(I wrote this is response to a question from a member of my meditation group about parenting.)
He had referenced a New York Times article ( http://www.nytimes. com/2009/ 09/15/health/ 15mind.html? _r=1&scp= 2&sq=parenting& st=cse) that suggested unconditional parenting was a better thing than parenting involving withdrawing and giving love according to the child’s behavior. While we might at first say that’s a slam dunk, because withdrawing love would harm any child, the article makes a case that even time-outs and using positive rewards verge on giving and withdrawing love. I recommend the article because it is very thoughtful.
This is a subject close to my heart. My children are all raised, pretty much in their 30’s. I can look back at many things I would have done differently in parenting them. Important things. Yet, they have come out wonderfully. I am so proud of them. Two teachers and a social worker. All with close friends and important relationships. All living responsibly, caring about the future of themselves, their friends, and the earth. Actively engaging in good works… the kinds of good works that require immense personal sacrifice.
So, first, when I look at the research and its measures of ‘success’ it seems to measure none of the above. My children are normally neurotic, which is to say they’re not perfectly happy. How could they be? They are fully engaged in life, and in wanting the earth to be better cared for, for example, and it would take a boddhisatva to want that change and also not to feel frustration at the indifference often found in society. Also, I know they love me and their mother, and also that they have criticisms of us. That seems to me healthy and normal. Measuring success of parenting based on attitudes to the parents seems somewhat imperfect, yet that is how the parenting researched was evaluated.
So, second, I don ‘t believe there’s a perfect way to raise anyone. Conflict is normal. Learning from experience, even mistakes, is normal. Even in a healthy sangha there is discussion, there are differing views. If not, there would be no need for planning meetings! Or for our teacher to give us all those books to read!
Third, I believe that raising a child depends a lot on the child. When I started learning the craft of therapy I often blamed parents for faulty parenting. Only after some years of experience and wonderful supervision did I better understand that children are born different from one another, even siblings with so much shared heritage and genetics. Just look to your own siblings, or those of your friends. As children are different, so are their needs. To take an easy example, a child tending towards hyperactivity might need a firmer approach, with more clear boundaries, than another child. And a child fully hyperactive, who perhaps starts fights, or pushes his or her younger sibling around, needs even firmer guidelines. That child might need a lot of positive reinforcement to learn, more than another child. So, I tend to ask people with ‘universal’ sounding approaches involving human behavior to look deeply at different sorts of people, and attempt to understand how each different person might respond, and to include comments on applying their method to different sorts of people.
Finally, there is the issue that parents ourselves vary enormously. The research looked at mothers who themselves were raised with conditional love, weren’t too happy with it, then did the same thing with their children. In learning theory this might be called over-determined, where something is so imprinted it is kept despite the problems. I have led a number of parenting groups, and have found again and again that parents tend to parent as they were parented. Creating change on the surface isn’t too hard, but sticking to it is something else altogether. To have lasting change, parents tend to need to change how they relate to themselves and their pasts, something that can take a lot of sitting, learning, understanding.
Rasing my children, one of many things I learned from their mother the importance of being who you are. The opposite would be reading a parenting book and deciding to be someone else. Children are quite perceptive, and a parent whose natural inclination would be to use method A, but who slips into method B whenever Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (HALT– is that familiar to anyone?) is in itself very upsetting to a child. It is important that our children have a solid base of who we are to grow around. Eric Erickson talks about the first basic task being to learn if the world is a safe place or not. It is definitely not safe if a parent is acting out a role inconsistently.
So……. the best parent, as Thich Nhat Hanh has written, needs to breathe deeply, be really present, listen deeply, speak after realizing deep understanding. In other words, becoming a great parent is as much about developing the self (of the parent) as it is about using technique with a child.
I hope that this might be helpful.