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How much impact do parents really have?

Published on: December 20, 2009

Nancy Belcher is a Seattle-area mother of five.

Mother and childI wonder sometimes: Why do I even go out with my kids? This article commenced after a recent trip to the Seattle Children’s Museum. At the museum, I watched all of the adults around me parent in such contrasting ways. There were the parents who let their children hoard the balls in “Cog City” and idly watch as other kids searched in vain for just one measly ball. There were those parents who bellowed, those that ignored and others that seemed delighted to be sharing some fun time with their family.

There was one standout parent who made everyone behind her at the restrooms sink wait while she slowly sang the “Alphabet Song” to “make sure we get rid of all the germies.” She then went on to discuss E. coli in the G.I. tract. I wanted to explode. Just being around all of this “parenting” made me wonder three questions for the zillionth time:

  • Is there any positive outcome if I tell ‘bad’ parents what I think, or should I just remove myself as quickly as possible?
  • Who says my way of parenting is the RIGHT way? Who am I to tell someone what to do?
  • Does parenting style really make that much of a difference in your child’s adult self?

After many years of parenting and even more of being an outspoken person, I’ve come to realize that holding my tongue is not only in the best interest of my targeted audience but more importantly it is in MY best interest and the interest of the children. I’ve had plenty of situations where I’ve said something, had an exchange, thought about it for hours, told my not-so-empathetic husband, couldn’t sleep because it bothered me, called my sister to debrief and continued to agonize over the exchange far longer than I’d like to admit. After all of this emotional turmoil did I have any positive impact on the ‘errant parent’ or did I just make myself frustrated and ruin my own day? The answer: I ruined my own day and probably the other parent’s day too.

My parenting style has evolved dramatically over the past 18 years. I was SUCH a textbook first-time parent, neurotically overly concerned about the little stuff and not giving myself a moment of rest for fear of not being a good enough parent. I was sure I had all of the answers because hey, I’d read some books, went to a few workshops, was a smart person etc.

Now I look through a very different parenting lens. I believe it is best to watch, wait, listen and if possible, hold your tongue. I’ve unscientifically experimented with this hypothesis over the years and have come to realize (as the literature indicates) that by saying something I might actually be putting the child in harm’s way. I may have taken an emotionally challenged parent and pushed them even further. Who does the parent take it out on? Yes, the child. While obvious child neglect and abuse must not be tolerated, what we consider ‘bad parenting’ is a judgment call and who are we to judge, let alone correct? Is our parenting style really the best?

Who says my way of parenting is the RIGHT way?

Don’t we all desire to raise "good kids?" In the process, we tire ourselves out and at least for me, beat ourselves up over the smallest error in parental judgment. My ultimate goal has always been to create a person that will be able to follow our overarching societal rules in order to "get along" in the world so that they will live a happy and fulfilled life. Don’t we all have at least one family member that frightens us into thinking that we might have a kid that turns out like them – a societal outcast? I do!

So far it appears that my boys are turning out to be quite happy and appropriate by our societal standards. Even with all of my earnest parenting work, my first son was dreadfully shy in preschool. Once, a parent smiled at him and acknowledged that he was dancing during circle time – he never danced again. Then someone giggled at his Halloween costume - he never wore another costume, ever. I’m sure some parents thought I was somehow creating this overly anxious child.

My second son got ‘infantile botulism’ as a 7-month-old, was completely paralyzed, spent months in the ICU and had over a year of recovery. Obviously I worried about him and his emotional and physical capabilities. Other parents placed judgment on me because they were sure that I must have neglected him in some way in order for him to have become so deathly ill.

My third son was a screamer. When I was taking him out of his car seat I’d occasionally accidentally wake him from a sound sleep. He’d attack me; he would pull my hair, bite me and kick and when I let him down he’d run to the backyard screaming like he was on fire. When I tried to ‘rescue’ him from himself, the biting and kicking would start all over again. My neighbors were sure that I was abusing him and called several times to see “what all the commotion was about.”

The fourth son screamed the whole first year of his life and lived in the Baby Bjorn because that was the only place he was happy. Other than that, he has been a pretty easy kid and I would love to take all of the credit for his easy laid-back personality that we get so many compliments for.

The fifth son; well, he had a pterodactyl scream that only recently disappeared and he is spoiled rotten. That IS my fault.

Does parenting style really make that much of a difference in your child’s adult self?
Given all of these unique qualities, how do we keep them from becoming derelicts, delinquents, or worse with just one set of parents? My husband and I try our best, but we also know that much of their development is dependent on temperament and what we can provide is unconditional love and attention. Developmental psychologists have long studied how parents impact their children’s development, and, as we have probably all seen in our own families, children who share a home and are raised in the same environment may grow up to have very different personalities, while some children raised in dramatically different environments may grow up to have remarkably similar personalities.

Even though I would like to take credit for the positive attributes that my children have (and there are many), unfortunately (or fortunately) research suggests that parents can't take all the credit for their children's future behavior! Whenever people compliment me on how kind and sweet my sons are I always respond, “Well, I married a very nice man.” It is their peers, environmental factors, and genetics that seem to have a larger impact. Even with this information, I have chosen not to simply throw up my hands and give up. My husband and I have chosen to exert whatever small influence we do have, and hope it doesn't backfire. We can influence who the kid’s peers are (at least for awhile), we can choose the environments they are exposed to and hopefully we gave them our ‘good genes.’ Other very important elements we can impact are: who is their “other parent”, what are the number of siblings, their day care, their school, and their neighborhood, and expose them to as many extracurricular opportunities as possibly in order for them to find a passion that keeps them occupied.

My kids have "friends" that I just never have time to invite over, and other friends who are always welcome and I go out of the way to pick them up. In fact the only conspiracy I have ever been involved in was with the mothers of my oldest son’s dearest friends. When they were about twelve we unofficially met and discussed what our expectations were about sleepovers, school work, other derelict friends, curfews, drinking, drugs etc. So far so good! There have been lots and lots of phone calls, texts and meetings at the little diner, but when those moments come where he is pushing so hard I simply tell him that I KNOW what Sam, Joe and Mike’s parents expect, so don’t try and fool me!

The best piece of parenting advice I ever got was from my son’s school principle. He told me that we are responsible for being our children’s safety valve. When they find themselves in a situation where the peer pressure seems overwhelming teach them to say “Are you crazy? Do you KNOW MY MOTHER/FATHER?” My older two sons have used it several times and it worked perfectly, probably because the other kids did know me!

So far my parenting style seems to be working, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my way is the RIGHT way. While I am happy to hear what others have to say about parenting, and I’m sure my style will continue to evolve, I know enough now not to tell someone else what to do unless they ask.  Then it’ll be tough to get me to stop talking! Here’s to respecting a host of parenting styles that make our population diverse, multifaceted and richer for it.

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