Putting your worst parenting foot forward

I have spent a lifetime being defensive. The world, frankly, is a harsh place to live and over time one can become quite hyper vigilant and self-protective. It takes some risk to put yourself out there after suffering rejection and betrayal. Unfortunately, that is the only way to live in an intimate relationship with other people, like your family.

I get that there are abusers out there and it may not be wise counsel to open yourself to that. I am not asking for anyone to be a victim. I am addressing the more basic, day-to-day willingness to be open and non-defensive. I have spoken about the benefits of this in other posts on TransPARENTcy, etc. It may be worthwhile to read those posts.

Try an experiment with me: Put your worst foot forward. Instead of covering up your mistakes or telling little white lies about your parenting performance, try sharing a parenting issue you really want to change about yourself. You will have to pick the right moment and to be safe, the right person at first. After you do that, ask for some honest feedback. I mean really honest. Look the person in the eye and don’t talk until they are done. If they hedge their comments, ask for further clarification until you get to the bone of truth. Finally, state your appreciation and willingness to consider incorporating that information. Take the next 24 hours to do just that.

I wonder what response this will initiate in others? I am curious what it will do to you if you can live in a non-defensive position? Protecting ourselves takes energy. Lots of it. What would happen with all that creative juice if you applied it to making your parenting better versus avoiding change?

Change is uncomfortable but nothing real and satisfying is achieved by avoiding it. The biggest therapeutic truth I know (I didn’t say I always practice it) is that you have to go through the pain to get to the other side. I wonder what that other side will look like for you in your closest relationships.

Share your experiences with this by leaving us a comment or tweet us @ronhuxley or go to our Facebook page!

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that being a parent today is tougher than ever before. Blame it on the moral decay of society, the impersonal nature of technology or the breakup of the home. Either way, contemporary parents feel out of touch with themselves and their children.

The solution is not to turn back time but to open our selves up to our children. As stress bombards today’s families, parents retreat farther into their private self leaving a fully functioning but completely unsatisfactory public self to go through the daily routines of work and family life. This deprives both parent and child of the intimacy and closeness they both want and desire.

Ironically, strength comes through vulnerability. Letting children see our
frustrations, pain, and failure can be a valuable lesson to them. Many parents can’t see the wisdom in being transparent to their children. Already debilitated, they can’t understand why they should give away their power. This notion of power comes from a false parenting authority of “Do it because I said so” or “I am the parent therefore you must obey!” This is not true strength. This is force. Strangely enough, giving up this false strength will lead parents to the true power of intimacy in their family relationships.

Self discovery

Children are naturally curious. They love to explore and learn. Parents can use this drive to increase intimacy with their children. The first step is to make/take time out of busy schedules to really be with children. TransPARENTcy is achieved in those unstructured but regular moments with children. It can be in the car on the way to or from school. It can be at a regularly scheduled playtime at home. It can be during the last few minutes of the day tucking your child into bed. The actual arrangement is not as important as simply making the most of everyday interactions with children.

To do this parents need to get comfortable being in the here-and-now with children. Children are naturally present focused. They are not worried about their future or their past. Get into that present moment with your child. Be aware of the environment you find yourself in and talk about those things with your child. This is how a child learn about the world. Encourage questions. Eliminate judgment about right and wrong and instead let your child explore ideas about the world to help them find ethical answers. Talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings in as objective a manner as possible and then share your own thoughts and feelings without lecture or sermonizing.

Be Honest

Honesty is still the best policy when it comes to our emotions. If parents feel one of the primary emotions: mad, sad or glad, share them honestly. Hiding these emotions lead to negative behaviors on the parts of both parent and child. Of course if parents are going through a major depression or anxiety children should not take the place of a good therapist or become the emotional dumping ground for a parent’s stressful life. Instead, parents can model how to manage difficult feelings so that children can learn how to regulate theirs.

The truth is that parents can’t hide their emotions even if they want to. Most likely children already know when their parents are mad or sad even if they try to hide them. Children were nonverbal long before they were verbal making them experts of the unspoken expression. If mom or dad find their own emotions so horrible that they can’t be honest about them, maybe children shouldn’t trust their emotions either.

Many parents believe that by covering their own emotions they are protecting their children. Consequently, parents put on an act to only show positive feelings. This gives children a one-sided view of life making them unprepared to cope with others in the real world. This form of protection is really for the parent not the child. Children are harmed not helped by this belief.

Take risks

Many parents who want greater connection with their children never experienced it as a child themselves. It is frightening to be transparent with anyone, especially one’s children. The greatest risk of vulnerability will come when parents must admit a mistake. To avoid this risk parents try not to reveal their inadequacies to their children causing children to mistrust what parents say and do. This is not the way build stronger bonds.

If parents want to be an appropriate role model and achieve greater intimacy with their children they will need to admit their humanness. Even more frightening for parents is the idea that they might need to ask forgiveness of their child for a word or action acted out in anger. Forgiveness has a spiritual quality that transcends emotional hurts and repairs relationships. It opens doors of intimacy that would otherwise remain locked shut by hurts and resentments.

Taking this type of risks can be particularly difficult for fathers. There is an old notion that fathers must be proud, strong and therefore invulnerable. The rationale is that this behavior teaches boys how to be a man. Unfortunately, it teaches all the wrong things and ill prepares boys for future relationships. Today’s sons need dads who understand the importance of learning from one’s failures as well as successes.

Create a Family Team

Some parents complain that the reason they cannot be transparent with their child is due to conflicts in personality. When children and parents have drastically different moods, reactions and motivations, it can make connecting quite a chore. To overcome this problem, parents try and focus on similarities versus differences. While this is helpful, it is also important to concentrate on those differences that divide parent and child.

Talking about personality differences can actually be a way to connect to a child. Discuss how you and your child are different and why that makes each of you unique. Explore the various ways to process or react to life. Never define the differences as deviant, just different. Learn from the other person’s viewpoint and discover compromises that fit you both.

Parents can use personality differences to build a powerful “family team.”  Match individual interests, skills and desires so that each person compliments the others. The role of the parents, in these family teams, is to cheer lead each personality. Make the motto: “one for all and all for one” your new slogan for family transparency.

Empathy

The surest path to transparency is empathy. Empathy is the act of communicating our understanding of a child’s feelings, thoughts and needs without being overwhelmed or taking responsibility for them. This will be tough for parents who believe that parenting is simply about taking care of their child physically and not emotionally. Children with the best self-image have parents who validate their emotions. Consequently, these same children report feeling more connected and open with their parents.

Some of the most effective parenting classes have at there root the concept of empathy. The philosophy is simple: You can’t harm a child if you are being empathic with a child. And the reverse is true as well: Your child will be more cooperative because he or she feels more connected. Intimacy is rarely looked on as discipline. While it doesn’t negate the need for consistency and rules, homes without empathy get very little true cooperation. Oh,
there is compliance, in the short term, but there is little cooperation. And there is little connection.

Fortunately, empathy is a learned skill. It requires parents to do three things: give full attention, paraphrase a child’s words and reflect a child’s underlying feelings. With practice parents can use empathy to create a healthy, intimate relationship with their children.

Facing the Future Now

If it is true that families today are experiencing greater stress than families of the past. This makes intimacy more challenging. More conscious effort on the part of parents to counteract this imbalance. While our technology might continue to progress, our relationships can continue to become more impersonal. True intimacy in families require parents to use the skills discussed here to be real with their children.  This will require risk from both mom and dads. A change in attitude may be required that is different from how parents grew up. Traditional roles may need to be revised. TransPARENTcy is a skill that parents can practice to enhance family teamwork and connection.

Parenting Differences: Attract and Annoy!

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Remember what attracted you to your mate when you first got married? Are those characteristics that originally attracted you to your partner the very things drive you crazy now? The old saying “opposites attract” may have a lot of truth when it comes to creating a balanced parenting relationship but it is also true that those styles of parenting can rips homes apart and be a source of constant parenting struggle. It is natural for people to want to fill in the gaps of their personality or find a compliment to their own skills and abilities. These different styles unconsciously “round out” their parenting roles. This is why one partner may be more aggressive, more organized, more emotional, or more controlled than the other partner and why together the two personalities seem, at least at first glance, to be a good “team.”

Just as values are largely unconscious and tucked out of parents awareness, certain styles of parenting that were attractive early on in the parenting relationship are also largely unconscious. Parents may have fallen in love, not just with the other person, but with their ability to make firm decisions or feel passionate about something. Parents may have even fallen in love with characteristics they lacked or felt they never could adequately provide for a child. The ability of one parent to follow a budget or use common sense may impress another parent whose checkbook is always unbalanced or feels their finances and life are out of control. The other person creates a sense of balance in their life that translates to a feeling of balance of love and limits during child rearing. After a while, though, these attractive attributes can become annoying. The parenting partner, who provided a sense of stability early on in the relationship and could offer common sense when the baby cried all night long, is seen as boring, emotionally detached, and too rigid later on in the relationship.

