There’s a lot at stake with how we raise our children, with how our communities view and treat children. We, as a society, are slow to put into practice what research solidly shows as the most effective, and healthiest, way to parent. We, as a society, still struggle to see how the parent-child relationship and the home environment it creates translates not only to that child’s happiness as a child but also as an adult, as well as the lives that person will touch, especially his or her own children.
The overarching idea of parenting should not be the specific choices that define a style, whether Tiger Mom or Natural Parenting, or even the goals. Parents who use harsh methods want the same for their children as parents who use positive, nurturing methods: Both want their child to grow up to be a functioning member of society. But each approach has its own unique mindset, too, and that perspective drives how parents treat not only their children but themselves and their spouses and everyone around them.
Parents who use harsh methods are parenting from a mindset where they feel children need to be controlled, punished, and coerced. Research shows that these methods, such as spanking and yelling, are not only ineffective as a discipline method but actually harmful to that child, the parents, and the family as a whole. What we want to see is parents moving toward a warm, nurturing parenting style. The mindset that comes with this approach to parenting removes all manipulation. It’s based in trust, empathy, affection, unconditional acceptance, and joy.
For some parents, a nurturing style of parenting comes naturally. They may have been raised in the same kind of environment, or they were able to work through and heal their emotional childhood wounds before becoming a parent.
For many parents, however, a nurturing style of parenting is difficult to achieve. These parents didn’t identify their emotional childhood wounds before becoming a parent, and a child’s very nature has reopened these wounds. Even if a parent has resolved to raise her children in a nurturing way, there will be many moments where she will regress back to how she was raised unless she finds a way to heal those childhood wounds.
I talked with a father today who struggles in his family relationships. His relationships with his children are mostly warm but discipline is almost non-existent. His relationship with his wife is fraught with tension. His wife parents the children in a nurturing way and tries to apply the same principles to her marriage, but any sign of conflict causes the husband to “freeze.” His reaction to conflict with the children has historically been to ignore the problem, but he has gradually begun to address his children’s behavior with his wife’s guidance. Still, the husband lives in a constant fear of conflict—from anywhere, whether at home or at work.
My role in talking with this man was to help him identify ways to strengthen his relationships with his children, but it’s what he revealed about his childhood that particularly struck me: He grew up in a home where he was in constant fear of his mother. His mother wasn’t abusive, but she was often angry at something. All he wanted was for her to be happy. Because children are designed to emotionally attach to their parents and because anger and sadness and fear prevent this attachment from occurring, naturally this child blamed himself for her unhappiness. And he carries that false guilt with him now as a 30-something-year-old husband and father and employee and coworker and friend and in all of his relationships. And while there are many factors that contribute to his tendency toward depression, research shows that how we were parented influences how our genes are expressed and that would include genes that predispose us to mental illness.
Many parents find that learning to parent in a positive, nurturing way helps facilitate healing of their own childhood wounds. At the center of these parenting principles is the core of healthy relationships: emotional sensitivity. One must have addressed his childhood wounds in order to become emotionally sensitive to others. One cannot give what he does not have, and for example, if the father I described above wants to become truly emotionally sensitive to others, he has to learn how to not have his entire world colored by the guilt that he couldn’t make his mother happy and that would require meeting that unresolved emotional need head-on, working through it, and healing.
Parenting in a nurturing way requires changing the mindset—the overarching way a person views how relationships function—from a place of pain and disappointment and fear to a place where children are born “good” and where parents have the responsibility to nurture this innocence in a positive, nonjudgmental way. This change in mindset demands self-healing and the development of new coping skills and often a complete shift in how parents see both their children and themselves, and this encourages parents to seek professional help if needed to resolve hard-to-heal childhood wounds.
In this way, parenting in a nurturing way has the potential not only of changing our families and communities and society, but also healing ourselves. We need to give more credit to the value of parenting in our society, not only for our children’s sakes but for ours, as well.