I come from a big family - four girls and a boy. Maybe not so big back in the 60's and 70's when we were all born, but big enough then and huge now.
My youngest sister - 15 years my junior - just posted this to Facebook:
"Fifty things I love about my mother:
In anticipation of Mother's Day, came up with 50. Can you come up with 50 for your mom?
I read this list and within 2 minutes had added a bunch more:
My sister immediately posted she could list 100 more.
Now, I study parenting for a living - have done so as a developmental psychologist since 1984. I've read most of the critical literature on the topic of parenting since 1929, when Symonds published his first - and critical - book on parenting style and its influence on the development of children. In that seminal work, and in work since the 50's, students of parenting have looked at global parenting style in terms of two major dimensions: responsiveness and demandingness.
In terms of predicting child outcomes, those qualities are important - a point I've hit over and over again in this blog.
But what strikes me about the list that my sister and I generated is that it has nothing to do with either of these two dimensions (not that my mom wasn't both responsive and demanding). I don't think that's because developmental psychologists have missed something important. Rather we've been asking a different question: what qualities do parents have that optimize child outcomes.
The list my sister and I generated is about the qualities that we love about our mother. Some of those qualities are those that demonstrate her support for us (i.e., responsiveness), but most of them are about who she is as a person.
Parenting as an Expression of Self
Who my mother is as a parent stems from who she is as a person. I think that's true of all of us.
Reading over the lists, what strikes me are three things: : unconditional love, generousity of spirit, and joy of being.
The first is the quality that Urie Bronfenbrenner, one of the great developmental psychologists of the last century, said was the single most important component of parenting. He wrote:
"Development, it turns out, occurs through the process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else-especially somebody who's crazy about that child."
My mother was crazy about us. And that unconditional love was expressed by helping us to engage in many, many shared, complex, and flexible activities that helped us learn, express ourselves, and play well with others.
The second - generousity of spirit - is a quality of my mother as a person that comes out in many ways: how she cares for us, how she cares for my father and her involvement in the church, and her love for her own parents. Need I cite the scores of psychological studies that suggest that people who care for others and are generous are liked in return?
The final quality - joy of being - is again an expression of an active engagement in life and a vibrant curiousity that was shared with others. My mother has fun. And she shares that fun.
I think that that's important. Good parenting isn't all about following expert advice and carefully monitoring child progress. It can also stem from being fundamentally happy, from feeling loved yourself, and from sharing your happiness and joy with others - including your kids. Parenting isn't just work, a skill, or a tool to optimize child development.
It's an expression of who you are.
© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved