It’s always been tough to be a parent, but it seems that it’s getting harder and harder to do what’s good for kids in our “me-first” culture. Parenthood necessarily means a transition out of the self-orientation of the teenage years and young adulthood, and that in itself is sometimes tough. It means sacrificing our own needs for those of our children, and on a day by day basis this can mean making hard choices. Our emphasis shifts from having fun with our friends and our spouse to meeting the needs of the tiny new person we have brought into the world.
These days, it’s made harder by a culture that seems to focus more on what makes adults feel good than on what children need. As a mother of adult sons and as a family therapist, I think that what children need can be summarized by the words love, guidance, and safety, both physical and emotional. At every stage of parenting, we can see these themes running through advice gleaned from professionals, self-help books, reflections on the positives and negatives of our own upbringing , and advice from trusted sources, be they family, experienced friends, church communities, or other resources.
Love, guidance, and safety. How do these words apply at different ages and stages? From the moment we are born, and perhaps even before, every child needs a deeply felt sense that they are loved. This is what the word bonding is all about, seeing one’s self reflected in the loving eyes of one’s mother and father, held, fed, cared for and protected. As you read these words, my guess is they resonate. Everyone needs this, and when we get it, we feel deeply safe.
Having our physical needs met is necessary but not enough by itself. Long ago, scientist Rene Spitz compared babies who were raised in orphanages with little physical contact and babies who were raised with their mothers in prisons. By age 1 there were marked differences between the two groups, and by age 3 the isolated babies had very severe developmental delays. Love and emotional safety are what’s needed, not just physical sustenance.
Guidance in infancy is mostly about providing structure and predictability. Babies thrive on a sense of knowing “what comes next”, as much as is possible. Throughout life we all do better knowing that there are some “guard rails”, and attempts at helping babies and toddlers build some structure and schedule give them a sense of security so they can explore and grow. Have you watched a toddler go back and forth from mom, to explore the room or the play area, and then move back to touch base, literally? That’s how we grow throughout life.
As children grow from toddlerhood, parenting methods must change and at different stages one area may be emphasized more than others, but it’s still about love, guidance, and safety. We make sure our children are physically safe, which gets harder as they learn to crawl, walk, run (and drive!) We give them guidance, letting them learn from mistakes when appropriate. We give them emotional safety by setting boundaries and defining where the “guard rails” are even when they don’t like it. And we show them and tell them how much we love them, especially because sometimes they don’t like the rules. They need to know that we love them no matter what their behavior, even if we need to give them consequences for that behavior.
I guess all of this is summarized by what my mother used to tell me: “I’m your mother, not your friend”. It doesn’t mean we can’t have fun together, or have easy times that aren’t about teaching or setting boundaries. But children need their mother and father to be the parents, because after all, who else is going to care enough to put in the energy required to set boundaries, give guidance, define where the “guard rails” are, enforce consequences so we learn, if not a child’s mother and father? And who else is going to love us, really love us, throughout all that, if not our mother and father?
Each brings something different to the table, each helps a child learn how to be a woman or a man, each gives them someone to bond with and push against at different stages. The same sons who thought I was everything when they were little still loved me deeply in their teens, but needed to push away from me and identify with their father. I don’t have daughters, but I remember wanting to be like my mother at certain ages and rebelling against her at another, and wanting to know that my father thought I was pretty and special, which felt very different from hearing the same from my mother.
Not all parents are able to stay together, especially in this climate which can make it so difficult to know how to nurture a marriage and how to recognize that our old issues are impacting our current family life. Even if parents can’t stay in the same house, they need to stay connected to their children. When they aren’t, it creates a void, and that makes it harder for that child to feel loved and emotionally safe. Parenthood is forever, and it is worth whatever it takes to be what your child needs. Some of the most gratifying work I have done as a therapist is with families who have lived in separate households but learned to be better parents in time than they had been earlier.
Love, guidance and safety. If children have these, they grow to be strong healthy adults, able to function and love others. Once we become parents, this is our goal for them and our function for however long it takes. Then they go off to live their own lives and start the cycle again, and our role changes to a much less active although still very important one. But that’s a topic for another day.
Start where you are, heal your old hurts so they don’t get in the way, and let your children know they are loved by giving them what they need to grow strong and healthy. In the long run, you’ll be happy and so will they, and your hard work will be worth it all.