A child psychologist says these are the keys to being the parent you want to be.
When my wife and I had our first child 13 years ago, both of us would have said that successfully carrying out our parental tasks should be our primary focus. But as the years have progressed, we’ve come to a different conclusion. What I now believe is the most critical is not being the best “parental task master,” but rather building “parental capacity,” which directly stems from personal capacity in three areas..
As a pediatric psychologist, I’ve witnessed thousands of instances where a parent’s intent was thwarted by his or her struggle with three essential elements: empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance. Show me a parent with great personal capacity in these areas, and I’ll show you a parent who’s having success (not perfection, mind you) raising their children the way they desire. The more our capacity is lacking in these areas, the harder it is for us to be the parents we want to be, and to guide our children the same way.
Every parent desires to be effective, and no elements are more important than these three:
By empathy, I mean the ability to understand how another person feels, or said in another way, the ability to place yourself in another’s shoes. It doesn’t mean you have to agree or respond right away, but it does mean you truly attempt to understand what he or she is experiencing.
Emotional regulation is the ability is to restrain, reduce, and even alter emotional reactions in a way that is good for the situation, and results in actions that are effective and value-based, not just cathartic and displaced.
Endurance is how a person sustains energy and perseveres through obstacles and stress — physically, psychologically, etc.
Although empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance each have a tremendous impact on how we execute specific parenting behaviors, they don’t operate independently. The more empathy we have, the more likely we will regulate our emotions; the more we regulate our emotions, the more empathy we will feel, and the more empathy we feel, the more likely we will endure. And so on.
Most parents come to my office with great intentions to improve their child’s and family’s circumstances. Still, after strategies are discussed and agreed upon, they come back to me acknowledging that these changes were either not implemented or not sustained. Often, it’s not for lack of skill or understanding. Repeatedly, it has everything to do with the three E’s.
All of this has led me consider a shift in the way I look at myself as a parent. I used to think it was first and foremost about how well I could keep up the specific demands our children brought into our family. Now I increasingly believe that parenting begins and ends with what I do to increase the empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance I possess.
As we grow in these capacities, we may be surprised to find just how life seems more manageable, and meaningful. We may also find that although the tasks of parenting are still challenging and humbling, we’re able to do them more easily and with greater meaning and resolve. And each morning when we wake up, as our capacity increases in even just one of these areas, we will be more excited about the possibilities of the day and less anxious about what could go wrong.
In the end, we as parents were not created to be task masters; we were created to be agents and models of guidance, motivation, and inspiration. If our children see us primarily as ragged, worn individuals scurrying around to meet their needs, they will hopefully still love and respect us for the great efforts we are making (although they might take us for granted). But it is unlikely they will desire to emulate us, because this kind of parenting doesn’t look very attractive for the next generation. If we make the three E’s a priority in our lives, however, one day when our children become parents themselves, there’s a good chance they will inherit this penchant for capacity building, and be able to help the next generation learn how to not just survive, but thrive.
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