The Parent You Want To Be
If you've been reading in these articles you have beguan to come up with ways to make yourself a more effective parent. Perhaps you've used some of the tools with success, and if so, congratulations. It's also possible that some of the tools have been difficult to implement...maybe you've read them, thought they'd be helpful, but in your rush to get the kids off to school that morning, you threw the paper out. Or maybe you just felt too tired and irritable that day to try something new, and yelling was easier and at least seemed to work -- after all the kids did do what you asked, albeit resentfully. Today I'd like to talk about some of the things which stand in the way of our being more effective, loving parents, with the hope that these insights will help you more successfully use the tools you will continue to read about here, or in other places.
Perhaps the most formidable obstacle which stands in our way as parents is our personal history. By that I mean the way we were raised by our own parents. Time and again, people come into my workshops and when asked why they're taking a parenting course, they say "Because I don't want to do it the way my parents did." Yet they find themselves confused and bewildered, because in spite of their best intentions, they hear the very things their parents said to them coming out of their own mouths when they talk to their own children. Why is that? Like it or not, the way our parents raised us is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. So deeply, in fact, that the memories may never even surface. When we are stressed or frustrated or tired, our brain automatically draws upon those hidden memories of the way we were raised, particularly if we have not learned an alternative way of disciplining or communicating with our children. Hence, we hear our mother or father's voice coming out of our mouths, yelling, punishing, belittling, or any one of a number of things we told ourselves we'd never do or say. Afterwards we may even go a step further and justify our behavior because we really feel a little guilty. We may say to ourselves, "Oh well, I turned out O.K., so my kids will too." And in justification, we perpetuate the cycle.
Parenting today is a difficult task. More difficult than the one our parents faced. The widespread use of television, the availability of alcohol and drugs, these are the things which make parenting today different and more difficult for us than it was for our parents. Yet even with this knowledge, even knowing that the "old" ways won't do, even with our best intentions not to duplicate the parenting which we had, we continue to rely upon "instinct" and / or reacting the way our parents did and hoping that these old ways will get us (and our children) through it.
So it's not just our personal history which keeps us stuck in old molds. Even when we're aware of the need to change, and have the desire to do so, we often do not. Perhaps another thing which stands in the way of becoming the parents we'd like to be is time. There never seems to be enough of it. Especially as New Yorkers, we're constantly on the run. Between our children's social and school calendars, our work (either in the home or out of it), our social and personal agendas, there seems to be very little time left to devote to learning the parenting skills which we recognize as potentially beneficial. The lack of time in our lives, coupled with our personal history, and the ease with which we slip automatically into whatever parenting style our parents used, sometimes make it just seem easier to give up and give in to yelling or other ineffective methods of discipline and "communication." One father said to me after a two-hour workshop I gave "All this is great. It's great as we sit here and listen with no distractions. It's fine in theory. But I work all day. I come home tired. And when my son starts in, I just don't have the patience. I can't do this when I'm tired."
He's right. When we're stressed, overworked, tired...these are the times that it's the most difficult to be an effective and loving parent. It's like strengthening a muscle which you rarely or never use. When you go to the gym for the first time, you can't expect to be able to lift a 200 lb. weight. You have to build up to it. You have to start with a one lb. weight the first time. And after that first time at the gym, you'll probably be sore and tired. You may have even skipped some of the exercises or machines that you know you should use to get stronger. Maybe you'll even avoid the gym for a week. But the second time around, you might be able to lift the two-lb. weight. You're building muscle. In order to have a healthy body, you have to exercise muscles you may have never used before, and build up to using them efficiently and effectively. Just like a healthy body, a healthy family requires that you start with small things, make the effort, and build up to the big issues. Once learned, parenting skills are simply muscles that must be put to work in order to become stronger.
So what are some steps you can take in order to develop a stronger, healthier parenting style?
1) Get into a workshop. It's helpful to have the support of a group of parents who are all struggling with the same issues and the application of the same techniques. In addition, when the techniques don't work in the way you expect them to, you have the help of an instructor to guide you through them and increase your chances of success, much like going to the gym with a buddy or even a personal trainer.
2) Don't stop reading. You can't learn too much about your important job as a parent.
3) Take the time. Both to learn and to practice skills. Parenting is learned, not instinctual, and if you take the time now, I can guarantee it will save you time in the future because of fewer hassles and conflict.
4) Don't expect to lift 200 lb. weights when you're tired and stressed. It takes time to build muscle, and you need to exercise your skills when you're rested. Start small and build to big issues. Practice when you're not stressed, and eventually it will carry over to the parts of your day when you are tired.
5) Remember that being a parent is the most important job you'll ever hold. Train for it the way you would for a job that pays six figures.