PARENTING PERSPECTIVES

Parenting changes how people perceive themselves. Setting limits on one’s checkbook is different than setting limits on a child. And nurturing oneself is very different from nurturing a totally depended, often demanding infant. This evolution from “partners in love” to “partners in parenting” creates a feeling of imbalance. Having a child forces the partners to merge two sets of cultures, parenting values, and beliefs. It also brings up positive and negative memories of a parent’s own childhood. Parents, who had abusive parents or whose partner had abusive parents, may fear their own children being abused. Parents who idealized their parents may feel incompetent when comparing their own parenting skills to their parental figures. Now, as parents, the positive attributes that attracted one parenting partner to another, reminds partners of negative traits in their own parents. The organizational skills they admired in their partner and in their own parents also remind them of the compulsive, rigid behavior of their parent. The spontaneity and attention given by one’s partner also reminds them of their parents smothering overprotection.

DECISION, DECISIONS

Having children also force partners to make decisions they never had to be make before. It requires them to act cooperatively with one another on such things as who stays home with the child when he or she is sick; how to deal with a bad grade on a report card; or how to handle a child who has an emotional or behavioral disorder, all of which can result in parental disagreements, arguments, and resentments. Even the value that parenting partners must be, act, or react in the same manner can be disastrous to a balance of love and limits. Fortunately, these differences can become the groundwork for a fuller relationship if partners are willing to learn from one another rather than continue the vicious cycle of anger and resentment. This is possible only where both parents make an honest attempt at communication and cooperation. In addition, partners can learn from one another’s differences and incorporate the others strengths into their own parenting style.

LEARNING FROM DIFFERENCES

The first step to learning from the other parenting figure is to accept that differences are acceptable, even necessary, in the parenting relationship. If one parent is to develop certain parenting characteristics they never received from their own parental figures, they must accept and allow the other person to demonstrates these qualities. Believing that the other parent has something valuable to offer the parenting relationship will create cooperation in the difficult task of raising a child rather than resentment.

The second step is to learn new ways to parent from the example of the other parent. Getting out of the way and letting them “do their thing” will not produce growth in one’s own parenting skills. Letting the other person have their way is not synonymous with learning. This can become learned helplessness, which results in negative feelings toward oneself and the other partner. While one parent may never be quite as good at setting firm rules at bedtime, they can learn to do it more frequent and more consistently than they have in the past, simply by learning from the example of the other parent.

The third step is to agree to disagree. Not every parenting decision will be made in total agreement. Nor should one person, regardless of how confident or aggressive they are in making decisions make every decision. Parenting partners can take turns on how to take care of night-time fears, with one parent singing and holding the child one week and the other parent scaring away the bedtime monsters with a flashlight, the next. Or they can compromise by finding a third, equally agreeable solution to getting their child to stay in bed. If an equally agreeable solution does not present itself, partners can always “agree to disagree” by waiting until a third solution does becomes possible. “Agreeing to disagree” is helpful when a discussion becomes “heated” and partners need to wait until both parties are feeling “cooler” and better able to see the other person’s viewpoint. This behavior is a powerful model to children. It demonstrates that parents can be different and disagree without engaging in a physical or verbal battle. It communicates to the children that “we are working it out.” And relationships can continue to be satisfying (or balanced) even when an issue is not yet settled.

The fourth step is to recognize that the negative or uncooperative behavior seen in the other parent may be a reflection of a characteristic of their own personality of their past and not the other parenting partner after all. It may be a habit learned from parental figures in one’s own childhood about how to deal with a frustrating situation or cope with a problem. Take time to reflect on your own past and talk with the other partner about childhood experiences. Insight, not ignorance, will lead to intimacy.

And the fifth step is to have a discussion on balancing parenting styles free of name-calling, blaming, or shaming one another. Don’t make the other parent feel bad by labeling them “stubborn,” talking about them in front of friends, or constantly pointing out their flaws. If this is too difficult to master, parenting partners will need to find help to deal with these destructive communication styles. While it is true that “opposites attract” it is also true that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

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