When I was pregnant with my first baby, I often wondered what kind of parent I would be. Would I be fun and silly, but strict when it counted? Would I end up being the enforcer of rules because my husband is more easy-going than me? Would I be the kind of parent that my kids come to for love and support in good times and bad times?
Even though I am not a seasoned parent myself (my kids are 1.5 and 3.5), I have a unique glimpse into the world of parenting through my profession. I work with children 7 and up and every day I see the interactions of children and their parents. What strikes me is the vastly different types of parent-child relationships that I witness.
Some parents have a playful relationship with their children but take on a clear parental role when needed. I was talking to an 11-year-old girl’s dad about placing an appliance to help improve her protruding front teeth. She, like any normal 11-year-old, was worrying about what her friends would think about her new appliance. Sensing her discomfort, her dad said jokingly “I always knew there was something funny looking about you!” That immediately broke the tension and made all of us laugh.
Other parents are strict in their parenting style and there is a clear understanding of who is the adult and who is the child. These parents typically put a lot of time and effort into shaping and enriching their children and have high expectations of them. These children are often stellar students and have many extracurricular activities. They make excellent patients because they tend to follow all of my instructions to a T. I often try to engage these children in conversation, but it takes a bit longer for me to coax them out of their shells. Once they start talking, they cannot stop and I am often amazed at their breadth of ideas and knowledge.
The children that are the hardest for me to work with are the ones with parents who baby them. These permissive parents often try to be their children’s friends and are too lax with enforcing simple rules. They often make excuses for their children or are completely tuned out to what is going on. As a result, their children tend to be anxious or out of control because they lack the sense of security of having routines and established boundaries.
Finally, there are some parent-child relationships that are strained and extremely uncomfortable to watch. I had a teenage patient who had a clear disdain for his father. His father kept trying to engage him in conversation but he acted like he would rather watch paint dry than talk to his dad. I try to be mindful of things that may be going on at home that are outside of the control of these children, like divorces and moves. What I have come to understand is that little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems. I am not in any hurry to have my kids grow up faster.
There are certain factors that determine your parenting style and your relationship with your children. The first is your own personality. Are you a control freak? Or do you tend to let things happen naturally? Look at your relationships with your spouse and your parents to get a clearer sense.
The second factor is completely out of your control. You don’t get to choose your children and they come with their own package of personality traits and idiosyncrasies. Whether their personalities mesh with yours is a complete luck of the draw. Like romantic relationships, some are tumultuous and some are smooth sailing. Whether a relationship works out or not boils down to personality compatibility.
Finally, if you have a good relationship with your parents, you will tend to emulate their parenting style and vice versa. Even if you try to be different on purpose, some things you do or say will invariably slip out. I caught myself saying something in frustration to my son the other day that my mom used to say to me. I immediately felt bad for saying it and I got on my knees, looked into his big brown eyes, and told him that I was sorry that I lost my patience. He responded by saying: “how did you lose your patients mommy?” That made me smile. Little kids are so kind and forgiving and we are so lucky to have them.
I am constantly trying and learning to be a better parent to my boys who deserve nothing less than the most extraordinary mother. I am not perfect by any means and I am humbled every day by them. There are hundreds of books on successful parenting out there and I encourage you to read some of them. I am not an expert, but below are some tips that I have picked up along the way from my own experience, from observing my patient’s relationships, and from reading parenting books:
Treat each child differently according to their needs. In Siblings Without Rivalry, I learned that you don’t have to treat each child the same to be equitable or fair. Children are unique individuals who are not motivated by or interested in the same things. If you put your son in soccer but he is miserable, try something different. Perhaps music or art is better suited for him. Take the time to learn about your children’s interests so that your conversations are more meaningful.
Create rituals and family traditions. We have brunch at our favorite cafe every weekend. My son and I have a special song that we dance to every time it comes on. Every year for Chinese New Year, we make home made dumplings. I say the same night time phrase to my sons every night before they fall asleep.
