parenting child development

In the 20 years that I’ve been running parenting groups I consistently do an exercise where the group goes through the process of figuring out what makes parenting a unique job. What makes it different than any other relationship? We come up with love, care, teaching, feeding and changing diapers—none of which are unique to parenting because if I know my BFF until she’s 80 I definitely would have loved and fed her plenty and I may even end up changing her diaper. (Wow if we only knew now that was in the BFF contract. Arrgghh!!)

The group finally gets down to what makes parenting a unique relationship. It is helping another being grow into a self-sufficient adult who can function in society. When we make that task conscious, we bring to our awareness and make intentional the act of growing a child into a positive adult.

So how do we do this task? By modeling and positive reinforcement. A grandfather is with his 10 year old grandson. He pulls out of the parking lot, sees a cop, and remembers to put his seatbelt on. The cop pulls him over and he’s got a choice, model taking responsibility or not. Thankfully he remembers the 10 year old is watching and learning, “Oh, so that’s how we do it.” Fast forward to a couple of days ago, that 10 yr old, now 13, uses my chair to get his Christmas boomerang off the roof and breaks it. My question, “What happened?” was met with, “The chair broke.” Then, “I broke your chair.” The modeling of responsibility in small or big interactions over time produced this response in this child. My response of, “I can see how you are growing up so much. You found a solution to the boomerang on the roof and when the chair broke you took responsibility for it. That’s such a mature way to handle this. Now what should we do about the chair?”

We learn what we do through experience. We even have neurons, mirroring neurons, which fire in our brain when we do something (throw a boomerang) and those same neurons fire when we watch someone else throw a boomerang. It is as if we had thrown it. Same is true for non-physical or emotional experiences. “Oh, so that’s how we do it.” Our children learn by modeling—it’s an innate, biologic, survival mechanism. It’s how they have learned to feed themselves, walk, talk, give and receive empathy, and become part of the group (belong) all of which ensures their survival. “This is how we do it.”

What do we model? What do we teach? [modeling = teaching] Essentially what’s important to us, what our focus is on in the moment. Where our attention is drawn is the emphasis. It’s a choice. For example, a dad in one of my groups put a glass of water on his kitchen table, “I’m using this to remind me to look at what’s working in our family instead of what’s not working.” To which his teen replied, “It’s just a glass, air, and water.” Oh, the Zen of a teen. She’s right; it is a glass, air, and water. And it’s our perspective. Where do we focus? Air or water? Half empty or half full? Positive or negative?

When our children are infants, our modeling is intuitive. We intuitively focus on the water, the positive. We fill her cup until it runs over. The infant comes to know herself and how to function in her world through her relationships. She smiles and we smile back. She learns about smiling by doing it and seeing us smile. Her neurons are firing for both our smiling and her own. She’s also learning about the emotions in the interaction. She smiles. We smile and cheer with enthusiasm. She’s learning about joy. So when she claps and we clap back, she learns about clapping and belonging. “This is how we do it.”

This is the process of focusing on what is happening right now – the smiling, the clapping. We are modeling and being delighted in what’s right – the water in our glass. The infant learns through imitation with encouragement from us. We will continue to smile and clap when we recognize that joy as a value we hold dear and consciously encourage it.

So my invitation to you is to bring a compassionate, curious attitude to what you do and make it conscious. Pick one value that is important to you, think about what your life experiences have been in relation to this value, read about it, and notice how it is or is not showing up in your life. Put on your rosy, value-imbued glasses and look for the manifestation of it in your life. It is there, in small and large ways like the example of responsibility above. And then help it to grow by making it conscious, keeping it at the forefront of your mind, acting on it, giving lots of positive attention to it when it shows up. See the responsibility and maturity when it shows up. As that value becomes a cornerstone of your life, pick another, water it and watch it grow as well.

You can call Sherry Lynn Fisher at 808-205-2482 to make an appointment for individuals, couples, and families for trauma, counseling, parenting, co-parenting, or mediation. Go to www.sherry-lynn.com for information and exercises to increase your awareness of what you water and what grows.

Image Credit: Emma Whitney Photography

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Sherry Lynn Fisher works with individuals, couples & families for trauma, counseling, parenting, or mediation. She is an author, therapist and educator. Call 205-2482 or go to www.sherry-lynn.com for more information.