The Gifts of Childhood and Parenthood (a Pediatric Sermon)

Welcome to 2015. For me, this year will take me back to my roots in pediatrics as I am about to become a grandfather- of twins, no less! As I talked to my son and daughter-in-law about their impending parenthood and all the preparations and expectations of childbirth and baby care, I was struck by how quickly we can get caught up in the “how to” part of being parents and pass over the “why” and even more importantly the joy that parenthood can and should bring us.

So for the moment, let’s take a look at the preface of the baby care book and reflect on what we truly give our children and what our children give us.

Children are a responsibility, but more importantly, a gift. They give us unqualified love, absolute trust, the rediscovery of innocence, discovery and wonder and a cornucopia of feelings: love, excitement, anticipation, disappointment, frustration and everything in between. How we react and interact with our children, from the moment they are born, will become the foundation of their ego, personality and self-worth. This is reciprocated by the gifts (and legacy) we give to our children: unconditional love and acceptance, a foundation of self esteem, a sense of values and traditions, a home that is both safe and promotes healthy values with a commitment to education, tolerance and to the development of skills and abilities that help make us successful. So how can we be good parents? How can we promote these values as we establish our new family?

First, remember that your child is an individual!

We all crave individuality and each of us have unique interests, abilities, desires and skills. It’s critical that we differentiate our wishes and desires as a parent from our child’s choices, interests and abilities. As much as we may want our children to grow up with the same experiences and interests that we had, remember that this is your child’s journey and their desires may be different than yours. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t introduce them to those things that gave us joy and reward but we need to respect their choices and natural inclinations. It’s so important to remember that this is your child’s life. We want to be an active participant in it but not dominate it (does this touch any nerves from your childhood?)

Set a good example! (Yes, you are a role model!)

Probably more than anyone else, your child will model their behavior from observing yours. They will learn how to react to life’s challenges from seeing how you handle yours: what tone of voice you use, how you respect and listen to others, how you work with each other to meet each other’s needs. This also includes developing and promoting healthy habits- how we take care of ourselves is as important as how we care for our children! And a word about tolerance and acceptance, how we act and what we say about others says volumes about who we are and what we represent and is the foundation of our children’s value systems.

Show your love!

This may seem simple and contrived but truly saying and demonstrating it is hugely important! All of your children’s sensory needs need stimulation of affection: by words, kissing, hugging, playing and relaxing together.

Spend time together!

Ultimately you show your love by being together. It’s a reflection of your commitment and proves how importantly you value your relationship to your child. It may at times require sacrifice and may even force you to reevaluate your priorities. Is, in fact, your child and family your number 1 priority? That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything revolves around your child 24/7 and in fact it’s important that your child sees that they are a part of a family that requires compromise and adaptation. But all children need special individual time- no matter how busy we may be- to connect and let them know how important they are to you!

Communicate open and honestly!

What we say and how we say it can be profoundly important (and not only to our children but to one another as parents). Your child will model their behavior and communication from you. It’s vital that we listen; it can be so easy to interrupt or make assumptions. If your child senses that they will be criticized or ignored, they will either internalize (become shy and less interactive) or externalize (act out or opt to make poor choices) to demonstrate their feelings and emotions. Sometimes this can be subtle- what message are we sending when we’re more focused on our cell phone then our child? Children also need understanding that there is a right place and right time for most types of interaction. Children need to know that they have been heard but this may not be the right situation to have that conversation. Some people call that common courtesy. It starts in the home and children get their cues from you.

Understand growth, development and change.

Your child is always growing and evolving. Growth and development is a moving target and understanding this and embracing it is key to effective and knowledgeable parenting. Childhood developmental stages are not imprinted into our parental memory banks or psyche when our children are born. It takes education, reading and asking appropriate questions. “Winging it” is not a good strategy- it may allow for old fashioned theories and advice that needs updating and correction. It’s also hugely important that we look beyond our own desires and wishes to do what is in our child’s best interest. We may want to keep our babies as babies forever, but that is not fair to your child and may set off inappropriate parenting responses. Also, trust me, the next stage developmentally is just as amazing as the previous one and how we handle the current stage “sets the table” for the next. It’s also time to invest in your child’s experiences as they come- play groups lead into preschool, leads into school and extracurricular activities- this is their time and your time too! Don’t lose out. The events and time goes by all too quickly but will serve as powerful memories for both you and your child. Remember that your child is growing up in a community that needs your support and advocacy. Our towns and homes, parks and libraries, playing fields and community centers are there for us but need our support and participation to keep them vibrant and meaningful. Get to know your child’s new friends (and their families), school, teacher and coach (maybe you?). Become involved, interested and invested. It makes our kids better and our communities stronger!