Do things together. Spend time on experiences, not material things. Things get old and outdated but memories are forever. My son still talks about the beach in Carmel, the banana slugs in Santa Cruz, and the water park in Palm Springs.
Make the effort to be present. I see parents on their cell phones all the time at children’s museums, playgrounds, and restaurants. I am certainly guilty of taking my phone out to snap a few pictures rather than just enjoying the moment. Interact with your children, ask them open-ended questions, engage them in storytelling. Make the effort to get to know your child and learn what is important to them.
Create a framework of boundaries but allow flexibility within the framework. Certain things are non-negotiable and should be made clear to our children. Within the framework, children are given the freedom to make some choices. For instance, tooth brushing is mandatory, but my kids can pick out their favorite toothbrush and toothpaste flavor. They are allowed to have some playtime after dinner but I tell them that they are only allowed a set amount of time. When my three year old protests, I ask him if he wants to have 5 or 10 minutes of playtime. He always chooses 10 minutes. Regardless, I have set the boundaries of playtime, but he felt that he had control because he was given some autonomy to choose.
Surprise them with something unexpected and share in the delight of their pure joy. We all love good surprises. So once in a while, do something out of the ordinary. One of my best memories from my childhood is going out with my mom alone. She was very frugal, but always bought me some little treats.
Have one-on-one dates with your children. With limited family time, it’s often easier to go out and do things together as a whole family. However, our children crave one-on-one time with us and need that specialized attention on a regular basis. Ever since my second child came along, my husband and/or I have taken my older son out for little dates. I’ve taken him out for bike rides to the park, or out to lunch. I can see the happy look on his face and it is priceless.
Allow your child to help you with your everyday chores. It’s no secret that little kids like to do adult things and kids can actually do a lot more than what you think they are capable of. Have your child help you when you’re cooking. Sure, the process will take twice as long, but think of it as a teaching and bonding experience. My 3-year-old loves to cook with me and I let him chop things with a real knife (under careful supervision, of course) just as I did when I was a young girl.
Maximize their natural potential and set them up for success. Our children are not here to live out our own dreams and desires. Expose them to a variety of activities and let them choose the experiences that they enjoy most. Once they select something, be clear of what your expectations are. For any new skill, we must stick with it for some time to really assess whether we will like it or have the potential to be good at it. I was a classical pianist since the age of 5 and graduated with a piano performance degree. When I taught piano, I told my students and their parents that the beginning is always the hardest. Natural talent is 10% of the puzzle while hard work and perseverance is 90%. Some skills (like piano playing) will not be fun until we attain a certain level of proficiency. There’s no way to skip to the fun part without practice. Kids by nature don’t like hard work, so as parents, it is our responsibility to encourage and cajole our kids to do things they don’t want to do. The second part of the equation is to be mindful about setting our children up for success. This take parental intuition and thought. Going back to the piano example, if your child has a dreadfully boring teacher who does drills, your child will quickly lose interest in playing the piano. However, with the right teacher, piano lessons can be entertaining and fun.
Be a constant and stable source of comfort for your children in a big, unpredictable world. Let your children know that no matter what, they can always rely on you for love and support. Be your children’s #1 fan. Encourage them to have the courage to try new things. If they try something and fail, it is the trying part that is the most important. I give praise for effort — not the end result. Let your children know that nobody is perfect and that experience and skill is attained through trying, making mistakes, and learning from mistakes. Remember that Ford’s first production automobile was called the Model T simply because Models A-S were failures.
Be the best version of yourself. You are the most important role model for your children. Make a conscious effort to be the best you can be. Treat people with kindness, care for animals, recycle, and make this a better world for the next generation. Take good care of yourself and make time to eat well, exercise, strengthen your relationship with your spouse, and pursue your own interests.
Do you have any parenting tips? Please feel free to share your tips in the comment section below.
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