Much about parenting is mystery rather than dogma and art rather than science. A child receiving the same care that seems to be working for a sibling, can still become a very difficult and unruly person.
Still, it is hard to hold back from giving parental advice. We often wonder if there shouldn’t be more parenting instruction; if people shouldn’t have to pass tests and get licenses to raise children. Periodic social scandals and lapses of human decency point to the need for a strong moral foundation laid in childhood. School teachers, who receive children from home each day, testify to lapses in the building of such a foundation.
The mystery of parenting stems from the complexity of human nature. No two children are alike. Human character may flounder because of a faulty internal rudder or because moral navigation has never been taught.
In many societies, child rearing seems much simpler and understood by all. In our times, the basics of parenting bear repeating. A child needs:
Consistent love and a sense of being cared for.
An understanding and experience of trust: trusting others and being trustworthy.
Consistent instruction and explanation of life’s many “whys.”
A clear sense of boundaries and understanding of consistent consequences of crossing boundaries.
A worldview, in story form or mythology, and a clear sense of values.
Out of the experience of love and trust (the first two points above), a child will find attachment with other human beings. Some kids today don’t experience attachment; they may even hang out with friends, but they aren’t really “attachable.”
Other young people have no clear sense of the boundaries between themselves and others, their rights and the rights of others, what is appropriate and what is not (see #3-5 above). Their self imitates, conforms, and rebels, but it has no clear sense of rightness and wrongness out there, no inner rules to go by. They are creating their own world as they go along (similar to the teaching of Existentialist philosophers). They don’t seem to be surprised when they abuse others or even when they suffer abuse themselves.
Every society must ask itself how important the task of parenting really is: to what extent will it support and instruct the instructors of a new generation?
All parents need to develop their own style of parenting and find the balance between over-parenting and under-parenting. Some children and young people feel that their parents ought to get a life; such parents seem to be living only for and through their children. Such moms and dads may be over-indulgent or over-bearing in their style of child care.
On the other hand, many children and youth in societies today miss parents who are too taken up with their own lives or too busy with work. Such parents may also be over-permissive or overly strict and unbending.
Parenting in highly urbanized societies has been studied and found to lie along a spectrum of styles from autocratic to authoritarian, democratic and finally, permissive. These studies use factors of degree of control and degree of relationship in creating matrices. This research has linked certain kinds of problem behavior in children and youth to each of these specific styles. In general, the children of extremely autocratic and permissive parents develop more problems. Fair and consistent discipline is very important. Love and discipline are the important stuff of parenting. Infancy is a time for bonding; childhood for instruction; and adolescence for gradually letting go, listening, discussion, and maintaining standards in the home. Surveys find that parents are often effective role models and even heroes for young people.
There is plenty of evidence that kids can be brought up successfully by single moms or dads, by a group, or by two women or two men. Still, there is strong belief that boys need what both a mother and father can provide, as girls need a mother and a father. There is something a woman can give a boy or girl that is special, and something a boy or girl can find in a man that is unique. The absence of a father or mother can be compensated in many ways. Significant mentors can be found along the way. Many caring adults (teachers, coaches, neighborhood leaders) are providing this crucial need for healthy encouragement and mentoring in the lives of young people today. More are needed.
A major goal of parenting is enabling children to parent themselves. This entails not only an internalization of meaning, values, principles and rules, but the ability to nurture and instruct oneself. Children can begin to parent themselves, but it is only in adulthood that one can fully “mother” and “father” oneself.
The gift of strong and healthy parenting is best understood by those working with troubled youth who have missed out on parental nurturance. It is remarkable how consistent love, discipline, and instruction, with special encouragement and counseling, can make up in months a great deal of what was lost in years of neglect or abuse. This is the reward of therapeutic residential communities, good schools, and effective youth work.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What was your experience of being parented and parenting? What main lessons have your learned from your experiences?
What in this article do you most agree or disagree with? What questions or issues from your reading would you like to discuss with others.
What would you change, add, or subtract from the five principles above?
Do you understand and agree with the goal of helping children parent themselves?
Although many societies don’t act this way, few dispute the fact that families are the basic building blocks of a society.
From the standpoint of any individual, family is the single most important influence in a person’s life.
Judith Harris (see her Book Review under Parenting) has cautioned us not to put all the responsibility and blame on parents. We believe this caution to be proper, but her book goes too far if its thesis really is that “genes matter and peers matter, but parents don’t matter” (Foreword, p. xii). Parents and family are the most important social influence in a person’s life. That is why parenting is so important.
Society and religion ought to encourage and instruct parents. In many cases this is not enough. The pressures of life are just too much, or the limitations of parents are not equal to the responsibility. In such cases society or churches must step in to support, or bear costly consequences.