What is “Essential” Parenting?

I’m moved to write this post after meeting with so many clients who were raised by mentally ill parents.

They struggle with the idea of becoming parents themselves, worried that they will do what their parents did, or didn’t do. Clueless as to what a healthy relationship or lifestyle even looks like, they feel completely overwhelmed at the idea of becoming a parent.

What is essential parenting? Forget the idea of “good enough” parenting for now. I’m not sure how helpful that concept is in this moment. Let’s focus on what exactly is needed by any child.

Most importantly, a child needs to learn how to be a healthy adult. As for the basics, children need to learn healthy hygiene and grooming. How to bathe, use the toilet, wash their hands (even under the fingernails), shampoo and fix their hair, dress themselves for the weather of the day and for the event. Not just the girls, ALL children need to learn how to keep a house clean, how to do laundry, dust all surfaces, vacuum a floor or carpet, scrub the toilet and bath tile and sinks, make up a bed and change the sheets. As a bonus, they can know how to recycle and choose environmentally-friendly cleaners. Not exclusively the boys, ALL children in our modern society need to know how to do basic math without a calculator, count change, figure a 15% tip or sale coupon, set and maintain a household budget. They need to start young learning how to manage money, save for something special, and purchase wisely. They need to learn how to eat the foods that keep the body healthy, how to cook and prepare meals within budget, how to shop for groceries and read food labels. Since cooking is avoided by so many families, it is no wonder that we as a society have forgotten this basic life skill. We tend to pay more mind to how we care for our cars and our dogs than to how we care for our bodies. Most wouldn’t even consider putting sand in the gas tank or feeding cardboard to the family pet. But that is essentially what we do to our body; we feed it nutritionless junk and complain when it slows down, feels sluggish, sputters out, and gets old. As parents, we need to step it up, eat our vegetables and teach our children which vegetables they need to stay energized and healthy. (Hint: a daily variety of vegetables, ensuring all of the color groups, and making up at least half of what we eat.) Psychological and social skills also begin at home. Children need to learn how to get their energy from themselves rather than others. They need to know how to self-soothe, to move through their discomfort rather than avoid it, to feel emotions when they are less intense and respond appropriately with conscious mindfulness rather than react instinctually as animals. They need to practice delayed rather than immediate gratification. These are essential emotional coping skills that are the responsibility of a parent to teach, NOT the responsibility of a teacher or psychotherapist to teach. By the time children start school, these behaviors should already be known to them; by the time they are in high school, these behaviors should be mastered by them. We all need to learn how to feel our own basic energy system. Our society is so largely externally focused and obsessed with distraction behaviors that most of us have lost this basic skill. No wonder we don’t know who we are. No wonder we feel lack of connection. No wonder we fail to realize what holds meaning and purpose to us. Intellectually, parents can do so much to help their children thrive. They can offer them a broad variety of developmentally-appropriate activities to do on their own, and at every age. The brain and nervous system are a “use it or lose it” system. Whatever children practice repeatedly, their brain hardwires to do well. Whatever types of function or skills children don’t do, their brain prunes away the wiring that facilitates that particular activity. Parents do not do their children a favor when they hire others to do for the children what they should do for themselves. Or, when a parent does the children’s homework for them. Or, when a parent writes their teen’s college essay for them. Or, rescues them in some other way. Such rescuing only instills within their children the sense of inadequacy, the belief that they can’t do it themselves, and the failure that follows as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents can allow their children to fail, so that they learn persistence, stick-to-it-ness attitude and other life lessons. Parents can help when asked. Helping is not the same as rescuing. Helping is teaching, answering questions, providing minimal guidance, and encouraging practice of skills. That is how any of us build over time a sense of confidence and mastery in what we can do. That is how self-esteem is constructed. Children need to learn basic social skills from their parents. Unfortunately, too many parents lack these in themselves. Parents may want to consider that children have mirror neurons that automatically start learning (and hardwiring for) whatever they see their parents doing. Rightly or wrongly. So parents can help their children build masterful social skills by modeling them. Socially, children need to learn how to make polite requests rather than selfish demands. They need to learn cooperation and collaboration, how to take turns, how to play and work well with others. Win-win rather than win-lose. Conflict is the result of poor social skills, and is unnecessary. Differences can be accommodated rather than humiliated. Please and thank you. Holding the door open for another. Patiently awaiting one’s turn. These are skills of basic respect. How to assert oneself appropriately, rather than passively or aggressively. How to speak one’s mind respectfully. How to express one’s own creativity. How to stand firm rather than cave in, while hurting no one. These are the skills of basic communication and relationship. Parents do have their job cut out for them. But once a parent, that responsibility is there. Consider such responsibility wisely, with love. Get help where needed. Know that it is impossible to predict what any particular child will need from you, so perfect parenting doesn’t exist. If you are a parent, remember that you will need to give yourself lots of self-love so that you will feel love in abundance for your child. Make yourself whole and you will be able to teach your child wholeness. And when your child lives life as an adult in wholeness, how much better does it get than that!?

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