How do parents affect a child’s development? It’s a question I was asked recently which acknowledges something that crosses most parents’ minds at some time.

I have seen dozens of books on parenting (I used to review them), some good, some less so. As far as I can remember, they were all about active process; doing things for, with or to children. I  cannot remember one that touched what parenting is really about

I can say this after four children over 40-plus years of parenting (cumulatively, 135 child-years!). Being a ‘successful’ parent is more about growing, learning and adapting as an adult, than it is about what we do with or for our kids. Well rounded, grounded and mature adults help well rounded and grounded children to mature into their own adulthood.

(Part of) The manual

Here’s what would go into the book that I’ll probably never write, in no particular order:

  • If you’re OK, your kids will (eventually) be OK
  • Once a parent, always a parent. You cannot un-parent or be an ex-parent. This applies even if (sadly) a child is lost.
  • You do not own your children.
  • Rebellion and independence are designed into children. Allow it (under the right conditions) and they’ll thrive and grow, repress it and you’ll fail, and family life will suffer.
  • Don’t expect either gratitude or understanding from your children. They may adore and admire you, for a bit, but their lives, ambitions and aspirations are about them, not you. They’ll understand when they have kids of their own or when they have matured (but don’t hold your breath).
  • Their friends are way more important than you are.
  • Allow and respect their privacy; learn to curb your own curiosity and supervise if you must but don’t pry.
  • Parents can make mistakes, forget things, change their minds and do all the things a person can do. Perfection is for angels, aim to do your best.
  • Children learn by your example, even when you think they are too young to understand or are not paying attention.
  • They are learning all the time, remember that when you think you are having one of those casual comments to a friend you might also be feeding your child information they’ll believe (“He’s going through the terrible twos”; “She doesn’t eat X”; he/she doesn’t like bedtime).
  • You are not their friend, you are their parent; live your life and let them live theirs.
  • Nurturing is about love and support, it is also about boundaries, discipline, obligations and moral integrity.
  • Parents have emotions and hormones too, with luck we have learned to control our reactions so we act as grown-ups should and our kids can model the behaviour.
  • Unconditional love means exactly that; there are no conditions. Don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Don’t look to your kids for reassurance and definitely don’t ask for it, they’ll probably do the opposite if you do.
  • Rules are necessary, but if you make rules, you’ll have to police them. Also, every rule or expectation is another opportunity for a creative child to express their individuality.
  • Adaptive parenting means responding to and interacting with each child differently. All kids are different, so why treat them all the same way?
  • You have no automatic right to your kids’ love and respect. You must earn them, and it’s not a one-off exercise.
  • Parenting provides constant opportunities for self-understanding, growth and developing our own resilience.
  • When something goes wrong fix it without recrimination, then look into yourself before doing anything else.
  • Zero-tolerance for disrespectful behaviour, both verbal and non-verbal. Sneers, contemptuous eye-rolls, dismissive tone, inappropriate language should all be banned and nipped in the bud if they happen. By the way, this means at home, you can’t police how they interact with their peers.
  • If you need to discuss a ‘heavy’ topic, keep it short and say what you expect them to do. Correct it if they don’t.

Parenting is about our own growth

No doubt there is more, I’m still learning. In case you think I’m cynical, I’m not. I’ve left out the obvious, fulfilling stuff about the joys of parenting because as a therapist I have met so many parents who are hamstrung by their own unrealistic rules and expectations.

So often when children are delivered for therapy it is the parents who need it. In extreme cases, this has meant teaching kids to survive well-meaning but misguided parenting.

Maybe the opening question – How do parents affect a child’s development? – should simply be a statement; we do affect their development and they are a reflection of us, for better or worse. This means we should model the qualiites we value and which we’d like to see them develop for themselves.

All of the above rests on a premise of love and mutual respect, but both of these have to be earned – and maintained – by both sides of the relationship. Parents are teachers, but we are also learning as we go along. Parenting is about personal growth, and this means that sometimes we are only a few steps ahead of our children.