Amy provides a convincing argument on why she quit parenting her kids and started enjoying them. Amy says it’s all about the relationship, not the job.
Do you view parenting as a job? Do you consider it one of the many tasks you have to do each day along with going to work and picking up the groceries? I think many of us do think of it that way in Western society. I’ve been reading Alison Gopnik’s new book “The Carpenter and the Gardener” and it’s totally shaking up my view of parenting. Although I’m only halfway through the book, one of the main points is that the best analogy of parenting is not that it is a job, but that it is a relationship. As parents we are not workers producing a perfectly-honed product (our child), we are gardeners who are tending and caring for a unique creation that has its own features, needs, and personality.
This idea has got me thinking about how many aspects of parenting would be better if we approached it from the perspective of “relationship” rather than “job.” If we are having a bad day with our child and we are both grumpy and fussing at each other, the tendency is to yell louder, demand more. We don’t want our “product” to turn out selfish or lazy. Guess what, this rarely works. The real key is to reconnect with our child in some way, usually through play or conversation.
How about teaching our children to be empathetic to others. That’s one skill that I think most of us want our little “products” to learn. Turns out the best way to teach this is: relationship. Research has showed that children whose mothers describe more about how other people might be feeling or thinking had better perspective-taking skills than those whose mothers did not use this descriptive language. That is, they had the first building blocks of empathy; the ability to take the perspective of another person. When you really consider this, it is pretty amazing. The cognitive skill it takes for a youngster to understand the perspective of another person is pretty complex; to think that just a parent talking to them about it influences how quickly they learn this skill. In other words, the verbal relationship between parent and child helped the child make this cognitive leap.
Now think about a skill like self-control. We know that helping children learn how to control their impulses, follow instructions, etc. is important for their future success. Looked at from the parenting “job” perspective, we might think that strict rules, nagging, and force seems to be the way to teach our children self-control. Again, research proves this to be wrong. Longitudinal studies show that children who had a close, mutually responsive relationship with their parents were much more likely to exhibit higher degrees of qualities such as self-control, self-regulation, patience and deliberation. Once a child feels that their parent understands their needs, will strive to meet them, and respects their feelings, a certain level of trust develops between parent and child. When this trust is firmly established, the child is much more likely to comply with the parents requests, even if it is difficult, because they trust that what the parent tells them is in their own best interest.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the process of attachment. From a developmental science perspective, the process through which a baby attaches to his/her primary caregiver (usually the mother first) is one that is inherently relational. The founder of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, argued that the interaction between the parent and child is key to determining what type of attachment is formed. If the parent is responsive to the child’s need for security and safety, the child learns that the parent can be relied upon. In contrast, if the child’s needs are met with unresponsiveness from the parent, the child learns that the parent cannot be relied upon and the child may develop means of coping with this such as becoming overly clingy or avoiding the parent. Another interesting aspect of attachment theory is the idea that children develop an “internal working model” of how relationships work based on their attachment with their parent. In other words, if a child feels their parent can be trusted to meet their needs, they (unconsciously) feel that other adults (i.e. teachers, friends) are also trustworthy. Similarly, children also develop internal working models of themselves. If their parent is responsive to them, they come to understand that they themselves are worthy of care.
What is beautiful about the formation of attachment is that it is based on the special relationship between a one unique child and one unique caregiver. The caregiver is not just taking care of the baby’s physical need for food, a clean diaper, etc., he/she is reading the subtle cues of that particular child. Like a gardener tending a plant, the caregiver is sensing what the baby needs at each moment in development. Some babies like a lot of movement, others like quiet in order to sleep. Each baby has his/her own unique cues to which a caregiver must respond. If you are a parent of more than one child, you know this to be true.
Why I quit parenting …
The role of parent seen from the perspective of relationship rather than job has opened my eyes to the magnitude of parenthood, but also to the unique privilege it is. It has also taken a little of the pressure off myself. Our children are not “products” that we must craft into perfect beings, they are creations that we can tend and care for so that they may blossom into the people they are meant to be.