People prepare for having a baby in many ways -- taking labor and delivery classes, installing car seats, buying layette. In addition to prepping the nursery, it's also a time to do some ethical housekeeping: a clean sweep to examine your values and how you wish to pass them on.
As adults, we take many of our convictions and beliefs for granted, says Yaffa Maritz, clinical director of the Listening Mothers program. "Having a child puts this all in disarray. It reshuffles it. It's an opportunity to examine a lot of things and try to make sense of them."
Cindy Spencer, coordinator of children and youth ministries at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, suggests that parents-to-be ask themselves: "What's important to you now, and how will a baby change that?" Trying to anticipate the upcoming challenges can help lay a solid foundation for new parenting. Spencer also recommends that parents mine their own family backgrounds, reflecting on things they liked, or maybe didn't, about how they were raised. As children grow, sharing these family stories conveys a sense of belonging. Spencer says, "You can't pass on values in a vacuum. (Identity) is part of being a family."
Jack Olive, senior pastor at University Temple United Methodist Church, cites an ancient rabbinic notion from Jewish tradition that a child is born neutral, but can be influenced by the "yetzer hara" and "yetzer tov," bad and good inclinations. Parents should try to surround the infant with well-intended people, Olive says, so that when the child comes of age, the only option is good.
"This is a pre-psychology view of the world, but I think it reflects some real ancient wisdom," Olive says. "If you give the child the opportunity from the beginning for right decision-making, that's what they will choose consciously when able to do so."
But can you teach an infant or toddler right and wrong? Maritz says that a 6-month to 1-year-old child can begin gradually to understand respect. "The moment they try to crawl away, and they know other people are out there, they begin to learn other people's space and boundaries."
Young children often learn the values that matter to parents simply by the way they are treated, say social workers and clergy. "By restraining anger or greed, (parents) have to become that which they want to pass on to their children," says Jamal Rahman, a Muslim minister at the Interfaith Community Church in Ballard.
Maritz suggests new parents begin the process of examining one's speech and behavior very early, because children are so impressionable. Here are some ways to get started with what Maritz calls "thoughtful parenting":
Slow down. "In our busy world, there is not enough time," Maritz says. "Sometimes we rush though decisions and don't get the message across." For instance, if your toddler asks, "Can I have this lollipop before dinner?" take the time to explain this seemingly obvious decision, in a way the child can understand. Maritz says, "It's important to take time to think: What are your values? It's a great journey."
Set priorities. To put your principles into practice, Spencer suggests: "Identify the ones that are most important, no more than three or four. The first year is hard enough."
Make it real. Rabbi Chaim Levine says children must see tangible evidence of your values in action. For example, to teach the value of "tzedakah," the Hebrew word for social justice-driven giving, children should not just put coins in their piggy banks. Make giving more visual by taking your 2-year-old with her donation right to the front desk of a recipient social-service organization.
Find like-minded parents. "I nursed my babies for a very long time," Spencer says. "To me, La Leche League was the only place where people weren't looking at me and saying, 'Aren't you afraid he'll never leave home?' Find at least one place where you are supported in the parenting you want to do."
Extend your family. In South Asia, Rahman says, the whole community gets involved in raising a child. In Western culture, by trying to do everything themselves, "(Parents) get so fatigued and tired by the demands of the everyday world. The main value is love -- the sustaining value, the highest value."
Consider meeting with a clergy member or counselor. "I highly recommend, in the same way you do marriage preparation, finding someone to give you advice about emotional problems you are likely to have (as a new parent)," Olive says, emphasizing the importance of imparting cherished values to a child from the start. "Remember, they will know you a lot longer as an adult than as a child, but childhood is what they will remember. If you want an adult friend and partner in your child, the values from that first day determine whether that will happen."
Reading and resources:
- Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years, by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser. Broadway Books, New York, 1997. $20. See section on "Developing a Vision for Your Family."
- Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire, by Harriet Heath, Ph.D., illustrated by Anna Dewdney. Parenting Press. $16.95 paper, $24.95 cloth.
- Discussion groups such as Listening Mothers help promote thoughtful parenting. Call 206-826-3050; or visit www.family-services.org
Michelle Feder writes about a wide range of subjects and has a 2 1/2-year-old son.