One day, in one of those invitations to do a secondary school talk and take few students through therapy/counseling sessions, I was privileged to meet the parents of the children who needed professional counseling.
Some of these parents were begging the deputy to help them discipline their children because they had tried and failed. The deputy of that school kept asking them what magic she would use to shape behavior; the same behavior they had been unable to shape.
Do Parents know who their children really are?
In another forum of parents during Parents’ Day, a parent addressed the school bitterly because the parents had been called by the school with allegations that the daughter was a lesbian. This same parent argued that the daughter by all standards did not understand issues of sex, let alone the said sex orientation since she was just 10 years. The school asked the parent to visit the office for some discussion.
The parent in anger responded that they would do no such thing. The school head felt compelled to produce a heap of letters the child had done to many other girls asking if they would be her sexual partners and describing the “how” they would go about having sex as lesbians. This parent still denied the possibility of the daughter being a lesbian.
Eventually, the school honorably asked if he would transfer the child now that he was not willing to have the child issues addressed and the child helped. My question has always been, were the parents in the shared stories healthy? Did they offer healthy parenting? Are the children they are raising likely to learn healthy parenting?
Fill your cup first
It is true that no one can pour from an empty cup. No one can share what they do not possess. No one can do what they have not learnt to do (whether they learnt formally or informally). The way to healthy parenting – as my friend Susan Catherine Keter puts it – is become then do. It is not humanly possible to offer healthy parenting when you are not a healthy individual.
Carl Rogers defines a healthy individual as one who allows themselves to experience life and is able to learn from life experiences, is not defensive, is flexible, looks at themselves positively, is creative, lives in harmony with others, has ability to interpret experiences accurately, allows themselves to experience the emotions (good and bad), experiences the inner freedom and is continually growing and becoming.
In this part we will look at allowing a child to experience life at different stages of the child’s life.
At 2 years
One aspect of healthy parenting is allowing a child to experience life. Some of the ways that children experience is, trying limits at 2 years. The child will throw tantrums, do exactly the opposite of what is expected; want to feed themselves, dress themselves or even chose the dress to wear. They exercise their independence.
A healthy parent understands that those are normal behaviors for a child that age. A healthy parent also knows how to employ healthy limits by not offering what the child asks in anger or with tantrums. They will allow the child to cry, scream etc.
Does your wounded inner child get triggered?
The two-year old’s behavior does not trigger a healthy parent to anger. If this behavior triggers you and angers you, makes you shout or spank the child, then you are not healthy. It is the unhealed inner child in you that gets triggered. You need to seek professional help to deal with the wounded child inside you.
If the tantrum is overwhelming, instead of negatively reacting to the child or doubting your own capacity as a parent, a healthy parent will acknowledge that they are overwhelmed, walk away, calm down and reevaluate themselves. Is it that they are tired, emotionally drained, stressed, physically unwell? Healthy parenting requires self-awareness.
Healthy parenting allows one to teach the lessons to the child by allowing the child to express their emotions through crying and once the child has fully expressed emotions, listen, meet their needs, hug the child and let them feel loved or even explain calmly why you will not give what they needed. That way, they learn to experience and express their emotions and also, they learn to calm down and communicate their needs.
Children who are not allowed some levels of independence grow up with unhealthy shame which affects their self-esteem negatively. They do not believe in their capacity to deal with life issues and are constantly feeling ashamed for not being able to exercise their own thoughts, decisions and will.
3 to 6 years
Allow the child to begin to plan activities, make choices and accomplish play tasks. When a parent is healthy, they will allow the child to play more (best play is use of toys and outdoor play). I personally discourage lots of digital play. Digital play stops a child from taking initiative, does not allow any decision making, reduces creativity, does not help the child to accomplish any task.
Do a child’s adventures trigger anger in you?
When dealing with this age, healthy parenting means allowing a child to adventure, explore with toys or any other household item (at that age, any item becomes a toy; remote is a phone, a box is a car, a sweater is a baby etc).
If it is not possible to have outdoor play, let the parent allow indoor play. A healthy parent allows children to disorganize the room during play and then trains them to organize it after play. Perfectionism is a sign of a wounded/unhealthy parent person and is not a strength.
When a parent or caregiver wants children to remain clean and organized, have the house always organized and neat, this parent is not healthy and is stopping this child from experiencing life, learning and developing in a healthy manner.
Do you impose decisions on your child?
Whether indoor or outdoor activities, the children this age learn to choose the friends they play with, the activities they engage in, and the way that they approach different tasks. Parents and other adults might want to guide children toward certain friends, activities, or choices, but children might resist and insist on making their own choices.
Giving children a chance to largely make their decisions and using limits for only what is harmful and unsafe for them such as playing with sharp objects is healthy parenting. It allows children to experience life and learn to take initiative.
This prepares them to avoid the cycle of men and women who get stuck when they find themselves jobless or when they face any other crisis because they have no idea where and how to start. A child who learnt to take initiative and accomplish tasks is likely not to get stuck when crisis happens later in life.
Both parents have a role to play in healthy parenting
As much as possible, healthy parenting allows both parents to be present and emotionally available for the children. By being present and emotionally connecting with the child, a child learns to connect to both male and female gender later in life in healthy ways.
A parent who avails all other of child’s needs and is not emotionally available is unhealthy and continues the cycle of raising children with no skills to relate with others in healthy ways.
In the next part (part two) on this topic we look at children from age 6 upwards.
By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com