Parenting can feel like an impossibly high-stakes activity. After all, what’s at stake is nothing less than the health and wellbeing of the next generation of humans. That’s more than a little daunting, don’t you think? Is it any wonder then that so many of us feel so much pressure to get this parenting thing right?
Well, here’s a simple yet all-important fact about parenting that might help to ease some of the pressure you might be feeling.
Parenting isn’t just about you! It’s actually about you and your kid. Instead of thinking of parenting as something you do to your kid, think of it as something that you do with your kid. Think of parenting as a two-way street.
That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. There’s a growing body of research to show that parents and kids shape one another’s behaviour in intricate and interconnected ways. Your child acts in a particular way and that elicits a particular response from you — which, in turn, causes your child to react in yet another way again. The effect is bidirectional, in other words. It’s anything but a one-way street.
Here’s where the good news piece comes into play. Because the parent-child relationship is constantly changing and evolving, you have endless opportunities to get it right. After all, your child isn’t the only one who is learning and growing. You’re learning and growing as a parent.
This message should be tremendously reassuring to every parent who ever wondered, “Do I actually have what it takes to be a good parent?” (which, quite frankly, is pretty much every single parent on the planet). Because here’s the thing: you don’t have to have everything figured out up front. You and your child can learn and grow together.
How this contributes to child development
Children aren’t just inert blobs of clay, waiting to be molded into shape by their parents. They play an important role in their own development. Parents have an impact on kids and kids have an impact on parents. The effect is bidirectional, in other words.
It isn’t difficult to figure out how an interactive and highly responsive parent-child relationship helps to support a child’s development. It helps to ensure that the needs of each individual child are met in a particular way in a particular moment — and it allows for the fact that those needs are going to change on an ongoing basis over time.
If you think about it, this makes so much sense. Each child is unique, so it makes sense that every parent-child relationship would be unique as well. Every child needs something slightly different from her parents. Add to that the fact that children are ever changing and you can see why it’s important that the parent-child relationship be incredibly flexible and nimble. The needs of a toddler are, after all, very different from the needs of a newborn baby, and they’re very different again from the needs of, say, a teenager.
Understanding this simple yet all-important concept can be a huge relief to parents. Suddenly, parenting becomes less about following a particular pre-scripted set of one-size-fits-none operating instructions and more about trying to answer the question, “What does this particular child need from me right now?”
This is something I was speaking with Dr. Jean Clinton about recently. She’s a child psychiatrist, a mother of five, and a grandparent of four. She encourages parents to recognize and celebrate the fact that parenting is all about parents and kids learning from and about one another. “It’s a relationship that evolves over time; and what grows in each of us as we’re learning about each other really is the heart of the matter,” she said.
A case in point: how babies learn how to talk
Want a concrete example of how this bidirectional thing plays out in real life?
Consider the way that babies acquire language. Their coos and babbles are designed to elicit a particular type of response from parents — that over-the-top exaggerated speech known as parentese. This is why, when you encounter a very young baby, you find yourself speaking in a repetitive, sing songy voice, “Are you just the sweetest baby ever? Aren’t you just the sweetest? Yes, you are!” Babies find this kind of speech utterly captivating. They listen attentively to these over-the-top speech sounds and, over time, they gradually figure out how to make these sounds for themselves. In other words, those babies elicit the very type of language learning that they need a particular moment — and those needs change over time. That’s why, by the time they’re ready to celebrate their first birthday, babies are communicating in a very different way, pointing at objects and asking, over and over again, through words or gestures, “What’s that?” They will have shifted their focus from sound construction to vocabulary building.
Another example: how parents and kids influence one another’s physical activity levels
But the bidirectionality of parenting isn’t just a phenomenon that happens during babyhood. It is baked into each and every single stage of parenting. There’s a growing body of research to show, for example, that more active parents have more active kids — and vice versa. Yes, more active kids have more active parents, too!
Let’s think about how things might play out in the life of a particular family — a family where the parents led pretty sedentary lives until Junior arrived on the scene. Let’s say Junior is one of those really high-energy kids: a kid who is in perpetual motion from the moment he wakes up until the moment he reluctantly heads to bed. The parents of this kind of high-energy kid might find themselves heading to the park after dinner to try to let him run off some of that steam — which could encourage them to become more active than they might otherwise have been. Lounging on the couch after dinner is no longer an option in their world — at least not now that Junior has arrived on the scene!
I don’t know about you, but I find this endlessly fascinating, thinking about the many different ways parents and children end up affecting one another — and how that continues to change over time.
What this means for parents who are raising more than one child
If you happen to be raising more than one child, you could be in for a bit of an exciting ride as you attempt to meet the needs of very different children in very different ways all at the same time. It can also be incredibly humbling as you come to terms with the fact that parenting isn’t 100% about you!
This is something I was speaking with Nicole Johnson about recently. She’s the mother of four school-aged children. She thought she had this parenting thing down to an art until her fourth child arrived on the scene. “I call my fourth my humility child,” she explained. “My [first] three went to bed super well: I had no battles with bedtime. And I thought it was all me. I just thought I was fantastic at this. And then I had my fourth child. He is a night owl and I realized very quickly with him that my other three went to bed well because that was just in their nature. It really didn’t have as much to do with me as I thought it did.”
Again, this all makes perfect sense. After all, if every child is unique, then every parent-child relationship is going to be unique, too, as each child works at getting her own unique set of needs met in a unique way by a particular parent.
This also helps to explain why siblings growing up in the very same household with the same set of parents can have very different experiences of being parented — to say nothing of very different relationships with each of their parents.
How learning about bidirectionality can help you to ditch some of your parenting guilt
Understanding that the parent-child relationship is dynamic and ever-changing can be a game changer for you and your child. It allows you to ease up on some of the pressure you might otherwise be putting on yourself to have everything about parenting figured out ahead of time; or to feel like you have to force yourself and your kids to conform to one-size-fits-all parenting advice that isn’t a particularly great fit for either of you.
It’s been my experience in my own life as a mom of four that one-size-fits-all parenting advice fits about as well as one-size-fits-all pantyhose (which is to say not well at all). So trust yourself to figure out what your child needs from you and trust your child to help you figure that out as well.
Of course, it’s helpful to learn about child development and to have a broad sense of what most children need at particular stages of their development, but don’t allow all that expert advice to cause you to overlook how much you already know and how much you will continue to learn as a result of your relationship with your child.
A couple of decades into this adventure called parenting, I now understand that that’s how things are supposed to work: that my relationship with each of my kids will always be changing and evolving because we as individuals are constantly changing and evolving.
Who knows where this parent-child adventure will take us in the years and decades to come?
I honestly have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting, including, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. She is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. This column is based on her most recent CBC Radio parenting column.