Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Grade Your Parents! The 10 Crucial Criteria

What are the key elements of adequate childhood nurturing?

It’s generally accepted that many of the challenges you now face may stem from your upbringing. Typically, they derive from what your parents—because of unresolved psychological issues from their own upbringing—were unable to provide you with, or instill in you. As a therapist who’s worked with, and learned from, countless clients over the past 30+ years, I’ve compiled a list of 10 elements that I believe constitute the very essence of adequate childhood nurturing.

In my deeper-level work, it’s become routine for me to give clients a handout for assessing their caretakers’ ability to meet their basic dependency needs. I’ve found doing so invaluable in helping them better understand the mental and emotional damage that, however inadvertently, may have been done to them in growing up. Which, inevitably, has served to handicap them as adults. Many of these clients have never before felt “at liberty” to evaluate their parents’ caretaking. But nonetheless, I stress that I’m not really into “parent bashing.” For I believe that all parents do the best they can—given their own unrectified psychological wounds from childhood; their consequent defenses and denial; and their regrettable lack of sophistication, insight, and understanding.

So while I hardly encourage clients to rail endlessly against their caretakers’ deficiencies, I do want them to recognize that generally their parents bear considerable responsibility for defects in their self-image and sense of personal resources. Though they hardly need to see themselves as victims now, in a variety of ways they were victims in the past. For they were required to adapt to a dysfunctional family system—or rigid set of family rules—that ill-prepared them for dealing with the tasks and demands currently confronting them.

Below are ten criteria that I have my clients contemplate to more accurately grasp the why of some of their present difficulties—as well as pinpoint where their parents unfortunately failed to meet their essential psychological needs. In grading your own parents, you might want to (1) print out this post (note the printer-friendly version at bottom); (2) draw three vertical lines (about 1/4” apart) just outside the left-hand margin, going from the first element to the final one; (3) write in “Mo” as a heading for the first column, and “Fa” for the second; and, finally (4) assess each parent’s (and/or step-parent’s) ability to meet your core developmental needs, from “1” (woefully lacking in) to “5” (totally adept at)—or, if you prefer, grade them (remember, this time you’re the authority!) from “A” to “F”.

Here’s the list:

              ELEMENTS OF ADEQUATE CHILDHOOD NURTURING

1. TIME AND ATTENTION. By consistently making their child a priority, and through being reliably available, caretakers make the child feel important, cared about, and secure.

2. EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING. Caretakers are able to identify and appreciate their child’s thoughts and feelings. They can grasp what their child is expressing—or trying to express—thus enabling the child to feel understood (so very important to a child).

3. VALIDATION. Caretakers affirm and support (while not necessarily agreeing with) the reality of their child’s feelings, thoughts, viewpoints, and ideas. That is, they respond to the child’s sharing as personally meaningful, legitimate, or justifiable. Whether the child’s perception, or perspective, is accurate from an adult frame of reference, it’s still appreciated as making logical sense from the child’s point of view.

4. TRUST. Caretakers exhibit a basic confidence in their child’s ability to learn new things, perform tasks, complete projects, etc. In general, they’re able to trust their child with age-appropriate responsibilities—and in doing so, help the child feel capable and competent.

5. ENCOURAGEMENT. Caretakers show approval of, foster and support their child’s willingness to tackle new things, while doing everything they can to alleviate the child’s hesitancy or anxiety—rooted in their natural fear of not being sufficiently intelligent, competent, or adept.

 6. RECOGNITION AND ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Caretakers regularly take note of and show appreciation for their child’s accomplishments—as well as their sincere efforts to achieve, whether or not they’re successful.

 7. TOUCHING AND HOLDING. Caretakers have frequent physical contact with the child that feels supportive, affectionate, and loving—as opposed to manipulative, denigrating, abusive, or punitive. Such behaviors relate to “reliable warmth”: the prevailing emotional tone, or “climate,” in the household.

 8. RESPECT. All the child’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires are taken seriously: they’re not discounted, disapproved or made fun of simply because they’re self-centered, immature, or “less than adult.”

 9. GUIDANCE AND DIRECTION. Caretakers function as “mentors.” Rather than dominating or controlling the child, they share their knowledge and experience to—non-condescendingly—advise, “coach,” or clarify what may be confusing or conflictual to the child);

10. FREEDOM. Caretakers allow the child physical, mental, and emotional liberty. That is, to have their own space, without parents’ intruding on them; to come and go as they please, though with appropriate limit-setting; to feel and verbally express (vs. “act out”) all their feelings; and to openly communicate their sentiments and views, regardless of how much they may differ from their parents’. The child need not fear that honest self-expression will make them vulnerable to parental criticism or censure.

Lastly, those of you who are parents yourselves may wish to assess your own abilities (past and present) to adequately address the dependency needs of your children. Then—if you dare (!)—ask them to fill out yet another copy of this form to verify (or disconfirm) your personal self-evaluation. And, should they agree, strive to be as receptive, and as non-defensive, to their feedback as possible. For this would hardly be the time to mount arguments on your behalf, or to justify yourself. Rather, it’s a special opportunity to learn just how your benign intentions may at times have missed the mark. . . . And it’s also a time to learn how, in the future, you might do better.

NOTE: Do feel free to forward this piece to anyone who you think might appreciate or benefit from it. Additionally, if you'd like to check out my other posts for Psychology Today, please click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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