From Parenting to Parent-Being

“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.

 

On Parenting

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:

  1. What do you do for your children? i.e. care, provide for their needs, feed, bathe, clean, chauffeur, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Yours truly,

Kenny

P/S: Interested to explore other topics on parenting (and parent-being)? Reach me at kennytoh1970[at]gmail.com.

 

 

Dreams Came True

Yesterday, Sean turned 21.  Being our first born, his birthday also marks our anniversary as parents.  I could still recall vividly, the moment when he first came into our world, and continue to experience the profound transformation since his arrival.

I was no longer the same man.  I was not just a son, a brother, and a husband.  I became a father.  And that meant a lot to me.  My sense of identity and purpose totally shifted.  A whole new world opened up for me – the ‘Wild and Wonderful World of Parenthood.’   Parenting advice and tips were pouring in generously from family, friends, colleagues, and at times, even strangers.  One of the best advice I got from a client which I frequently share with new fathers is:

“When your child arrives, make sure you pay attention to your wife. The baby will get lots of attention from others.”

Fast forward 21 years.  Looking at how Sean and Dylan had turned out, I think I did alright on being a dad, albeit starting out pretty clueless.  Of course, much of the credit goes to my wife, who shouldered most of the parenting responsibilities, whilst I enjoyed most of the privileges – usually as their playmates.

We have both learnt a lot about parenting, marriage, and life over the last two decades.  Parenting is probably the best personal development programme we have unknowingly signed up for.  We had to continuously learn, develop, and evolve as our children grew from boys to men.

When Sean was four, I had a dream of writing a book to capture some nuggets of life wisdom so that we could pass them down to our children.  As with many of my failed or incomplete projects, that book idea was long abandoned … until last week, when my wife asked, “What should we give Sean for his 21st birthday?”

After a few late nights, we managed to pull together 30 ideas which culminated into a little booklet titled: What we wish we knew when we were 21.

At last, a dream came true.  But that was not all.

Over dinner, Sean shared about an impromptu speech he had delivered in class this week.  He was amazed by how well it was received by his tutor and classmates.  The task was to speak about a role model who had inspired him.  And he chose to speak about his dad.  He shared the story of how I transitioned from management consulting to starting a café and becoming a coach, as well as how he learnt about unconditional love through the way I cared for my dad.  The audience were blown away by his heartfelt sharing.

Needless to say, I was blown away too.  Super happy, and extremely touched.   I wasn’t expecting that. But I did secretly harbour a wish that someday,  my children would consider me their role model.

OK, it’s just a speech assignment in class.  But that’s enough to have me feeling as if I’ve won an award for being the ‘Best Dad of the Year.’

Another dream came true.