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Opinion and Editorial

Laugh, play, forgive to help your children become wiser

Blake Griffin Edwards
Filed on February 11, 2020 | Last updated on February 11, 2020 at 07.36 pm

As parents, we have a responsibility in relationship with our children to nurture safe and comfortable closeness.

In families, nearly invisible forces stir thought, emotion, and behaviour into patterns. A sputtering flow of anxiety through years of conditioning sets in motion styles or ways in which we will tend to manage stress in life and relationships for years to come.

This chronic anxiety is passed along from generation to generation. We see its mark, among other places, in the ways that we parent, especially in the most difficult moments and trying times.

Developing awareness of our own anxieties and impulses allows us to grow beyond them, our beliefs and behaviour to become differentiated from them. As a parent, I find myself occasionally stuck in ruts of anxiety and impulse, becoming unduly controlling or simply reacting in ways that are unhelpful. Acknowledging the ways that we find ourselves acting at the whim of our own anxiety is fundamental to good parenting. Of course, that's not all.

There are two fundamental drives present throughout our lifespan: attachment and autonomy. As parents, we have a responsibility in relationship with our children to nurture safe and comfortable closeness (attachment) as well as safe and comfortable distance (autonomy) through our parenting behaviour.

When problems arise, we experience anxiety at work within us. For many parents, the immediate reflex toward problem behaviour is to rein it in by setting limits. Skillful parenting requires exerting appropriate control while simultaneously acting in loving ways that instil courage in our children to act in spite of their own anxieties and impulses. Here are some aspects of good parenting to consider:

Nurture attachment and nurture autonomy

When reactive emotion and impulsive behaviour define our parenting, destructive interactions may stunt our children's development of critical self-soothing skills. Knee-jerk parenting behaviours sabotage what may be good intentions to transfer values and vitality. Instead, we may simply transfer more-of-the-same cycles of conflict and distance.

Good parenting requires sufficient mindfulness during moments of stress and embattlement to act in spite of anxiety and impulse rather than at their whim. Our parenting behaviour should stir confidence, connection, and character. We should nurture both attachment (closeness and belonging) and autonomy (independence and significance).

Be emotionally responsive

The Harvard Family Research Project defined responsive parenting as "the use of warm and accepting behaviours to respond to children's needs and signals" and found this type of parenting critical to a child's development.

Shower individualised affection

Affections are active ways that we show we care. In fact, they are an integral part of the way we literally provide care. Dr Gary Chapman has written about five ways that we show our love for one another: words of affirmation, acts of service, giving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. An affectionate parent nurtures the best inside their children to grow outward through providing affection in a variety of ways.

Offer genuine forgiveness

Forgiveness is about choosing peace in spite of a transgression. If we do not become a forgiving parent, we paralyse the depth of our bond as well as the effectiveness of our influence. We allow enduring stalemates that cycle into conflict, distance, resentments, and spite. We can actively demonstrate what forgiveness is for our children (and ourselves) when, inevitably, they frustrate or upset us.

Every parenting investment can result, for our kids, in more realistic and constructive thoughts, increased confidence, a more rich and resilient emotional life, healthier social decision-making, better habits, less destructive problem behaviours, and a more positive and meaningful tone in family relationships.

Take courage to change what you can and receive peace to accept what we cannot

In the '30s and '40s, the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr frequently recited a prayer that eventually integrated into our cultural consciousness as The Serenity Prayer. An early version printed in 1937 read, "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

As a sometimes stubborn, reactive father, I must learn to sit calmly within the anxiety of my own inclinations. As I do, I hear this prayer echo in the silence of my own frustration, shame, insecurity. I confess pride and reflex. As I do, I gain perspective. I am becoming a husband and a father. Becoming.

Yet I grieve over what I can't control. Economic storms and uncertainty. My children's emotions and reactions. The twists and turns of life. I find myself again and again wrestling with a compulsion to control on the outside what I have not yet mastered on the inside. As I come to understand the breadth and depth of that which I cannot change, I do change. I learn (again and again) that good parenting is not about gaining control of my children but growing wisdom as I parent.

-Psychology Today

Blake Griffin Edwards is a marriage and family therapist, and integrated care consultant in Washington State

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