A couple of months ago, our youngest daughter flew to Seattle to visit her older sister and my wife and me. She lives in New York, and because of the pandemic, it’s been almost two years since we’ve seen each other. Our daughters count each other as best friends and it was delightful to experience their loving adult relationship. Their close connection is a comfort to us, and we know that when we come to the natural end of our lives, they will be there for each other.
While spending time with our daughters as adults, I’ve reflected on their childhood and some of the trials and tribulations we experienced. I’ve thought about decisions we made when they were young and the impact of those choices throughout the trajectory of their lives. As parents, we make scores of big and small decisions, choosing one path over another with no idea how the decisions will work out. We both love having children, but it can be overwhelming when you’re in the middle of it.
Today’s parents are much more thoughtful about child rearing than my parents were. There are books, tapes, magazines and articles about how to raise children. The internet is a repository of all knowledge about parenting. With so much input, it can be confusing for parents, too. But no matter how educated we are, we still can’t predict the future. It’s a source of worry for moms and dads.
In my opinion, it’s important to be thoughtful about the seeds you want to nurture in your child’s life. These seeds, when watered and cultivated, will grow into the plants you hope will bloom. “Mindful” parenting helps us nurture our awareness of who our children happen to be and how we can help them develop into the adults we would like them to become.
We have two powerful tools at our disposal. First and foremost, children model themselves after us. They observe our behavior and imitate what we do. Secondly, we constantly reinforce behavior that we want to promote — good habits, good choices and the good values we want to encourage.
So, what’s important to keep in mind?
Remember that their childhood only comprises one-quarter of their lifespan. While the first 20 years of their life is very important, our mission is to help them establish the foundation for what will be most of their lives — adulthood. It is easy to forget this fact when they are 8 years old and are having trouble during recess! Take the long view. How might the decision I make today set the stage for skills, knowledge and experience that’s helpful in adult life?
What’s your child’s temperament? Personality? Strengths and weaknesses? This can be difficult to see. Our intense love for our kids can be blinding. But look closely. Who were they when they came into the world and took their first steps? What do they need to strengthen?
How can we help them find balance? What aspects of their personhood do we want to nurture? My youngest was very focused on herself and my oldest thought of others first. We tried to steer our youngest into experiences that would build compassion for others. We wanted her sister to see her own needs.
Consider the values you hold dear. I valued intellectual honesty and curiosity more than grades. I hoped that they would become critical thinkers. We wanted our children to appreciate the arts and so we took them to the theatre at a very young age. We hoped that they would care about the world and so we modeled social action.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be the person that you want your children to become. This is a high bar, but it’s worth reaching for.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.