Thursday, July 2, 2009

Being a better Parent

Want to be a better parent? Be more selfish!
by Gregory Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at Dayton Children's and Dayton Daily News columnist
At a workshop for parents of older teenagers, I asked the group “What was the biggest mistake you made when your children were younger?”

I expected the typical answers about the need for consistency, limit setting, and positive feedback. Instead, one parent bluntly responded, “I think I spent too much time with my children. I made them the center of my world. That wasn’t good for them, me or my husband.”

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. This candid response evoked a strong and supportive reaction from the other parents, most of whom were mothers.
One mom remarked that, “Our lives centered around our children’s needs when they were infants. However, I don’t think I did a good job in adjusting as they got older. My 14-year-old still thinks the world revolves around her. When she needs something, she expects me to stop whatever I’m doing and take her somewhere. What about my life? I must admit I’ve inadvertently raised her to think that she is the most important person in our family.”

Another parent, recently divorced, lamented the effects this parenting style had on her marriage. “I wish I had been more selfish. I gave up too much for my children. I stopped working out, gave up my interest in pottery, and didn’t spend much time with my husband. Now, I’m divorced and my kids are getting ready to go off to college. I’m not sure what’s left in my life.”

This approach to child rearing, making kids the center of the family, is so very different than the way children have historically been raised in this country and elsewhere. What’s going on with this generation of parents?

One parent volunteered, “I have great kids. I enjoyed being with them and getting involved in their activities. I always tried to build up their self-concept and tell them how special and important they were. I think I went too far. I don’t think I prepared them for the real world.”

Another parent offered a different perspective. “I’ve always been successful in everything I’ve done. My children are an extension and reflection of me. Since I quit my job to raise them, I wanted to be as successful with them as I was in my profession.”

As I carefully listened to this group, I realized that this child-centered approach was due to a number of cultural changes in the past several decades. One of the factors had to do with people in my profession. We preached the wrong message about children.

Professionals like myself have made a serious mistake in communicating that the needs of children should come first in the family. We’ve focused on children’s needs, not what’s best for the family. We’ve talked about the importance of helping children feel good about themselves rather than act properly. We’ve focused on self-concept and individual growth rather than the importance of sacrifice and contributing to others. When kids misbehave, we blamed parents rather than acknowledge what every professional knows but is afraid to say. Some kids are just bad, in spite of and not because of their parents.

Parents of very young children can learn a lot from the mistakes of the “children first” generation. Keep the focus on the needs of the family, not the wishes of your child. The way to be a good parent is to maintain your own interests and individuality. Spend time with your spouse, nurturing and developing that relationship.

Enjoy, love, and stay involved with your kids. Just don’t forget about the rest of the family—you and your spouse!
Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a child psychologist at The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton and a columnist for the Dayton Daily News.

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