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(10) Parents & Kids

Become a UNICEF Global Parent and help children around the world

Self-Respect: Parents Have Needs Too

When we begin to know ourselves in an open and self-supportive way, we take the first step in the process that encourages our children to know themselves.

-Daniel J. Siegel

Parents are born into parenting with the arrival of their first child. Unlike in past generations, when extended families provided a network of connections among different age groups, for many of us the arrival of our first child is our first experience of being with a newborn, let alone caring for one 24/7. And it quickly dawns on us that we are on our own, with neither job training nor so much as an instruction manual or a CD like the one that came with our cell phone, for this-the most challenging and important job of our lives! It is sobering to realize that a want ad for a job as a parent would read No training or previous experience required.

And so, at your birth into parenting you were irrevocably thrust into a wildly new dimension of life, equipped primarily with your biological drive to survive, your natural inquisitiveness, and a vast innate capacity to learn and grow-just like your newborn baby. It can be a humbling experience to see how little you know and how much there is to learn about living with children. The fact is, you are learning about family relationships, co-operating, and caring, right along with your kids. On especially challenging days, your life experience and advanced capacity for reasoning and problem solving may not seem to count for very much.

The learning curve for parenting is steep; it often becomes steeper as children get older, and you might despair at ever getting ahead of it. In the face of this all-day-every-day job that lasts for approximately eighteen years and has such important implications for a child’s future, many parents become consumed by what their kids need and forget to take care of themselves. Some parents believe that being a good parent means they should sacrifice their own needs, entirely. A father of six stood up in the middle of one of our parenting workshops to say, It’s ridiculous to talk about parents’ needs. You just have to face the fact that when you parent, you have to sacrifice your needs for eighteen years. This father sounded grim and resolved, and we felt sad for him and his children. Giving to your children while sacrificing your own needs comes at a high cost to everyone.

Your Needs Matter!

The bottom-line reality-that your needs matter and that you must first care for yourself before others-is demonstrated by the airlines when they direct parents, in case of emergency, to first place the oxygen mask on themselves, and then place a mask on their child. It is easy to see, in this case, that parents will be of no use to their children if they themselves can’t breathe. Parenting off the plane is no different, just less obvious. In either case, meeting your needs is nonnegotiable. If you are not taking care of your needs so that you are thriving, you may be able to help your children survive, but you will not have the vitality and presence you need to help them thrive. Nor will you be modeling what it takes to care for oneself, which is what your child will need more than anything when she moves out on her own.

Parents’ needs do matter, and they require more attention and resources than most communities presently offer. We dream of having a place in every community where parents can go on a regular basis to recharge their batteries, learn, and create community. We can easily imagine school campuses transformed into community centers that serve families during evening hours and on weekends. While children are busy with activities, parents could receive empathy, coaching, and the companionship of other parents. They could also do yoga, tai chi, group singing, cooking classes, or get a massage. Parents and other community members could gather more often to address critical social and economic needs in their community. We like to imagine a world that includes lots of support like this for parents and families. These texts are not a substitute for the family and parent support we’d like to see in the world, but we hope it will inspire you to identify and value your needs, as well as the needs of your children. We live in hectic times; it’s difficult, if not impossible, to take good care of all of your needs all of the time. The intention to do your best in this regard is a big step forward.

Meet Your Need to Know What You Need

Most of the parents we meet aren’t doing a great job of taking care of their needs because they don’t know what their needs are. Like most parents, you were probably raised to give up your needs in order to live up to external standards and expectations determined by your parents, teachers, and employers. Giving up needs was and still is the norm in all structures where people use power over others-including families, schools, and governments. It has been shocking and sad for us to realize how readily parents and teachers, throughout history, have subdued the passionate urgencies of infants and young children in favor of obedience and conformity.

After years of having overlooked needs, many adults tell us they feel numb; they want to feel more impassioned, alive, and free, the way they felt in early childhood. Many have erased early memories and given up on or are suspicious of any mention of feelings or needs-referring to people who talk about them as touchy-feely, soft, or needy. Yet parents we work with who learn to reconnect with their feelings and needs experience a renewed sense of vitality and aliveness. They also become more effective at providing for their needs.

What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.

—Joseph Chilton Pearce

Recognize the Cost of Not Meeting Your Needs

When your days are full, fast, and frenzied and you aren’t getting rest, regular meals, or time to relax, it’s difficult to respond enthusiastically or well to the needs of your kids. When you are not making time for fun in your life, you are apt to be less than thrilled by your children’s insistence on having so much of it. When you don’t have someone to listen to you, you might feel overwhelmed with the challenges of listening to your kids.

The emotional costs of letting your energy tanks drain dry, and running on empty, are felt not only by you but by your kids as well. You will find yourself in lose/lose interactions with your kids-nagging, threatening, yelling, making demands, and doling out rewards and punishments. Eventually you will come to a sputtering stop-the point of exhaustion and overwhelm where you just burn out. Full of self-doubt, helplessness, and hopelessness, you are likely to question the meaning and purpose of what you’re doing, say things you never meant to say, and threaten things you don’t really want to happen. Another effect of allowing your needs to go unmet for long periods of time is that you are apt to become resentful. When your children realize the price you are paying to care for them, they may feel guilty about receiving from you and resist or even refuse what you offer. At the same time, they are likely to get the mistaken impression that you are someone who doesn’t have needs. And if they aren’t aware of what your needs are, they won’t be able to contribute to fulfilling them. One way or another, your ability to give joyfully to your children and the joy they could have in giving to you will be compromised. Kids are empathic by nature and want and need to see themselves as givers. (Of course, there are limits to what they can contribute toward meeting the needs of parents, and they can’t be expected to be a primary source for parents’ needs.)

A friend related this story about how her child found a way to help when he knew what was needed: One afternoon my two-year-old son and I had been playing together for quite a long time, and I was feeling very tired. I wanted to take a short nap, but he was still energetic and wanted to continue to play. I told him I was tired and needed a rest. He kept insisting that I play with him. Finally, I shifted to his point of view and said I hear that you are having a lot of fun playing with me and that you don’t want to stop; you just want to keep playing. I was so tired I couldn’t think of much more to say. I think he caught on to the intent of what I was trying to say because something shifted for him. It wasn’t long before he came up with his own strategy. He said: Mummy, you lie down, and I will lie down next to you. And, that’s what we did. He entertained himself and allowed me to nap for a half hour. When I got up he asked me, Mummy, have you slept enough? I was very touched.

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