Parenting Issues in Relationships

A significant majority of adults in our culture will partner, and at some point in time, have children. Having and raising children turns out to be among the most rewarding, challenging, sometimes difficult and heart rending, and growth inducing experiences that humans can have. There are challenges and hurdles at every stage of parenting, and it is through these challenges and hurdles that we are impelled to grow through the stages of human development as individuals, and through the stages of relationship as partners.

Along the way we learn that it is difficult to be too self absorbed if one is going to parent. And we learn that is not possible to stay in the honeymoon bubble when there are children underfoot. Parenthood calls us to reach out into the world and to reckon with all the things that will impact our children and our families. 

On the soccer field alone, in this day and age, we will get to reckon with watching our children develop competencies and confidence in physical skills, social skills and relationships—with some degree of either success or pain. We will watch children being asked to align with one group, and to compete with another. To some degree, each of our children will be asked to see the opponent as an object to best, rather than as another human, as vulnerable as we ourselves can be. We will be challenged to participate in the politics, in the backbiting and gossip, sometimes in the yelling and threatening or violence, or not; to feel a part of a group ourselves or alienated from the group; invited to see the big picture (that we are all collaborating in a play), or to myopically lobby for our self-centered goals. We will be asked to structure our time, to juggle our concerns, to collaborate with carpools, to coach, to babysit, to facilitate, to intervene or not, to lick wounds, to defend causes and morality and ethical choices, and myriad other tasks requiring a sophistication which we had never imagined would come to bear as a result of an air-filled plastic ball.

In the process, we solidify what we have learned in our own development to date, and we may reach the fulcrum that can result in a new stage of learning. In our partner relationships, we can expand in so many ways. Parenting is the primary venue for sorting out how we can resolve our different points of view without power struggle or without acquiescing. We learn to pick our battles, and we learn that specialization—where we agree on who will do what, and who will manage what—is essential. We will learn that can work together in collaboration, or we can experience that we each will do our own thing with little thought to the choreography of our relationship with our partner.

There are a few key pearls about raising kids that we may finally figure out if our kids are going to do well. We need to be attentive, compassionate, consistent, and present. Yet we need to allow the space between us to be ok, so that our children can wrestle with their personal individual challenges, develop confidence, and find ways to succeed in their own right. We need to be available while being hands-off. This is true at every age of life for our children -- and yet the balance may look quite different at different ages.

We need to provide a structure for our children, not as the last word on what is true, but rather as a base to take comfort in, and yet to move away from -- repeating the dynamics of our psychological/emotional, physical, and mental differentiation from mother. This structure is best when it is neither too rigid nor too relaxed. And the structure works best when we provide a sense of control for our children without being controlling. To do any of this well, we need to be somewhat observant and reflective as well as self aware.

All healthy relationships are dyadic, or one -to-one, which means they happen between two people, not three or more. As parents, each of us will have an independent relationship with each of our children. That relationship will be unique and in some ways private. Things we know and experience will be special, in the sense that only the two of us may have shared them. Anytime a third person injects themselves into a dyadic relationship, confusion, chaos, and conflict will result. 

When parents have different views on how to parent, again, vive la différence! There ought never to be a problem that people hold different perspectives. But there is a problem when parents don't act together, as one parental unit, because children will be unclear who they should listen to and what is being asked. The basic structure of their life will be unclear, with confusion, chaos, and conflict the result. 

Parents eventually learn, if they are to feel successful with parenting, that they need to present a united front, and therefore, that they need to agree between them in advance and privately, how they want to present an idea or expectation to a child. To the extent that partners have trouble creating a Win-Win, they are likely to be more inconsistent in their messages to their children. This can result in hurtful alliances, people pleasing, self-doubt, side taking, secrets, splitting, and ill feelings and ill will. If we wish our children to thrive, we have to be consistent in our parenting messages.

When our children reach the teenage years, they teach us about who they are, about what control we actually have, about how we care for ourselves when we don't have control, and about letting go, among many other things. Most of us parents enter this period kicking and screaming, resisting and arguing, and clinging to a past perspective of our children that no longer exists.

It turns out that if we have unsuccessfully navigated the second stage of relationship, the Urge to Diverge Stage, by the time our children reach adolescence, that they will engage with us to create yet one more layer of power struggle, making it an even far more complicated and painful dynamic than it has been with only two of us playing.

It is only when we try to coerce what they should do, what they should value, how they should think and feel, and what decisions they should make, that our children will lock horns with us, and conclude that the purpose of their lives is not to reach for growth, creativity, joy, and trusting their own wisdom and intuitive truths, but to resist being defined and shaped by our perceptions.

If our children get locked in a tractor beam of ongoing power struggle with us, neither they nor us will move through life confidently or happily.

Probably one of the wisest and most helpful truths we can learn about how to parent is the idea that our job as parents is to teach our children to like themselves, and, very importantly, that we trust them to be able to make good decisions—not to teach them what those decisions ought to be. If we empower children to like themselves and to believe in themselves, we will find that we can trust them to live satisfying, contributory lives. We will find that they are secure in themselves, they can have healthy, loving relationships, and that we can enjoy the people that they have become—a grand reward for any parent.