Childhood Isn't Hard, But Parenting Is Challenging

Renowned couple's therapist David Schnarch once told a worried couple who feared they got married too soon, "What makes you think you're ever ready for marriage? Marriage prepares you for marriage!" 

Apply that idea to parenting, and you get the experience of having your first child. Only having a child can truly prepare you for having a child.

Over the years, I have gathered some insights that new and experienced parents have found most helpful when working with me. I’ll share my top three with you below. These are not the only guidelines, but they are the ones that parents have found most beneficial and often haven’t heard before.

1. Distinguish Between Who They Are and What They Do

"We evaluate people based on what they do, but when it comes to ourselves, we often assess based on how we feel. That's why our lives may seem perfect to others, yet something can still feel off to us; despite our accomplishments, something inside still feels amiss. This is a painful way to live, and its roots often trace back to childhood.

Being a parent means seeing your child constantly do things that are wrong or even bad. However, what we perceive as bad with our adult minds can be developmental for a child. Drawing on walls with crayons is not good, but for a 3-year-old, it can be a way to show curiosity and creativity. So, what’s the solution? We can’t let our children turn our living rooms into graffiti-covered subway cars, but yelling "you're bad!" in response to genuine expression instills shame in a child and can plant the seed of a lifelong feeling that something is inherently wrong with them.

Therefore, whenever possible, we need to separate who our children are from what they do. The simple statement, "I love you very much, and you just did something bad," can achieve this separation.

2. Avoid Creating Too Much Energy Around Anything

This one often confuses people initially, but once they understand it, they really get it. Not creating too much energy doesn’t mean being detached, indifferent, or unresponsive. We want our children to experience us as enthusiastic, present, and fully engaged. This is where it can get confusing because we're not talking about what to do but rather the energy we create around what we do.

Gabor Maté emphasized that the emotional environment a child experiences during their early years is the most influential factor in shaping their personality. This might sound abstract, but young children are like fine instruments, easily affected by their environment and the energy we bring. For example, a parent who uses food for self-regulation creates a lot of energy around food. Conversely, a parent who is overly restrictive with their diet and has little food in the house also creates a lot of energy around food. The examples are endless, whether it’s religion, sports, discipline, etc. It’s amazing how much energy we can create around various things.

Why this matters is that when too much energy is created around anything, it becomes difficult for a child to develop their own healthy, authentic relationship with that thing. I have worked with many patients who feel lost about why their eating and exercise habits are a mess, why they can’t stay disciplined, or why one mistake leads them into a paralyzing anxiety state. Often, it stems from the energy that was created around these things as they grew up.

A Buddhist friend once explained the idea of non-attachment to me like this: instead of grabbing and holding something tightly, you allow it to rest gently in the palm of your hand. This concept, combined with our own awareness, begins the process. You might have always thought, "Any child of mine will be an athlete." Instead of forcing sports on your child, present it to them by allowing it to rest gently in the palm of your hand.

3. There’s No Such Thing as a Parenting Hack. But If There Is, This Is It

Imagine you're mid-flight, just a few rows back from the cockpit. Through the door, you can hear the pilot shout, "You're an idiot! You have no idea what you're doing!" The co-pilot yells back, "Shut up, just shut up! How dare you talk to me like that?!" The pilot: "Wow, you're making this about me? "Don't try to blame me for this!" Co-pilot: "You're crazy, you know that? Crazy! This is all about you. You're just so damn righteous you can’t see anything!"

Then, suddenly, the cockpit doors fly open, and the pilot and co-pilot kneel before you at your seat. "We're thrilled to have you flying with us," says the pilot. "It's true," says the co-pilot. "And we both want you to know we love you very much."

Let’s be honest, this would scare the living daylights out of anyone.

Yet, unknowingly, children get put into this kind of situation all the time. Because for all the information available on how to parent, the most crucial aspect often goes unaddressed the relationship between mom and dad.

It’s essential to remember that during the early stages of childhood, everything biologically, psychologically, socially, and even spiritually is being formed. For kids, life's uncertain but full of exploration and growth. It’s like being on a turbulent plane ride and having no choice but to trust the pilots. This is why my number one rule of parenting is maintaining a loving relationship between mother and father. This is the ultimate parenting tip that you need to know! Because if a couple can cultivate that, many other things will fall into place. Often, we can get so lost in what we think needs to happen for "good parenting," that a couple will argue about who’s right, and the relationship itself gets lost.

Unfortunately, no amount of love we give a child can offset the environment we create. For our children to feel safe, calm, loved, and like their lives are heading in the right direction, it starts with the parents’ relationship, which is ultimately the world we are building around them.

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