household. You, your partner, other children, and other adults all have a role and rights. Planning ahead to make time for yourself and your relationship, to make sure you relax and have fun, is essential for keeping your energy levels high and toddler behavior in perspective.

Revisiting your childhood

During the many years that I have worked with families, I have rarely met a parent who did not want the very best for their child, or a caregiver who was not motivated by the positive needs of the children in their care. But sometimes our own issues get in the way of our parenting style. There is nothing like raising a child for triggering pressure points relating to your own childhood. At the heart of many child behavioral problems there is a parental or adult issue that needs to be resolved. It helps if you recognize when you are projecting your own experiences onto your child. Whether as adults we look back at childhood with pleasure or dread, our legacy will impact on our own attitudes and experiences as parents. It is important that we understand our own issues so that we are able to manage our emotions when caring for our children.

Memory triggers

As adults, we have a great deal of information stored away in our memory. Much of it we have forgotten ever existed. Inevitably, as our children start to grow, a gesture, a smell, a response, or a situation may suddenly trigger a long-lost memory—some good, some bad. An event may trigger a long suppressed trauma, such as loss or abandonment, for some; others may be tempted to relive life through their children, encouraging them to achieve in areas that they enjoyed as a child or wished that they had.

Memories are highly personal, and will be different for each of us. They are triggered by sensory responses: sights, sounds, smells, and so on, and may increase as your child gets older.

Some examples of memory triggers:

When clinical psychologists work with children, they focus not only on the child, but also on the child’s family or personal situation. Your personal history will influence your reaction to certain situations. Thinking about the impact of key events and experiences from your past can help you to understand your present-day actions and feelings. Our experiences dictate how we see and interpret the world around us and influence how we behave. Increased personal awareness will help you to work out what drives your behavior and feelings—especially toward your child—and whether some of your instinctive responses are more due to ghosts from your past rather than the needs of the immediate situation. Your relationship with your partner can have a significant effect on your child’s behavior, too.

  • The smell of baby lotion may trigger memories of a baby sibling.

  • Sitting on a swing may remind you of falling off and skinning your knee—or of a feeling of exhilaration.

  • The sight of your child crying as you leave the room may remind you of how you felt when you were scared or alone.

  • Your child may look at you with his father’s eyes and say, in true toddler style: “I hate you, Mommy.” You take it personally and overreact, because his father left you.

  • You encourage your son to take up the piano because you have a memory of how it felt to sit and play with your grandfather (even though your son would rather be playing with a ball).

“Good enough” parenting

The term “good enough” parent was first coined by Donald Winnicott (1896–1971). He used it in a very precise way to describe why aspiring to be a “perfect” parent can have a negative long-term effect on children. “Perfect” parents, who aim to fulfill their child’s every need, at whatever age and stage of life she is at, will inadvertently encourage her to remain dependent and therefore prevent her from developing as a separate individual.

The term “good enough” parent describes a more balanced approach to bringing up a child, whereby parents encourage their children to learn to cope (once they are old enough) by gradually “loosening” the ties between them and not always providing them with all the answers.

Winnicott called this choosing to “fail” so that your child learns to succeed on her own. Of course, this is not failure as we usually think of it. What he meant was that by not always providing your child with exactly what she thinks she wants, exactly when she wants it, you are teaching her healthy survival skills. By not always pre-empting your child’s requirements, you are helping her to learn to think about things and to ask.

As she grows up, this approach helps your child to realize that she is an independent being who is not dependent on her parents to provide her identity or for long-term survival.

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