The Greatest Gift You Can Give Your Child

Caring for yourself is a strategic act of good parenting

Posted Jun 11, 2011

When the airlines tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first, it is because they know that our children will not be okay unless we are.

When you became a parent, you began living for someone else. Your drive to protect your child began to override your desire to meet your own needs. But if your goal is to build a happy person who is prepared to thrive through good times and bad, you must care for yourself with the same degree of intensity with which you protect and nurture your child.

We parents are sometimes resistant to taking care of ourselves. Why? Maybe it is because when we devote every last drop of energy to making sure our children's needs are met, it seems like a small sacrifice to forgo our own. This is especially true for those of us who hold the unspoken fear that because we work so hard we aren't giving our children the time we think "good" parents do.

As a child and adolescent advocate, I know that the well-being of your child rests on your health and personal resilience. If I thought I could sell you on caring for yourself by telling you that you deserve to be happy, I would. But after years of experience with parents, I know that an approach that centers on you will be appreciated for the moment but forgotten later. I therefore need to emphasize that caring for yourself is not selfish-it is a selfless and strategic act of good parenting.

Parenting is a long haul proposition; burnout is simply not an option. When you maintain your interests and address your physical and emotional needs, you will conserve the energy that you can then share with others.

Children want their parents to be okay. They feel calmer and more confident when they see that their parents are taking care of themselves.

Above all, they watch us closely. We parents are role models of what adults are supposed to look like. When we work hard for tomorrow but also enjoy ourselves today we demonstrate that life is about the journey and not the destination. When we address our problems, we refuse to be shamed by our imperfections and make it safe to admit personal limitations. When we reach out to others, we model that strong people seek support and guidance. When we model healthy coping strategies we demonstrate that there are positive ways to manage stress. When we live a balanced life while also caring for others, we prove it is possible.

Let's take this a step further: Do you want your child to grow up and focus all of her energies on caring for her children while losing herself in the process? You are the model. Show that good parents are child-centered, but maintain a rich adult existence.

Never forget that your parenting goal is not to raise a happy 17-year-old-it is to raise a person prepared to become a healthy, successful 35, 40, and 50 year-old. Show your child what that looks like.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the author of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Book "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings" and the co-author of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens" with Susan Fitzgerald.