We learn to parent, to a large extent, by having been the children of particular people. What I mean is, we saw what parenting looked like up close throughout our childhoods. Once we’re parents ourselves, we get a chance to imitate, or to do it differently.
This can often be more fraught than it sounds.
I work with a number of moms in my therapy practice who are reevaluating the parenting they received, trying it on and seeing if it fits for them now that they have children of their own. They’re having to decide what their own values are, as distinct from what their parents thought and did.
I’m not talking about my clients whose parents abused or obviously mistreated them. In a sense, those clients have a clearer mandate: Do it differently; give my children what I didn’t get. They will define themselves, at least in part, in opposition to what they received as children. ”I’ll be the parent I wanted to have,” one of my clients summed it up.
But in the case of good enough parents, it’s amazing how much room there still is to disagree. It can start from birth: the question of whether to co-sleep, the decision about crying it out or not. My own mother was a very attentive parent, but the notion of “attachment style” was most definitely not on her radar.
Much of today’s middle-class parenting is very child-centric, whereas a generation ago, it was more expected that a child learn to fit into an adult’s schedule. Parents don’t talk nearly as much about whether a particular action will “spoil the child” as they used to.
But their own parents may still use that standard. I have clients who feel a sense of friction, and even shame, when their parents come to town and see the differences in intergenerational parenting style. ”No wonder you’re frazzled,” one client’s mother told her. ”You do too much for that little boy.” My client then spent a session expressing her anxiety that her son would turn out self-involved. He was ten months old.
Attachment parenting places a lot of emphasis on the secure emotional bond between a parent and a child, and on creating this through responsiveness. To some, that can look like coddling, spoiling, overindulging (pick your synonym.) It’s in the eye of the beholder. Rather, in the value system of the beholder.
In some families, it’s very difficult to break away from what’s been done before. There can be a sense of betrayal, or a fear of hurting your own parents (“What, you didn’t think I did a good job raising you?”), or a sense that you’re disconnecting from your family at a time when you expected to draw closer.
But it is important to realize when your instincts tell you to do something other than what was done for you, and to take an inventory of your value system. When you know your own mind fully, it’s easier to explain it to others (ideally, in a non-defensive manner that acknowledges how normal it is for generations to parent differently, and is not judgmental of your parent’s choices.) A conversation like that can actually be good for your bond, with both your parents and your children.
Mom and son photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 6 Apr 2013