It’s difficult to know we’ve covered all the bases as parents. After all, we don’t really know which of our basic needs our parents might have skimped on or entirely missed bringing us to adulthood.
Unless we academically study parenting before we take on our roles as moms or dads, we are fairly clueless whether we are providing all the support we should to our offspring. And who does that?
In a fortunate twist of fate, I had parents who presented a united front to my brothers and me, even when they may have privately disagreed on how to proceed. Their role modeling could be a bit misguided at times, but their willingness to follow through on their promises and the praise they gave us offered us a sense of stability and self-esteem we are grateful for to this day, long after they left us. My daughter, then, received both what I deemed important in their approach to parenting, along with some notions I had rejected early on, swearing I would not subject my own child to the same fate. Sound familiar? For every trait my old world father thought was less than feminine, I encouraged the exact opposite in my own daughter, throwing masculine and feminine stereotypes out the window.
And so these patterns evolve from generation to generation – kind of a hit-or-miss accumulation of parental successes and failures that get passed on whether we are aware of it or not.
“What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in its head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too..”
– Stephen Sondheim, “Into the Woods”
Kids, of course, have more needs than adults, since children cannot do everything for themselves. The way we, as parents, respond to our child’s needs or demands teach our kids about the world he or she lives in as well as how to react to it. So feeling safe, loved and emotionally supported are things children learn to feel. In the real world, however, we don’t always marry people who have grown up having had the same needs fulfilled that we did, leaving a number of gaps. All we can do is hope that between the two loving-but-imperfect parents, our children get everything they need.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow tells us a person’s biological needs for food, water, air and sleep must be met before any others. Those tend to be the seemingly easy ones for us – things like nutritious food, regulated sleep routines, cleanliness with baths or showers, trips to the doctor for regular check-ups and making sure our kids get enough exercise.
But what about those needs kids have to help them learn from us what kind of parents they should be someday? This chicken-and-egg scenario is something many parents don’t consider when the day-to-day conflicts and rigors of parenting are taking place. Maslow advises that in order for children to feel safe and comfortable in a home environment, it’s important that we offer emotional support and consolation when our kids needs it. That means being good role models by practicing self-control no matter how angry we are over their behavior. Becoming physical or using threats only reveals our own immaturities and unresolved issues, robs us of measured control when we need to demonstrate it most and eventually lands our kids on some therapist’s couch. It is within these (hopefully) calm, premeditated and predetermined boundaries our children feel secure.
While it’s easy to hug and kiss our adorable, amazing children on a daily basis, openly showing affection to our parents/spouses is also another important aspect of parental role modeling we often ignore. Early in marriages/relationships when children are small, it’s not unusual for them to see their parents being both flirty-affectionate and playful. But as years pass, the tone of many marriages change, resulting in the children produced by those unions never truly learning about affection from adult examples at critical times in their lives. As parental teachers, at least part of how we show them how to get along with other human beings is by showing and receiving affection.
In my own case, our daughter was 17 by the time she saw her parents split up, having spent at least half her life rarely catching an adoring look, a meaningful hug, or a playful or loving gesture between the two people who loved her most. It may have been present when she was small, but it had long since disappeared from her daily life.
Respectful and caring behaviors include talking with your child about his or her feelings and needs, and learning to accept that they may be different from your own. And there is that magic word: respect. According to Maslow, all humans, children included, have a need for a high level of self-respect and respect from others. This important element of parenting leads to self-confidence and makes a child feel like a valuable member of society. It is those kids who feel worthless that slip through the cracks; parents play a HUGE role in helping that feeling become reality for their kids. Maslow recommends providing praise for good behavioral traits, such as acceptance, honesty, independence and talent in order to meet a child’s need for self-esteem. This includes making your child feel supported even in failure, rather than showing disappointment, disgust, or belittlement, which some misguided parents do because they were treated similarly by their own parents.
It was scary watching my daughter travel a twisted road to the self-actualization she has achieved so far in her young life. Maslow describes self-actualization as whatever it is that person was destined to do. In reality, many of us are still trying to determine that by middle age, but it occurs to me that parents often overlook the opportunity to help their children in that regard. Kids who are restless are often those who feel that need is not being met. Our role as parents is to help our kids gain knowledge and self-actualization by making them feel comfortable when they ask questions and by supporting their interests, whether that’s art, music, film, theater, reading, sports or pursuits that even we don’t understand.
While it’s great that I have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight as I write this, had I had instant access to the wisdom of others in this day of the Internet, I feel I might have been a better mom, able to recognize more readily what was missing in my role as a parent.
First published in Psychology Today.
Interested in more parenting posts?
Dena tackles issues surrounding parenting challenging kids, emphasizing the need for parents to raise empowered young women and enlightened young men as she writes The Unedited Offspring blog for Psychology Today.