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Fill in the blank: Since becoming a parent, I have become more_________.

Did you fill the blank with something positive or negative? Or neutral?

Certainly, in my experience, parenting has made me more attentive to the smallest details—but also more tired. It has made me more aware of my own reactions—and also more aware of how those reactions affect everyone else. It helps that my daughter is now old enough to tell me, “You sound happy today,” or “You sound mad,” but even if she doesn’t tell me anything, I can see from her behavior how my mood inevitably affects hers.

Parenting can change us for sure, in both constructive and destructive ways. That much is obvious, as obvious as the bottles and stack of diapers that take up the kitchen counter, or the toys scattered over the living room floor.

Learning from brain science

But how can parenting help us develop in deeper ways? Just as children’s brains are changing drastically in the early years, so too are our brains changing, as new research shows. For example, as Dr. Pilyoung Kim, a researcher at the University of Denver, has found in a number of studies, raising a child changes both mothers’ and fathers’ brains. She mentions brain regions involved in empathy and emotion regulation, but also “maternal motivation.”

The findings are preliminary but exciting, suggesting that we naturally change through the process of having and caring for children. The question then becomes, how can we harness these changes, and the energy behind them, for our own benefit?

  • First, pay attention.

We’re often learning and growing in ways we don’t recognize until later. For instance, maybe we’ve managed to become more patient, or keep our calm for longer than normal during a toddler tantrum. It’s easy to get into autopilot and ignore our changes. Paying attention to our own behaviors—as well as our children’s—is a start. Writing them down is even better, since when we can see evidence of our good and bad days, we’re better able to analyze what went right or wrong, and what we can do in the future.

  • Set and visualize goals.

There is a ton of research showing the power of intention and visualization in making progress, in fields ranging from science to sports. The same goes for learning through parenting. There are many ways in which we can grow—as parents, and as people—through the experience of parenting (some of which I’ll cover later in this blog). We can become more resilient, more empathetic, more playful. But we can’t make headway everywhere at once. Picking an area to focus on will help.

  • Celebrate small gains.

In psychology, we often think of growth as a series of “small wins,” rather than a huge major change. We can take the time to celebrate some small way we’ve developed, or something positive we’ve noticed in our parenting, and share that gain with those around us.

  • Know there will be setbacks.

Just as there’s no way to be a “perfect parent,” there’s no way to keep making forward progress without some backwards steps. Maybe one evening, we’re more mindful and playful, sitting and playing Legos, and the next morning, we’re back to the usual, frazzled rush. It’s important to allow a parenting “fail” to come and go, without putting too much pressure or judging ourselves.

Just as our brain changes are gradual, so too is our progress in the path of learning through parenting. The important first step is to recognize we can learn through parenting, and commit to trying. Then, just as children do, we can take “baby steps,” and do our best to laugh along the way.