What sort of parent do you want to be?
We tend to be tyrannised by inbound demands on our time. Whether via our inboxes or phones or addictive social media and news, our attention and effort are sucked into a seemingly endless stream of top priority actions. In contrast, our children are less adept at making their needs known, instead unmet needs are often expressed through seemingly unconnected poor behaviour. In business, we are taught to distinguish between urgent and important, learning to focus on the latter. Whilst parenting is not the most urgent thing we do, there is no doubt it is the most important. 50% of our ‘set’ happiness levels in life are determined by our genes and upbringing. The issue for our ‘instant gratification’ society is that the impact of parenting can take 5,10,15 or even 50 years to show up. Our childhood casts long shadows.
We feel great pressure as parents. Unlike our parents generation, we are the engaged parenting cohort. This pressure is further intensified by an increasingly competitive school and graduate job scene and a fear of dire consequences if grades are not achieved. At the same time, we rarely receive or even seek help or training in the parenting arena, and it is taboo to offer advice. We are expected to be born perfect parents. So what can we do?
In the landmark British Cohort Study, where people are followed over 50 years, Professor Layard at LSE finds three traits in children that predict fulfilment later in life. They are, in order of importance;
- Emotional Health
- Social Behaviour
- Academic Achievement
The study suggests a shift in focus of our parenting input, perhaps less around achievement and school, to more around creating a holding environment at home where our kids can flourish emotionally and socially.
There are many different models of parenting, and often advice is conflicting. There are often times when we feel like we do not know what we are doing, and long periods where we may feel disconnected from our children (and ourselves). We will definitely choose our own style and approach but are there any useful universal truths? From reading around the literature, there seem to be two key aspects of good parenting; modelling and communication. These both start with making time and paying attention. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson writes, “Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive affection as they are by abuse, mental or physical.” He continues, “It is the things that occur every single day that truly make up our lives and time spent the same way over and over again adds up at an alarming rate.”
In terms of modelling, it seems that being fair, consistent and following through are good places to start. Also being aware of quite how sponge-like children are in observing and processing your actions and emotions. Communication is a theme that runs through almost all of parenting literature, that is all great but how do I talk better to my children? Steve Biddulph, the eminent child psychologist refers to the utmost importance of “time to talk”.
Ideas for how to talk centre around listening with full attention and the importance of car journeys for both talking and spending time in stillness. Also trying to be light hearted and limiting the number of questions asked. I always remember the advice from, How to talk so your children will listen and listen so they will talk; when they come home from school it is a crucial time to be available and instead of “How was your day today,” try, “It is lovely to have you home.” They also talked about the importance of acknowledging and naming your child’s feelings. There is a useful an acronym, particularly when things are a bit frayed; Playful, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy.
I often ask clients what sort or parent do they want to be, and they nearly all reply – present. If I had to pick one theme for us as parents, apart from not pretending that any of us know what we are doing, it would be the words of one frustrated head teacher who posted this sign at the school gate;
Greet your children with a smile not a phone
And if all else fails, let’s turn to Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet;
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
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