“I wish my child had come with a user manual. Parenting is possibly the most important and challenging task put in the hands of amateurs without any training. I didn’t sign up for this. I should have read the fine print before committing to having a child.”
Those are the words I’ve often heard from parents. They make me ponder about my own journey as a father over the last two decades – a thrilling adventure packed with excitement, challenges, and joy.
Becoming a parent is easy. Human beings are biologically-wired to procreate. No training is required. What isn’t always easy, is being a parent. And I believe a huge part of the difficulty is attributable to the over-emphasis on ‘parenting’ and under-emphasis on ‘parent being.’ Let me elaborate on the difference.
Parenting is commonly defined as the activity of bringing up a child as a parent, or as described more comprehensively on Wikipedia:
Parenting or child rearing is the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood.
Be it an activity or a process, approaching parenting in this way tends to direct our attention to our actions – what we do (and don’t do). Let me invite you to pause and reflect on the proportion of attention on these three domains of parental actions:
- What do you do for your children? i.e. care, provide for their needs, feed, bathe, clean, chauffeur, etc.
- What do you do to them? i.e. nurture, love, encourage, guide, support, teach, discipline, scold, nag, control, threaten, blame, criticise, complain, punish, reward, bribe, etc.
- What do you do with them? i.e. have conversations, do fun things, play, learn, travel, share experiences, being present, etc.
Which domain do you attend to most frequently? Which domain do you pay the least attention to? And what are the implications of these actions on you, your children, and your relationship with them?
Most parents who have undertaken this ‘self-audit’ found themselves devoting a disproportionately high percentage of their attention on either doing for or doing to their children. Consequently, they miss out on doing with – which explains the lack of joy in their experiences as parents.
The goal of a self-assessment is not find another excuse to beat ourselves up, but simply to gain awareness of the current reality. Awareness is the gateway to change. What matters more is that given this awareness, what would you do differently to improve your experience as a parent? Here are some suggestions:
- Do for. Keep to the bare minimum of what your children requires, depending on their needs, maturity, and capability. Doing too much for your children risks creating over-reliance, lack of independence, and sometimes, resentment when our ‘sacrifices’ isn’t appreciated. Doing too little risks coming across as uncaring, absent, or even negligent.
- Do to. Give up William Glasser’s ‘7 Deadly Habits’ – criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing or rewarding to control. Continue to nurture your children by providing the essential nutrients for healthy development and growth – love, encouragement, guidance, and support (LEGS).
- Do with. Be more present in your children’s lives and share more experiences together – play, learn, have open conversations, etc. Deepen your connection through your presence, non-judgmental and empathic listening, and authentic expression.
With school closures and more parents working from home during this COVID-19 season, new opportunities arise for us to reexamine what we could do more with our children.
On Being a Parent
Becoming a parent is life-changing. When our firstborn arrived in November of 1998, I experienced a profound shift in my sense of identity. I am not just a son, a brother, and a husband.
OMG! I AM A FATHER. Like most amateur dads, I fumbled my way, learnt rapidly from other veterans and experts, and eventually survived (and thrived). Given that Sean and Dylan (our boys) turned out pretty fine, it’s safe to say we did OK as parents. More importantly, we thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
It turned out that raising our children wasn’t as ‘difficult’ as expected. Instead of terrible two’s, we had terrific twos. Instead of rebellious teens, we experienced them as sensible, reasonable, and responsible young men. Some said we were fortunate to have ‘good’ or ‘easy’ kids. Perhaps they were right. But I suspect, it’s got more to do with our intentional emphasis on being instead of doing.
Like most parents, we face similar challenges too. But instead of asking ourselves “What should we do to get our children to behave in a certain manner?”, we often asked “What do we need to be to bring out the desired qualities in them?”
For example, many parents struggled when faced with children who tell lies frequently. The more they punish or discipline their children, the more recalcitrant the latter become. Most of the time, children lie because they don’t feel safe to tell the truth. Occasionally, especially older children, may lie to avoid hurting their parents. The same applies to adults at the workplace who don’t speak up truthfully due to the absence of psychological safety.
So, what do we need to be to bring out the honesty in our children? Perhaps, a safe space for authentic self-expression. And that will call forth a different way of being compared to that of a parent who exerts control, punishes, or instills fear in a child. The former will usually forge a mutually respectful and trusting relationship what makes open and honest communication possible. Conversely, the latter often leads to parent-child conflict and communication breakdown as children shut down.
Let me invite you to experiment with the habit of asking yourself more regularly, “What do I need to be to … ?”
From Parenting to Parent-Being
While parenting (technically) ends when our children reach adulthood, being a parent doesn’t. Once a parent, always a parent. Being a parent is about being in a relationship with our children – a long-term relationship that lasts a lifetime.
As you shift your emphasis from parenting (doing) to being a parent (being), I hope you will experience a closer and more rewarding relationship with your children and greater joy in your journey as a parent.
P/S: Interested to explore other topics on parenting (and parent-being)? Reach me at kennytoh1970[at]gmail.com.