Parenting involves a lot of minutiae, and from sunup to sundown, the days can feel crammed. And amid all the details—changing diapers, potty-training, making meals, driving everywhere, helping with homework, doing bedtime—what can get lost is the bigger picture.
Even if your kids are older and don’t need as much hands-on attention, your days are likely quite full. Which means it can be tough to pause and reflect on your role in raising your children.
Yet, knowing your role as a parent is vital. It’s like a writer knowing the theme of their story. It’s the infrastructure for everything that happens, driving their plot and what their characters do. Your role as a parent guides your actions and the choices you make in raising your kids. It guides your answers to tricky questions and situations.
We asked parents to share how they see their roles, along with suggestions on how you might go about identifying your own role. After all, it’s personal.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist who has 7- and 9-year-old boys, sees his role as a mirror: to help his kids see who they truly are and how they can be effective in this world. For instance, he might tell one of his sons who’s an introvert: “You have a big event coming up, and I know how those exhaust you, so let’s take some time to be mellow today.” He might tell his other son, who’s an extrovert: “You’re so excited to be around people! That’s wonderful! Let’s see how you can use that skill to help others feel included.”
In other words, how Howes guides his kids really depends on who they are—not on what society subscribes or what his past or ego believe they should be. He wants to help his kids become the best version of themselves.
“My biggest fear is that they work for years to reach some external goal, only to realize it was never congruent with who they are at their core,” Howes said. He tries to find ways to encourage their natural tendencies and interests. If one son loves playing music, Howes finds instruments and makes time to help him learn. If the other doesn’t like crowds, Howes helps him to decline those invitations and learn to cope when saying not isn’t an option.
Therapist Shonda Moralis, LCSW, who has a 16-year-old and a 6-year-old, sees herself as an unconditionally loving guide. This includes allowing her kids to “venture out, discover what lights them up, make mistakes, and enjoy successes.” It includes picking “them up when they fall or nudge—sometimes kindly shove—them back in the right direction when they veer off-course.”
Moralis, author of Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms, also gives her kids room to grow within safe limits. She doesn’t dictate what they should do and how they should do it. Because if she did, they wouldn’t “learn to make their own healthy decisions—including mistakes, which I view as invaluable learning opportunities.”
Other parents also see themselves as guides and teachers. Emily Fonnesbeck, RD, a dietitian and mom of four, believes it’s her role to teach her children how to create and achieve goals, care for themselves, make wise decisions and love and serve others. “That is in large part influenced by my faith and values, which I hope to pass on to them.”
Psychologist Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, whose daughters are 11 and 13, believes his role is to steward his kids “in becoming spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy adults with a stable sense of self that allows them to effectively contribute to society.” He also believes it’s his responsibility to teach his daughters to recognize the importance of emotions, and the effect they have on navigating the world.
Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a child therapist and mom to three, also helps her kids learn to navigate their emotions, new places and relationships. She helps them “shape their knowledge about self and others.” She prioritizes listening to them to learn about what they need and want to experience. “[U]ltimately, they get to make their own decisions and hopefully, launch successfully into adulthood with a strong foundation to stand on.”
Rebecca Wong, LCSW, a relationship therapist and mom to two daughters, believes it’s her role to teach her kids about the various realms of human experience, including physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual. She also teaches her kids that they have inherent worth and imperfection is good and normal. She teaches them about healthy boundaries so they protect themselves and don’t hurt others.
Identifying Your Own Parenting Role
Self-reflect. “The more insight we parents have into ourselves as individuals, the more able we are to deliberately choose our behavior and parenting style, instead of unconsciously imitating our childhoods,” Moralis said. That is, how were you parented? How does it affect your parenting and habits today?
Chapman encouraged readers to consider these questions: What behaviors, both positive and negative, do you model for your kids? What behaviors do you need to modify? Are you emotionally regulated around your kids? How do you communicate love, security and safety to them?
Mellenthin suggested these questions: Can you look in the mirror and feel proud of what you’re doing? Are you using certain situations to punish your kids or allow them to learn? What feels best inside of you?
Turn to reputable resources. Howes suggested learning about child development and reading Unconditional Parenting or The Whole-Brain Child. Wong stressed the importance of identifying where you struggle in relationships and working on that. She suggested reading Parenting from the Inside Out and Facing Codependence.
Harness your own assets. Identify your strengths, skills and interests, and use them in ways that most benefit your kids, Howes said. For instance, if you’re a natural-born artist, teacher or explorer, how can you use that to support your kids? This also helps you spot your biases. Howes shared this example: You’re highly organized, but your child is the opposite. How can you step out of your comfort zone to make the most of their free-spirited nature?
Learn about your child. Pay attention to your child’s temperament and natural tendencies, as Howes illustrated above. Moralis also noted that some kids need more direction than others. “It is about being tuned into your child, his natural proclivity for impulsivity versus restraint or caution and guiding accordingly.”
Don’t live your child’s life. Howes advised against seeing your child as “a redo of your own life.” He knows so many people who’ve spent decades achieving their parents’ goals, “while they withered a little with each passing year.” “I’ve seen parents who are insecure with their intellect forcing their kids to always perform above and beyond…Or the ashamed introvert who pushes her introverted children to be the life of the party because she never could.”
Some call the theme of a story its heartbeat or soul. Which I believe are perfect terms for thinking about your role in raising your kids. Because your role is what gives your parenting meaning, purpose and life.