May 06, 2006

Parenting philosophy

A while ago, a reader emailed me asking about my parenting philosophy because she thought my way of raising my children seemed unusual. I am not sure how much of my philosophy I can articulate in a blog post, but I will give it a try.

Twenty years ago, pregnant with my first child, I was reading every parenting book on the planet. And my head was swirling with conflicting advice. Let the baby sleep with you! No, make sure that baby sleeps in a crib! Your children should see punishment as a logical consequence. No, don't ever punish your child. Don’t yell. Always talk in a calm voice. No, let the child see your anger. Don’t bribe. No, offer rewards. Above all, never lose your temper because if you do so even once, your kid will grow up to be an axe murderer.

Oh, I’m exaggerating, and I did glean all sorts of useful information from the books, but the most useful revelation came one night at an open house for the sixth grade students I was teaching. What surprised me is how I could figure out which kids matched up with which parents before the parents even introduced themselves.

The quiet smart girl? Yep, that quiet smart woman must be her mother. The obnoxious kid who interrupts class with stupid jokes? I could find his father immediately – that man over there loudly telling an inappropriate joke. Again and again, a parent would walk over to talk to me, and the likeness would startle me.

And that’s when I figured it out. Children grow up to be like their parents.

I know exceptions of course. I have friends from abusive homes who managed to distance themselves early on from their parents, who chose other role models in their community or even sometimes role models in books they read. I do know people who are nothing like either of their parents.

But in fairly stable homes, more often then not, children grow up to become adults who are surprising like their own parents. I’ve seen it over and over again as my friends’ children reach adulthood. And it has confirmed the realization that I had on that night of sixth grade open house twenty years ago: the best thing a parent can do for her kids is to be come the person that she wants her kids to be.

Parenting books so often focus on the children, and what you should tell them or what you should do with them. Sometimes young parents get the idea that there is just one right way to parent, and if only they could find that perfect parenting manual, their kids will turn out perfect. This is silly, of course. My friends cover a range of parenting styles – all over the board – and yet their kids have for the most part all turned out well.

Probably the most important thing parents can do is work on themselves, their own issues, their own stuff. I admire parents who do the hard work of going to therapy or 12-step programs or intensive transformational workshops – who are determined to break patterns and to not pass their baggage on to their children. I admire parents who work hard at their relationships, who cultivate nourishing friendships, who read self-help books, who take time periodically for introspection, who think about their own emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs.

Sometimes the best thing parents can do for their children is to focus not on the children, but on themselves.

35 comments:

jackie said...

This is one of my favorite blog entries ever, anywhere, mainly because it resonates so deeply with me-- there are a lot of missteps and mistakes I feel sure I could point out in my paltry four years of parenting already, but I am very proud of all the work I have done, trying to become a better version of myself, since my girls were born. It's heartening to think that my hard work will matter too, and not just my mistakes.

reverendmother said...

Amen, jo(e).

Phantom Scribbler said...

Yes. This is one of the best damn things I have ever read on teh internets. Brilliant.

comebacknikki said...

Wow. That's really something to think about.

susan said...

This is great!

You are so right: parenting is about cultivating relationships (with your child, with your partner if you have one, with your child's friends, your friends, forces in the world, etc.) and you need to cultivate the kind of relationships you want to live with.

Quotidian Grace said...

This is BY FAR the most intelligent writing on the subject of parenting I ever read. Superb!

Anastasia said...

this is a fantastic post. I just recently had a revelation similiar to this about body image. It occurred to me that my daughter will learn to look at and think about her body the way I think about mine, which means she won't grow up feeling positively about herself if I don't feel positively about myself.

I didn't want it to work this way because I struggle with it. I wanted her to feel how I told her she should feel. But about three weeks ago, I found my two year old standing sideways in the mirror pushing her stomach in. I instantly recognized myself.

After reflecting on that, I decided that if I want her to know her body is okay no matter what it looks like, I have to learn to believe that about myself. If I want her to believe she's beautiful, I have to do more than tell her she is. I have to believe (and make sure she knows I believe) that I'm beautiful.

This is the hardest thing I've ever tried to do, learning to be positive about who I am, but I think it's going to be one of the most important things I do for her.

Lisa C. said...

I'm not surprised that you hold this conviction Jo(e) because I see it in the way that you write about your kids. Their behaviors, their personalites and your representation of them in this blog all reflect what a positive influence you've had on your children.

Brava, Jo(e).

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

the best thing a parent can do for her kids is to be come the person that she wants her kids to be

This is why I wish I was more like Atticus Finch...

Marcia said...

Jo(e), What a great post!

cheesehead said...

Amen.

nancy said...

Brilliant, beautiful and well, just brilliant. I may very well direct everyone I know to read this. Well said!!

liz said...

That is a really good philosophy.

landismom said...

Such a great post.

Rachel's Big Dunk said...

I remember reading all those books when the kids came along, and like you, found them to be full of conflicting advice. When I was teaching childbirth classes, one of the biggest points I would make to my soon to be new moms and dads was that NO ONE knew their kids as well as they will... so they need to parent in the way that feels right for them. In a way, that is exactly what you have done, and I think that is great!

mc said...

Thank you so much for writing this, jo(e)... and I'm pretty sure the bambina thanks you in advance, too. You oughta see the stack of parenting/childbirth/pregnancy books on my coffee table right now... I really needed to read this today.

Oldman said...

“I admire parents who do the hard work of going to therapy or 12-step programs or intensive transformational workshops –…”

Goodness, is everyone you know so out of order that this is necessary? How sad, and what a sorry future we have.

peripateticpolarbear said...

bravo.

claire (yt) said...

