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Editor’s Note: The following is the first installment in our new series, “Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships“.
To see the introduction to the series, click here.
Parenting is tough. We are forced to make a stream of wise and compassionate decisions while trying to manage all the craziness of life from backed-up toilets and spilled orange juice to distressing shortages of milk or underwear. It’s amazing anyone survives!
Take, for example, the frantic mother who was trying to mount a festive birthday party for a good friend while managing hungry, bored kids. She was organizing snacks and greeting guests and hardly noticed that 5-year-old Hannah was approaching disaster.
Hannah was standing by the serving table staring longingly at the amply-frosted cake. She knew that her mission was dangerous but she was a brave girl. She reached to snatch some frosting.
Mom noticed Hannah’s reach and gave the laser stare: “Don’t you dare touch that cake, Missy!” Hannah dropped her hand to her side but stood resolute. She would not be deterred from her mission by idle threats.
This is where parenting usually falls apart. Mom is working frantically in a noble cause and merely asks that her children avoid conspicuous acts of terrorism. “Can’t Hannah stay out of the way for five minutes while I get the party ready?”
Here is where we have not understood the Lord’s commandment to love each other the way He loves us. And loving does not happen without awareness. We must tune into others, discern their needs, and act in their best interests if we are to follow His example. Our perfect Father does not bark commands and disappear into His own projects.
Hannah is hungry and bored. Her Mom has been busy and distracted all day. Mom has forgotten about getting dinner for the kids or engaging them in kid-appropriate activities. Hannah thinks that a hunk of cake may be the answer to her prayers.
Mom can try to solve her problem with solemn threats. But Hannah has a more resolute interest in frosting than mother has extra bandwidth for monitoring her. Mom and frosting are sure to lose. Mom will get mad. Hannah will be punished while feeling mistreated and neglected.
Family is the place where everyone is overburdened and we expect people to accommodate each other. It is the place where we make our dearest loved-ones crazy. What may be needed most in parenting is not a set of magical skills but simple awareness and sensitivity.
For example, Hannah, noting her mother’s frenzy, might busy herself in her room or with the visiting guests. She might get herself an approved snack. But you can see the problem. We are asking the child to be the adult in the room. Most preschoolers are still learning self-management. They crumple in the face of frosting.
So we turn to Mom. She is harried and overloaded. If she is wise, she knows that she can find simple ways to help Hannah while still making party preparations. Some possibilities:
- Mom might cut Hannah a piece of cake.
- Mom might find a snack for Hannah.
- Mom might get Hannah busy on an errand while relocating the cake to a less tempting spot.
- Mom might invite Hannah to offer mixed nuts to the guests.
- Mom could arrange for Hannah to play (and eat) at a friend’s house.
There are unlimited possibilities. Any one of them could work. The key to parenting is to be aware of children’s needs and help them get what they want in a way we feel good about. For many parenting challenges, that is all it takes.
Yet we are unaware of our unawareness. We don’t notice that we don’t notice.
I suppose I didn’t think much about the subject myself until my colleague at Auburn University shared his research on synchrony with me. “Our best measure of the quality of a parent-child relationship is something we call `synchrony’. Synchrony is the mutual tuning in to each other, a balance in the relationship where the two people are jointly observing and responding to one another.” And synchrony between parent and child predicts how well a child will get along with people for a lifetime.
So, effective parenting requires that we step out of the buzz and commotion of our own worlds and enter our children’s worlds. We notice the child, her world, and her needs. Then we’re ready to be helpful.
That’s where good parenting begins.
For more about parenting, read Ginott’s Between Parent and Child or, for an LDS perspective, read my book, Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth.