“Whoever has not a good father should procure one.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

If you’ve been well parented yourself, let’s face it, your job is easier. You have a loving template to follow, and you can tweak it to make it even better.

But what if you did not have the best parenting mentors? I can’t begin to tell you how many times in therapy I have felt patients’ heartbreak about what they didn’t get from their parents. They say “My mom was not nurturing,” or “My dad was really self-centered,” or “My parents didn’t see me.” Without good role models at home, they wonder how they will ever be able to be good parents themselves. But they can!

“I had a really bad childhood. My parents made some awful mistakes. We did not feel happy or even safe in my house. But, God love them, I am sure they did not set out to hurt us. Their own stuff just got in the way. I did not want to carry that pain and anger with me for the rest of my life, so I forgave them, and I forgave myself. I sent some love to the little girl who had to put up with all of that—and then I made a decision to mother differently.” —Tales from the couch

This is what I absolutely love about being a therapist: seeing people evolve, change, and grow into the best versions of themselves. Although I intended to be a child psychiatrist, I switched to adult psychiatry when I realized that you cannot fully help children without helping their parents. So many grown-ups feel ill-equipped to be parents. Many patients tell me, “I had an emotionally unavailable mom. I have no idea how to be different for my child.”

That’s when you have to open your parenting lens wider. Don’t let your history become your children’s destiny. Find your role models elsewhere. Borrow other people’s lenses. Shift in a bit of color from one, a bit of light from another. Stack them up like a kaleidoscope.

Maybe you had a teacher who took a special interest in you. Or an uncle who brought fun into your childhood. Or a friend’s mother who made you feel safe and cared for. Maybe one of your friends’ parenting is exemplary, and you can borrow from him or her. Or you were reparented by a therapist who showed you a different way. All of these people can become part of your composite parent figure.

“When I was growing up, I would eat over at my best friend’s house. Mrs. Gold would say to me the simplest things with such love in her eyes. Even if it were, ‘Please pass the salt, darling,’ I felt her absolute grace. We did not talk that way in my family, but I knew that, someday, I would talk to my kids like Mrs. Gold talked to me.” —Mom of two

We all need a few Mrs. Golds—and other fragments of wisdom and grace—in our parenting kaleidoscope.

May parenting take you to the depths of your capacity to love. May that love for your children illuminate the path to your highest self. And as they grow, you grow.

Parenting is just that—a divine invitation to be your highest self. Accept it.

Your children and your children’s children will thank you.

-Excerpt from Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child with Love and Limits

About the Author

Robin Berman, M.D.
Robin Berman, M.D., is a psychiatrist and associate professor at UCLA.

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