Becoming a parent for life

Several years ago, during my oldest son’s college orientation, the provost made a statement that had an immediate impact and continues to resonate with me to this day. He said, “Becoming is superior to being.” I hastily jotted down this quote, eagerly anticipating the prospect of exploring its broader implications at a later date.

Upon further scrutiny, the subtle, yet poignant, distinction between being and becoming emerged. While “being” denotes a static, unchanging state, “becoming” implies an active, ongoing process. “Becoming” reflects the gradual, evolving nature of life.

As humans, we are continuously becoming. Unlike other mammals, we have the power to alter the outcome. Every day we have the prerogative to make choices that modify the person we are becoming. We can exercise the option to make the most of the best of ourselves in every aspect of our lives. What an extraordinary privilege and awesome responsibility.

Twenty-six years ago this month, I gave birth to my first child. Instantly, I was a mother. While it took only nine months to achieve that title, I quickly learned that becoming a parent would take much longer. Just when I began to feel comfortable and confident, my son would reach another milestone. In order to optimize his growth and development, I had to become the parent he needed me to be at each stage.

Ten years and two miscarriages later, I delivered another son. With 10 years of parenting experience, the second time around should be a breeze, I thought. It would merely be a matter of reusing the strategies that had worked with my older son. But my hand-me-down parenting plan didn’t work. My younger son was similar to my older son, but he was not the same. He had his own way of interacting with and responding to the world.

Clearly, these two distinctly different individuals, while traveling the same developmental trajectory, were going to do so in their own unique way. My parenting had to become responsive to their personal styles in order to be effective. It is a process that is ongoing. To this day, I am striving to become the parent my sons need. Here are some of the practices that have been helpful in this endeavor:

Revisit childhood

The parent we become originates in our childhood. The parenting we experienced as children provides the foundation for the parenting we exhibit. Spend time reflecting on the parenting you received. What was effective? What was not? What would have been more helpful?

Recall what it felt like to be the current age of your child. What did your parents do well? What might they have done that would have made a world of difference to you? Reflect on how you can use these memories to become the parent your child needs.

Learn human development

Become a student of human development. Familiarize yourself with the characteristics and milestones associated with your child’s age and stage. Remember that these are just general descriptions. Each child develops at his own pace.

Avoid comparisons with siblings, relatives, or friends. Avoid justifying misbehavior with the “it’s just a stage” excuse. You can only do what you know. The more you know about human development, the more you can do to optimize your child’s experience. Use your knowledge of human development to guide you in becoming the parent your child needs.

Study each child

Become an expert on your child. Watch closely how he interacts with and responds to you, to others, to the world around him. Listen carefully to his vocalizations, words, explanations for how things work and why things are the way they are. Pay attention to how he expresses his feelings. Use these observations to inform your decisions as you seek to become the parent your child needs.

Create a vision

Imagine yourself as the parent you want to become. Incorporate parenting qualities modeled by parent heroes you can identify from personal experience, literature, and other sources. Be sure to include the parenting strengths you already possess. Apply your knowledge of human development and the observations of your child’s temperament. Visualize yourself effectively managing a situation with your child that you have found challenging. Mentally experiment with saying and doing things that seem more productive than the strategies you currently practice. The more comfortable new skills feel, the more likely you are to use them as you work toward becoming the parent your child needs.

Practice for improvement

The old adage, “practice makes perfect,” is flawed. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. The most we can do is our best. Fortunately, since becoming a parent is a continuous process, our best can continue to get better. We can practice to achieve continuous improvement in our efforts to become the parents our children need.

Clearly, the ways our children need us change over time. Becoming the parents they need does not stop at some magical age — ours or theirs. Eventually they may no longer need us, but hopefully, they will always want us in their lives. Other jobs are temporary, but the role of parent is a position we hold for life.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman, has been married for 29 years, and has two sons. She is a family therapist, parent educator, and parenting columnist. She is a resident of Lexington, Ky. To contact her, e-mail parent4life@yahoo.com.