Parenting is a demanding role and one that requires constant reflection and adaptation. Children change and what worked in one stage of development most likely won’t work in the next stage. Redirecting a 2-year-old is effective, but try that strategy on a moody teenager. Now add siblings and we have a dynamic that can make your head spin when you consider important parenting responsibilities such as connection, fairness, routines, rituals, and discipline.
We enter parenthood without a precise playbook, and, typically, our only intimate view of the role came from our experience of being parented. All these variables can make one feel unsteady, and in our quick-fix, search engine culture it is easy to end up in the cycle of “I’ve tried everything.” Effective parenting is steady and true to the fundamentals of development—including our own.
Here are 8 questions that emanate from these fundamentals and help us to be effective parents in each phase of life:
1. Do I lead more than I manage?
Parenting is a primary role of authority and leadership. Leading requires a vision and a plan—and there is no better place to start than the wide perspective of this space. Leading is knowing who you want to be as a parent and where you want your family to be in the future, arising from a powerful why. Leading is knowing who your children are, their unique personalities and strengths.
Management is in the structure and systems of the day-to-day and is meaningless and chaotic without a healthy relationships, a sense of purpose, and a plan. The more you lead and the clearer you are of where you are heading, the less you will manage.
If you find yourself constantly managing, reacting or punishing, then it’s time to step back and ask: Why am I getting more of the same each day?
2. What did I take from my experience of being parented?
One of the most important research findings is that a robust predictor of parenting behaviors is whether or not they have made sense of their own experience of being parented. It is liberating to know that regardless of where you fall on the continuum of these childhood experiences, the most important factor is whether or not your narrative is coherent. When you have made sense of your childhood and your parents raising you, you are emotionally free to be present in the moment. The past does not intrude upon the present and you can truly be with your children.
3. Do my actions flow from thought-out principles and values?
While we may have to sort through many thoughts and feelings, our choices in the moment are crucial and reflect an underlying belief system. This may be the parenting style you experienced as a child, or what the culture says about parenting—regardless every parent has a belief system whether it is conscious or not.
While some have professed a “Because I said so” stance, every action we take or choice we make speaks of a quality we hope for in our children. These qualities are the intangibles that make up character such as responsibility, respect, and integrity. Notably, research points to a lack of self-regulation in children who are parented in an authoritarian style (“Because I said so”). The same is true for a permissive style featuring a lack of appropriate limit-setting and consequences.
4. Do I set limits effectively?
Most parents come into the role being better at one of the two main functions: Either they feel more comfortable with the nurturing and supporting aspect of the role or the discipline and management side. Regardless, we as parents need to be adept in both functions through each developmental stage.
One of the key aspects of discipline is setting limits. For those who struggle with limit-setting, it is hard to say, “no,” set boundaries or hold a child accountable. The child’s feeling of disappointment or his/her pushback may be hard for a parent to manage emotionally and either they give in or sidestep the limit. But the most important principle is that limits help children to feel safe and, when properly set, are inherently loving. Over time, limits teach children what is limitless within.
Further, setting a limit does not necessarily mean that what is beyond the limit is bad or unhealthy. You can’t say “yes” to everything, otherwise nothing has any meaning or value. Limits guide towards value.
5. Do I build the emotional life of each relationship and my family
Relationships are dynamic and require consistent attention. Importantly, attention to each individual within the family constellation is vital to development and a healthy sense of self. Within a family the individual is part of a system and plays a role—only one-on-one do we get to be truly ourselves. Taking the time to connect, listen, be with, and share experiences builds trust as we attune to each other. Rituals and scheduling time for relationship-building helps with this process both on the individual and family level.
6. Do I know the strengths, interests, and unique abilities of each child?
Seeing a child for who they are sends a powerful message. Nurturing and supporting the unique aspects of personality and capabilities communicates acceptance and provides a mirror for children to see who they are and what they can become. Here, fairness is treating children differently based on their unique needs.
7. Do I cultivate autonomy, cooperation, and curiosity on a daily basis?
This question connects to leading and a long-term perspective founded in the basic needs of being human. A major aspect of a healthy attachment is providing a secure home base for a child to feel confident to explore. While children are dependent, we need to nurture independence and creativity through guidance, choice, and a stimulating environment. Modeling and coaching the interpersonal skills of getting along, listening, and delaying gratification will go a long way in helping children to develop a cooperative nature in social settings.
8. Am I growing as a person?
Missing in many theories of parenting is the arc of adult development. While stages of child development have been delineated, the world of parenting is presented as a flatland where content, skills, and information are added to a fixed parenting mindset. Personal development does not end in adulthood or parenthood, but unlike the arc of child development, growth does become a choice.
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Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Panepinto, J.C. (2017). The Arc of Primary Leadership: The Authoritative Foundations and Influences of Our Most Immediate Roles. DX Sport and Life, Inc.
Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. Penguin.