Parenting is a really important part of every child’s life. Not only because we rely on our parents 100% for food and shelter, but also because it lays the foundation for our futures. I want to share some things I learned in my psychology degree about how important parenting is in shaping kids’ lives, for better and for worse.
In my third year of psychology, I did a course on Psychopathology – the study of mental disorders. I found out that humans have an amazing capacity to cope. And boy, are we complicated! I also found out that one of the most important things with regards to mental illness is what happens to people in their early family life. On the one hand, if it is bad, it is one of the strongest contributors to mental illness. On the other hand, one of the best protective factors against mental illness is a supportive family. So what I want to talk to you about is the importance of a positive childhood. Because it is important.
As children, we look up to our parents. They are all powerful and all knowing. They tell us how to behave, and the difference between right and wrong. We turn to them when we need help. We copy their behavior, their coping mechanisms, and their attitudes. We define ourselves based on their feedback.
Have you ever asked a little kid what they want to be when they grow up? They puff out their chest in pride and say, “I want to be a consultant when I grow up, just like my daddy”. When I was 2 years old, my life’s ambition was to be a mommy, like my Mom. When I realized my mother had a job, I wanted to be a teacher like her. My brother Tsoof walked around in pinstripe pants and a button-down shirt until he was 4. He even had a little suitcase so he could be “Just like daddy”.
What happens is that as children, we are influenced by our parents' behaviors and the way they make us feel. They might make us feel confident, sad, guilty, happy, stupid, smart, pretty, ugly. Of course, every parent wants their child to feel confident and happy. It is never their intention to make us feel sad, guilty or stupid. We simply give meaning to their behavior which we later translate into feelings about ourselves. Often we adopt the way our parents think of themselves or towards each other.
The way we feel about ourselves and Mom and Dad’s parenting style influences the way we choose our friends and the strength of our social relationship. Our social group has an enormous influence on our emotional state and our ability to cope, that at some point we absorb it as part of our identity. Much like the people who join the preppy cheerleader group or the jocks, the drug takers or Goths, or the new and fashionable Emo group. These kids see themselves as a member of the group, taking all the attributes and behaviors that go with it.
Avoid Childhood Trauma
The most common cause of mental illnesses is childhood trauma. Often times, it was just an accident and not something our parents could control. Someone passed away, there was a car crash, 9/11. Sadly, these things happen to good people. The important thing is that if you instilled the right attitudes and behaviors in your children, they will have friends who support them and the ability to cope. They are resilient and are able to take things in stride. And if it is a little bit too much, they will know that they can come to you and you can help them before things get too muddled.
My parents met up with a couple named Jason and Charlene, who have three teenage boys. Jason told my parents that they had very separate lives to their boys, and soon, the boys would get older and move out and he was rather looking forward to some quiet. They did not really know what was going on with their boys on a daily basis and that was fine with him.
Well, this is a little extreme for the people in my family. All three of us try to spend as much time as possible with each other and with Mom and Dad. We share spaces in the house, we eat meals together, and we know each other’s routines. If one of us is going through a difficult time, we share and get support from each other.
In Jason and Charlene’s case, their boys might be experiencing lots of things, but they would not know. Their boys have their own lives and they are “on their own”. If the boys have a problem, they would try to deal with it themselves, in their own, inexperienced way. If there was even a small thing they could not deal with, it would grow until it was a little too late to undo the damage.
My Dad and I got into a funny routine, when he thinks I am being cheeky or a bit bold. He might say “Eden, you are so stubborn, where did you learn such behavior?” and I will reply with “ I learned it from the best”, implying...him! It is just a joke between us. We often discuss the idea that children are a result of their upbringing (see Monkey See, Monkey Do).
It seems that no matter how much parents would like to raise their kids to be responsible for themselves, and as much as children want to take responsibility, the way our parents treat us in childhood will forever influence the way we behave.
Here are some things my parents did (and still do) which I believe help me shape my life for the better.
- Compliments – My parents often give compliments which are a great confidence booster. They made sure to tell us how smart we were. They would tell us how we learned to do things early, like talk before we were 1 years old, or how we were all good readers. They always made sure to distinguish between bad behavior and a bad person. They always complimented us, as people. If we ever did something wrong, they would tell us that we are smart kids and that it was our behavior that was inappropriate.
- Honesty – Mom and Dad always told us the truth. That is not to say they always told us everything. They tried to make it age appropriate. And sometimes the truth was, “This is not appropriate to talk about right now” but they never lied. (I should mention that Mom was into the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, which we were all pretty happy about in the long run). As a young child, we believe our parents no matter what and we tend to take our beliefs with us into the future.
- Approachable – Every once in a while, Mom or Dad will gently remind us, “Honey, if you ever need to talk about anything, I am here to listen” or “You can talk to us about anything”. I am all grown up now and I am faced with some pretty serious decisions. I know my parents are always there to listen and offer advice.
- Share Stories – It is all well and good to say that you can ask Mom and Dad for advice, but how do you know whether they are a good source of advice? Especially as an almost-adult, I know my parents do not know everything. It is sad, but true. So they share their life stories with us. They tell us about their childhood and the important decisions they had to make. They share the things they had to take into consideration and sometimes the people they sought advice from. This helps me trust their judgment
- I Love You – Last, and most importantly, they always remember to say “I love you”. It might be suddenly, in a text message, at dinner time. Sometimes they say it one-on-one or to all 3 of us together, “We love you all very much”. This gives a feeling of peace. Unconditional love and confidence that you are a person who can and is loved.
Give your child a good childhood so that they can have a good future. What you give them is like a toolkit of emotions and coping skills that they carry for a long time. Help them grow up to be the happy and healthy adults of the world, both physically and mentally.