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Home Strengthen Relationships FAMILIES Parenting Understanding the Parenting Game

Understanding The Parenting Game

BY ARLENE F. HARDER, MA, MFT

Now the thing about having a baby—and I can’t be the first person to have noticed this—is that thereafter you have it.

—Jean Kerr, "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies," 1957

Guess what? You’ve been enrolled in the “Parenting Game.” In fact, everyone who chooses the immense responsibility of bringing a new life into this uncertain complex world, whether through birth or adoption, is automatically enrolled, even if you don’t know the rules.

It is your responsibility as coach of this amazing game to maneuver, with love and minimum error, a small but rapidly growing human through a series of increasingly complex mazes—a process that often continues into young adulthood. When the game is over, the child will, hopefully, be an emotionally secure, resourceful, resilient, compassionate human being, prepared to contribute to society in a positive way.

Fortunately, the skills required of parents, and other coaches, to raise a child are fairly simple. You only need patience, strength, wisdom, sacrifice, courage, perseverance, flexibility, love, loyalty, and a good dose of humor.

No one is ever fully prepared for The Parenting Game

In the beginning of raising a child, even though you've read books and been given advice by your mother and mother-in-law, your grandmother, your neighbor, and your friends, you have a lot to learn. And when you look at your sweetly sleeping newborn, you feel the capacity of this child to learn and grow, and, with unconditional love for your bundle of joy, you are determined to be great parents.

You tell yourselves that you will be the calm center on which your child can depend—and you dream great dreams for the life entrusted to your care. However, when your sweet dreams are interrupted at 2:00 in the morning, your parenting resolve is seriously challenged. For, as Amy Leslie noted way back in 1893, "No animal is so inexhaustible as an excited infant."

Later, when the child begins to walk and talk and explore the world, you quickly realize that the road to parenting is not going to be smooth. The challenges come on many fronts and if you survive all of them before your child turns thirteen, you discover life in the early years was easy compared with the trials and tribulations of the teen years.

No, it isn't easy raising children, even though it is your responsibility to raise them so they will someday have the skills they need to raise your grandchildren and to run the complex, highly imperfect world we've left them.

Today's Parents Face Challenges Our Parents Didn’t Have

Every generation is different than the one that comes before it. Each generation has stresses that others do not have. But today's parents have a number of significant challenges others have not had to face.

Now The Parenting Game is played within the context of rapid change, globalization, potential nuclear and biological terrorism, environmental challenges of shrinking rain forests, water pollution, crowded cities, global warming — and advertising that reaches into the nursery for brand loyalty and pushes credit cards for an ever younger consumer.

Our Fast-paced Life Seems to Speed Up More Every Year

For the nuclear family, the pace of modern life is more frenetic and time has become ever more precious. A life of unscheduled summers and dinner around the table every night is no longer on the radar screen. And it's been several decades since the average family consisted of two parents with mom staying home with the kids. In fact, today more than fifty percent of women with children under the age of one work for pay. Workweeks of 60 hours and more are still required of many employees if they want to have a job.

There are many reasons (such as the rising cost of housing and a tight employment climiate) that pressure parents to work such long hours. But it is also true that, having been raised in a climate of ever more amazingly complex gadgets in a consumer-oriented society, parents feel their children must have the latest or they aren't doing their best for their child.

Families Divided by Technology

In fact, the very technology for which they work so hard has driven a wedge into the nuclear family. Cell phones, remote control, the Internet, cable TV, video games, TiVos, iPods, and iPads have allowed us easy access to information, entertainment, and people. Family communication that is deeper, richer, and spontaneous is crowded out by e-mails, text messages and voicemail.

Without the opportunity to engage in slower, thoughtful dialogue, children turn to virtual companions and video games that further separate them from connection with live people. The TV remote and portable devices that bring us bright images with a quick stroke of the finger that responds to the immediate whim of a child—or parent. Seductively these little devices have addicted us to pleasure on demand.

How Can Parents Possibly Meet the Challenges of Today?

With time in very short supply and with the distraction of instant entertainment, The Parenting Game has become more difficult for today's parents and for their children. What can parents do to influence how the game is played within their own family in this brave new technological world?

Well, as someone who has learned a great deal over many years as a parent, grandparent, and marriage and family therapist, I can tell you with confidence that you CAN meet the challenge of "The Parenting Game." You CAN get through parenting without a nervous break-down.

But hang on. You’re in for a rough, but ultimately rewarding, ride. Parenting, no matter what generation is in charge, is not for wimps.

However, it will be easier to be a coach in the Parenting Game if you keep in mind four basic concepts.

1. Confidence in parenting arises from having a strong self-image and a deep self-understanding

Today’s research in neuroscience demonstrates that the traits that seem especially important in effective parenting are those that allow parents to understand and connect meaningfully to their children. Where do we learn those traits? From our parents. When we were little children, we watched our parents and from that experience, day by day, we built a model for parenting that we would use later in raising our own children.

However, just as parents pass on positive skills and values, sometimes parents fail to teach what they didn’t learn in their own growing up and were unable to learn before they became parents, and often not even then. For example, parents who do not know how to manage their emotions are likely to raise children who don’t know how to calm down when angry and who, in turn, have children who have trouble with anger. Another example of this “multi-generational transmission process” is the cycle of broken homes, alcoholism, and abuse. Children born into these perpetuating family systems have enormous challenges to overcome.

If parents haven’t heard words of encouragement when they, themselves, were growing up, they may not know the importance of positive affirmations relative to different stages of their child’s growth. Fortunately, it’s never too late for any of us to learn positive affirmations for ourselves so we can be the best we can be — and use these words to meet the challenge of raising children in a changing world.

2. Children need words of encouragement to become resourceful, resilient and compassionate adults

From the beginning of life, babies absorb and store into the very structure of their cells the positive energy of smiles, hugs and gentle touch. Later, as understanding of language develops, parents and other caregivers offer words of encouragement as children progress from one stage of growth to another. Each stage requires different words in order for them to achieve one set of skills and move on to the next.

Thus, children’s self-confidence is built not only with hugs and shared laughter, but with affirmations that teach them how to stand up for themselves, manage their emotions, live according to their highest values, and move from dependence to independence and then to interdependence. [See Affirmations for All Ages]

3. Strong families create strong communities

It is within the nuclear family that we practice communication and connection and learn to become a member of the global human family.

Thus, when children learn within strong and functional families that they are of equal value to others, they have the confidence to treat others as they have been treated. When children learn within their families to resolve their problems through communication and negotiation—and learn how to discuss complex current events with openness and a willingness to learn from one another—this core unit of society can be the vehicle for increasing tolerance and understanding in the wider world.

4. The future of the world depends on the effort we put into raising our children today

Every newscast and newspaper describes an unstable world that is far from peaceful. However, if we—as parents, step-parents, grandparents, neighbors, educators, and caregivers—all make a strong commitment to being the best we can be, we can help our children be the best they can be. The more people focus on raising resourceful, resilient and compassionate children, the better chance we will have of creating a safer, kinder, and more stable world. And the more effective we are in our efforts, the better chance our children will have of improving the world for their children.

© Copyright 2002, Revised 2012 Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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