What a job it is to raise a child! So full of difficulty, so many moving parts in the process, so much resourcefulness and energy required. Then, just when the parent takes breath to admire their creation, off goes the young adult – at times with barely a backward glance. The parents are left behind wondering where those years have gone and trying desperately to remember what life was like before children.
But what about the process of raising a child? The very fact that there are piles of self-help books on an entirely natural process – after all, our species have been doing it for millennia – is enough in itself to make us pause and reflect. How has parenting just got so complicated and how can thinking about builders and gardeners make us reflect on our parenting style?
One of the factors that makes parenting so difficult is the way parents see themselves in the role. As society puts increasing value on the care and wellbeing of children, so the pressure is on parents to do a better job in raising them – to be accountable. Of course, much of this will be driven by the interests of the child – but there is also self interest involved. After all, that child will be a part of the parent, representing what the parent represents. Homer Simpson captured this idea of children replicating the values system of their parents in his usual comic fashion when he said that what he really liked about having children is ‘you can make them grow up to hate all the things you hate!’ Homer saw his children as extensions of himself, carrying within him some model of what he thought his grown-up child should look like – and seeing his job as making sure the way they see the world corresponds with the way he sees it. We might class his parenting style as project based – like a builder, following a set of plans to some fixed outcome.
Others might be comfortable in their role as parent without such a plan, perhaps allowing the child more freedom to find their own way. Rather than building, they might see their job as nurturing and hence we might class their parenting style as gardening. Whilst most of us will fall somewhere on a continuum between the extremes of these two approaches, thinking about them offers us the chance to re-assess what is going on for us, and for our children, in the process.
Parents who think in ‘building’ terms, might also be seen as project-focussed parents. They will often carry in their heads some template or plan as to what their child is to become. Self-help guides might be more like manuals in their minds. They will busy themselves with gathering the resources to realise that project. Ballet lessons, music lessons, sports sessions – all might be part of that plan. Of course, education will be crucial: the right school, the right approach and right attitude to progress. The aim will be to achieve the right outcome.
It can be extremely frustrating for these project-focussed parents when things do not go according to the plan. It is not unusual for there to be an amount of conflict, either with the child or with the support around them. Talk to any school head and they will have countless stories of this sort of difficulty.
The intention is a good one: to give the child the very best chance to achieve a particular – often aspirational – goal. The difficulty is that the model of the child-as-adult that is carried in the head of the parent may not be the one that the child carries for themself. It is a situation that can lead to anxiety in both camps. For the parents, they have to come to terms with the reality that they may not be able to determine outcome, and they may have to deal with disappointment and a sense of loss, as their children follow a path that was never in their (the parents’) plan. For the child, whom at some stage at least will have wanted to please their parents, they, too, will have to deal with difficult emotions that may involve a sense of having failed in some way. Not surprisingly, low mood and anxiety can be the result.
It would be unfair to say that gardener-parents have no plans for their children, but it is not quite as prescribed as it is in the case of builder-parents. Rather than a fixed plan and a fixed route to a clear end goal, gardeners look to provide the right context or culture for the child to develop – just as a literal gardener would provide the right soil for their plants. The parent sees their role as nurturer – providing the care that is required for their offspring to grow. There may still be ballet lessons, music lessons and extra sports classes, but these are not so much to build towards a pre-conceived plan – more to encourage and find the ‘soil’ that is going to best suit the child, whom, the parents hope, will learn to put down their own roots and gradually begin to nourish themselves.
The neuroscience of nurture and independence
If we consider our species, we will understand the need for parents to want the best for their child – if they did not, there would be many more neglected children and infant mortality would put at risk the propagation of the species. Likewise, it makes considerable evolutionary sense for children to want to please their parents – the people who are going to nourish them through to the point where they can provide for themselves and, once again, continue to propagate the species. These two neurobiological drives can often work in harmony for the infant years of the child, but the onset of adolescence is likely to cause some disruption. The child now is looking to become independent, whereas the parents might still be wanting (or needing) to follow the plan.
Wherever we sit on this spectrum of parental styles, we are unlikely to escape having to deal with difficult moments in the raising of our children. What can sometimes help us is to recognise and separate what belongs to us and what belongs to the child. When we feel disappointed because our child does not seem to be matching the plans for them that we have in our own mind as parents, then the difficult feelings that arise within us will constitute a real challenge. Our own fantasies – ideas we carry about what might and might not be – can sometimes leave us bereft and never more so than in dealings with our children. We need to keep those feelings with us and avoid any temptation to visit them on our children. It is hardly their fault that they do not always carry the same fantasies as we do. We want our children to be independent, but sometimes that can be a very difficult place to get to unless we let go, not just of the child, but of all the plans we carry for them. Then, despite the very difficult feelings of loss, our children’s leaving us with barely a backward glance might just be a mark of a job well done.
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