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Being a Parent and Not ‘Parenting’

I have a love affair with words, and when society transforms a noun into a verb (verbing), I take note. Examples of this:  “xeroxing,” “blogging,” “plating,”  “googling” … all convert objects to actions, and given objects do not need to act as subjects, these are fine cultural inventions! But something strange happened in the mid 1950’s: we mutated ourselves into things, objectified ourselves as parents, by morphing the word “parent” into “parenting.” The word exploded onto the scene in the mid 1950’s. Before 1950’s the word “parenting” did not exist. We did not use it. It’s now deeply embedded in our society, so ingrained we take it for granted. Alison Gopnik, in her seminal work, The Gardener and The Carpenter, points out that though we are brothers and sisters, wives, and husbands, we do not have their role functional verb equivalents, e.g. we’re “wifeing,” or “husbanding,” nor “sistering” or “brothering.”

Before 1950’s, although we didn’t do “parenting,” did we care for our children? Yes. Did we love them? Of course. Nowadays we’re “parenting” to the gills, zealous and passionate about reading all the right books, disciplining effectively, using correct feeding and sleep schedules. “Parenting” is a multi-million dollar industry, out to make a buck businesses preying on the insecurities of parents, e.g. from CES 2017, 13 Best Tech, Toys, And Gadgets For Parents: a $300 “Aristotle Smart Baby Monitor,” a $700 “Kuri Smart Robot” (professing to read to your child), a $200 “LEGO Boost,” promising to give your child a leg up on a fancy engineering school. Wow, talk about high expectations … we can’t have our children be average or ordinary. We demand extraordinary.

No longer content to simply BE a parent (noun), we scurried to “parent” (verb), and felt we must DO. We value being parents less than “doing” parents, e.g. search “parenting” books on Amazon and find 206,749 results — “how to” manuals on raising children, whereas a search for “parent” books on Amazon yields only 130, 254 results. Clearly we’re less interested in who to BE as parents, and much more interested in what to DO with our children.

We’re “parenting” with relentless vigor and diligence — our children should be more mentally healthy, right? No. Are they happier? No. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24, and since 1950, the suicide rate has tripled among kids 15 to 19. “Parenting” is not working — our kids and teens are literally killing themselves.

When a child enters school, schools became daytime caregivers, and collude with parents into molding the child into excelling, e.g. formulae, testing, memorization, good grades being a bellwether of being a successful adult. Gopnik writes about “schooling” being a recent invention, only a couple of hundred years old, a blip in human history. Schools are broken: they kill curiosity and love of learning. Interested not in who our child is, but on what our child can do, children are forced to excel at functions meaningless to them, and fit into an arbitrary mold. Schools compete with each other and its children forced to mimic this. Instead of competition, research indicates that a cooperative classroom correlates with less aggressive peer to peer relationships.

Our obsession with achievement/performance is pernicious and drives our children’s lives: high stakes school testing, e.g. being accepted into private schools, emphasizing scores, etc. parallels the rise in ADHD diagnoses. Having a wider attention span is part of a child’s maturation process, not something we need to hasten and fix, much less with medication.  We squeeze the child to fit his/her school, rather than have the school adapt to the child’s unique temperament and learning style. We must question our traditional parenting paradigm — goal oriented and outcome based, e.g. “Why is my son not speaking in complete sentences?” “Why is my daughter not listening to her teacher?” “Why does he not do his homework … “ These worries and the small stuff, e.g. set limits, strict bedtimes, limit video games, etc.–none of this makes much difference in who children become as adults. If we could do a + b = c , and insure our child will turn out the way we want, psychology/child development would be a science; we’d effect and replicate behaviors by millions and have armies of desirables roaming the planet.  But we have no evidence, no replicable studies, that what we do or don’t as parents, truly matter. These decision we largely make for ourselves, in order to assure ourselves that we’re parenting well. In fact, our children will take paths natural for them.

So what’s the alternative? If we’re not to do “parenting”, what’s the antidote to goals, structure, rules, and coloring inside the lines? Three things: 1. Play. 2. Engage (not instruct). 3. Unconditionality.

  1. Play: Children’s play has distinctive features: repetition and variation, regulation and adaptation, exploration and dramatic exaggeration, giggles and mirth; even when structured, it’s spontaneous and organic. It’s essentially learning without a goal. As Einstein quipped, “Play is the highest form of research.”
  2. Engage: Emphasize not “doing,” but “being.” Focus on the relationship and interaction, seamless flow of being together. Create a safe, nurturing space where innovation, adaptability and resilience can thrive. Nurture curiosity, encourage questions.
  3. Love without condition: Invite experiments and mistakes; applaud stumbles. Celebrate learning for its own sake, and create a wide open space for them to Be and not Do. Resist the urge to praise “success.”

Never underestimate the power of free-form relating — when neuroplasticity is greatest,  we engage through nonverbal gaze and conversation, which correlates with greater social competence, negotiation of conflict, dialogical skills,  collaboration, and intimate relationships with non-family members. As Gopnik writes, “The most important rewards of being a parent aren’t your children’s grades and trophies — or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child’s moment-by-moment joy in being with you … loving children doesn’t give them a destination; it gives them sustenance for the journey.”

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Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Emily Rapp, writing about her son, Ronan, who died of a rare disease at age 3, says “I accepted … that my task was not to prepare my son for his future, but to make each day and each moment count until the day of his death.”


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Being a Parent and Not ‘Parenting’

Ranjan Patel, PsyD, MFT

Ranjan Patel, Psy.D., MFT is in private practice, in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to psychotherapy, she does mindfulness training, including meditation. She currently organizes free local monthly support groups for those living with chronic illness/pain. For more information: Find Ranjan on Facebook and Twitter.

APA Reference
Patel, R. (2018). Being a Parent and Not ‘Parenting’. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 18 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.