Before becoming a mother, I believed parenting would be both demanding and gratifying. However, I never fully understood the meaning of sleep deprivation, of humility, or the importance of maintaining a skewed sense of humor. Whenever I needed to dip into depleted “reserves,” I somehow managed to keep going. If my son and daughter and I were all sick, I discovered how, miraculously, parents still find the strength to care for their children. I hadn’t understood that the wrong shape of pasta could elicit unrelenting screams. It sometimes took every ounce of my diminishing resilience to bring compassion and connection to an unraveling situation.

Our children come to us, by birth or adoption, for a reason. They’re our teachers, pushing us to do whatever work we still have unfinished. For me, the differences in my own children taught me more than I ever learned in any classroom, advanced training, reading, or professional experience. Parenting was (and still is) a precious gift, both personally and professionally.

A voracious debater by the age of two, my daughter would surely become an expert courtroom litigator! We had lively conversations, exploring various subjects, and I enjoyed her curiosity and determination. She engaged in imaginative play, singing and talking, often solo as well as with us, or with friends. Her horizons were expansive and colorful, never boring. When she asked why the sky was blue, or what made thunder, I assumed I slept through those science classes!

Once my son was born, we discovered just how self-directed she was. He, too, was curious, in ways we never imagined. With his crib imposing too much restriction to explore, he contrived a way to catapult himself out of his contained space. He could scale heights and overcome obstacles, teaching us the true meaning of heightened vigilance (certainly no surprise, he became an extreme sport enthusiast, pushing the limits on his skateboard or snowboard). 

With contrasting temperaments, I was in the “lab” daily,  challenged to be creative, innovative. My children taught me to view their respective behavior and needs through each unique lens. It was one step forward, three steps back, and sometimes stalling in place! Always a “work in progress,” yet I couldn’t ask for better teachers in experiential learning.

One of the most valuable lessons my children taught me is that their behavior, at any given time, was a reflection of their inner emotional state. When they were enjoying playing alone or together, they were in balance, feeling good about themselves and each other. When their interaction started unraveling, it was clear that one or both was out of balance — perhaps feeling incompetent, unheard, dismissed, angry, sad, with their play no longer harmonious. They taught me to separate their behavior from them as people. I needed to view them independently, appreciating that my child was neither the problem nor her/his impediment. Whatever the problem — grief, insecurity, fear — it had grown over time, becoming the obstacle to success. When they behaved badly, I had to consider what their behavior was trying to tell me.

Although there’s sufficient evidence to the contrary, I don’t believe punishment works. It is the antidote to positively influencing behavior, for it demeans and belittles children. When we witness actions and words that quickly send us into an “altered state,” that’s the time for us to dig down deeply, to uncover our child’s unique strength. Each of our children has a special nugget yet to be “mined” from within. Our job is to identify that nugget of competency, reinforcing and shining light on it.

I also learned that if I reacted, rather than stepping back to connect to my child’s feelings, nothing good ever came of it. My children unwittingly educated me in how to achieve more positive results. This didn’t always bring an immediate shift in behavior, but rather a realization of something far more important, of communicating that I understood, even if I didn’t agree. I learned that when I was “doing something to” them, it rarely worked. However, when I “worked with” them collaboratively, they would feel my unconditional support and acceptance.

None of this happened overnight, because I naively believed that each of my children would grow up to be successful and happy, simply because I loved them. What could be more important? After all, doesn’t love conquer all?! I discovered that wasn’t enough, that more was required to navigate through the setbacks and challenges. It turns out that the bottom line is unconditional love and unconditional acceptance. Our children need to know that no matter what they do, however much they bungle a situation, we will love them through it.

Unfortunately, when parents believe they must withdraw their love, showing their disapproval if their child falls short, they won’t achieve the results they want. Whereas a child might say something his parent doesn’t like, a typical reaction is to negate or deny his feelings. My son worried about a friend who was chronically in “time out.” He talked frequently about how this mom treated his friend, wondering if she really loved him. One day, he asked me: “How come parents don’t need a license to have children? You need a license to fish or hunt, but anyone can have kids!”

We can’t change our own childhoods. However, if what we’re doing isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, it’s never too late to turn things around, to change the childhood our children have.

More on this next week!