You are right. So right.

sonu said...

So true.this is the best post i ever came across.kids are raw. its our duty to see to their wellness .our role starts from day one.we should rejuvenate ourselves right from the day when the child is born.that is good for all.brilliant work jo.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in an alcoholic home with emotionally and physically abusive parents. I grew up so afraid that I wouldn't know how to parent in a way other than their way, I considered having my tubes tied. As children, you don't know a different way and so we internalize the abuse as simply the way it is, even if we (like I did) realize it is wrong. I spent years in therapy and in al-anon trying to unpack what is 'normal' to me, and to mourn my childhood. I have recenly learned that I am pregnant. While it was a surprise, we are thrilled. But, of course, all my old fears about parenting have surfaced. Thank you for this post. I am printing it out and putting it in my pregnancy journal. It is absolutely right on, in my opinion. As I work more on my childhood, I see ways in which the sort of self-awareness you speak about would have benefitted me as a child, and even now as an adult as I try to navigate ways in which to have a relationship with my family of origin. The most important thing I can do is spend these next seven months really becoming clear on myself and who I want to be. This post reinforces my hope that I can become a kind, loving and compassionate parent. Thank you, thank you.

Lilian said...

Jo(e), this is really what I think too... I'm glad you wrote this post! Like everyone else I admire your family and I'm really blessed, because mine and my husband's family are quite a bit like yours.

Krista said...

Boy, you really worded something profound with "Become the person you want your kids to be"! How that would change the world if we all lived it!

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Exactly. This is so exactly right. And I have a strong feeling my mother would agree with you.

Deb said...

I love this.

And I needed to read it right now.

Thanks, Jo(e).

Beanie Baby said...

I don't know.

I agree that parents need to be good people if they want to raise good kids, and that kids will internalize a lot of what we do.

But I'm not sure that the parent-teacher interviews are a good dataset. I mean, for one thing, you're seeing people in public, where they tend to act differently. Parents especially would be on their best behaviour, since they would perceive you at least partially as a judgement figure and want to be seen by you as a good parent. That quiet, smart woman might have been a neurotic mess or an emotionally abusive horror in the home environment. My parents were not the same people in public as they were at home. And I can see how those sorts of surface behaviours, the best-face behaviours, could be more easily picked up and transferred between parents and kids than deeper behaviours. Sort of like mannerisms and common phrases--even though I don't parent the same way my Dad did, I do make the same kinds of corny jokes. A stranger to the family woudl pick up on the similarity (the corny jokes) and miss the difference (that I would never, ever hit my daughter for crying).

Also, some of the similarities you're talking about could be genetic. It's not really a surprise that a quiet person would have a quiet child if quietness is in part genetic, and it wouldn't have much to do with parenting, nor would it be amenable to the mother trying to be quieter or louder than she naturally is. Any more than it's a surprise that two brown-eyed parents would have a brown-eyed child. Aspects of temperament can be identified in nine-day old infants, and they remain relatively consistent throughout life.

It's still a good idea, because it's a good idea to be a good person regardless of how it affects your kids, but I don't know. Let me put it this way: I can more easily see how an adult with issues could raise a child with similar issues, than I can see how an adult can work on their own issues and have any kind of known or predictable impact on the issues their kids will have. I can more easily see how an alcoholic or abusive or terminally angry parent could have an alcoholic or abusive or terminally angry child, than I can see how a parent who tries to be the best person they are capable of can guarantee themselves a child who is not alcoholic or abusive or terminally angry.

Also--grade six is kind of young to make a determination of whether or not those similarities are going to stick, isn't it? Wouldn't it be more useful to compare them at 25 or 30?

I'm not trying to be nit-picky, but I think there are a lot of possible interpretations of the similarities you saw in your teaching. Perhaps it is genetic (in which case whether you work on yourself or not will have little to no impact--maybe even the tendency to work on yourself is partially genetic, who knows?). Perhaps it is superficial, and the families have a totally different dynamic in private. Perhaps it's too early to tell, and those children will reject their parents values in adolescence or post-secondary education. Perhaps what it really demonstrates is that child-rearing is not meant to be complicated, and we don't need the 'experts' to do a good job.

jo(e) said...

Beanie Baby: I was using the sixth grade parent/teacher example as the first time this thought struck me -- not as a data set that would prove anything.

As I mentioned in my post, I have watched many close friends raise their children -- and these children are now young adults. And I can see that the hard work that these friends have done in trying to work out their own issues has really paid off in terms of who their children have become.

Bad Alice said...

This really resonates with me. There's a book--yes! another book!--called ScreamFree Parenting that says basically what you say: Parents have to start with themselves. The book keeps reminding parents that discipline begins by knowing yourself. And boy is that ever a challenge.

Anonymous said...

I've read every post in your blog since you started it. This is one of the best ever. I admire what you've accomplished here--you're now the darling of the blog world, of course, but aside from that the persona you're developing here is balanced and wise, and a lot of fun, and I think it makes a difference to a lot of people. This post did to me, anyway.

Colleen said...

Thank you for posting this.

Rana said...

Bookmarked, against the day...

timna said...

Jo(e), what a lovely post. It reminded me so much of mr. t. saying that one of the important reasons for us to come to the States when I wanted to do my phd here was so that the kids would know that "we do dreams". He's so wise in many ways, about us being our best selves, similar to what you've said.

We are the message our kids get.

kate5kiwis said...

thank you so much jo(e).
i'm gonna print out your post and pop it in my (handwritten!!!) journal. so encouraging, so freeing.

Jessica said...

EXACTLY!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for this very true and helpful