Reduce frustration and aim for success.

We live in an increasingly busy and pressured society with more opportunities than we know what to do with. We may think we’re giving our kids a leg up by introducing them to a wide array of out of home activities and experiences but at what cost? Tight schedules and always being on the go can make everybody frustrated, edgy and lessen the quality of not only the experience but life in general. Are you controlling the schedule or is the schedule controlling you? Ironically, we know that simple things like free play, helping at dinner (or in the garden) or cuddling up to read a book or play a board game are vitally important too. Finding the right mix- for you and your family-is key. Many out of home activities are adult-run, structured and goal oriented. They can be great but is this the right thing at the right time? Are you trying to keep up with the Jones’s or truly enriching your child’s life? Family time is under-appreciated. The importance of family meals, bed time routines and quiet time need to be established early on and are as important building blocks to your child’s development as all the activities in the world.

Offer constructive coping skills.

It may seem sad that we even have to talk about this, but we as parents can be so focused on success and protecting our children that we may not allow them to experience the ups and downs of growing up and how to face and deal with adversity. This may be more important than you think. Children need to learn coping skills just as they need to learn anything else and they need the safety net of a parent’s love and security for those times of disappointment and loss. Without that, they can flounder, become insecure, anxious, timid and apprehensive. Communication, role modeling, listening and caring- it’s all part of the parenting job.

Identify problems and help with solutions.

Emerging problems can easily be overlooked, dismissed or marginalized. Rarely does that help. Avoiding conflict and confrontation is natural, but overlooking or avoiding problems, especially at home, can set the stage for long-term maladaptive behavior. It goes back to themes discussed above- open and honest communication in a setting of love and acceptance starting at an early age with consistency is key. Right or wrong/ good or bad may not always be clear cut to our children. We can be quick to point out negative behavior but children need understanding and help in sorting out their responses to the array of life’s challenges. It’s as important that we point out the good as much as the bad. Also remember how important you are in modeling these responses. Are we calm, mature and being a parent, or over reacting and getting caught up in the moment? Be in touch with your feelings (and pressure points) so that you can better understand and cope with your child’s. Kids are allowed and supposed to be on a roller coaster of feelings- that’s part of growing up. But as the parent you need to be the steady influence- not the trigger. Know yourself and seek out help and guidance – it show’s maturity and insight, not weakness. We as parents are obliged to offer a safe and secure home in a healthy environment for our kids to grow and thrive. Nobody has a perfect life and in many ways the true test of character is how we handle adversity and demonstrate positive and mature coping strategies to our children.

So, wow, we just went through a lot just now, didn’t we? Maybe it wasn’t what you expected and admittedly it’s a little “sermony”. But who better to give a sermon on parenthood goals and expectations than a pediatrician?

Parenting may seem a little daunting but we’ve all experienced it from both sides- first as children and now as parents. How many times can we think back to our childhood and remember how wrong our parents were or how we would do things differently if we were the parents! Funny how it all comes around, isn’t it? Good parenting requires thoughtfulness and understanding. For some, it may require a reshuffling of priorities or push us to “grow up”. It may prompt us to think about our values, hopes and desires and force us to change parts of our lives that may require sacrifice or redefinition. Parenthood will require sacrifice- in part that’s what you signed up for but that sacrifice may ultimately be the best thing you ever did! To some extent, parenthood requires you to subjugate your needs to your child’s needs. It’s both a profound and transformational time. The parenthood owner’s manual is long and can be hard to understand. You’re learning for two- your child and yourself and it requires you to take stock of yourself as much as to learn about the new central figure in your life. Take your responsibility seriously but joyfully. Embrace the moment and the times. They will pass remarkably quickly. Be the best parent you can be so that your child can be the best person they can be!

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