I come from a big family—four girls and a boy. Maybe not so big back in the '60s and '70s 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, I came up with 50. Can you come up with 50 for your mom?
- She's my mom.
- She puts up with me.
- She calls me "kid" even now.
- She's rarely ever yelled at me.
- She's been known to eat sugar right out of the sugar bowl.
- She makes a delicious, addictive form of German poundcake.
- She tells great stories.
- She's really good at Irish pub puzzles.
- She knows a lot of home cures that actually work.
- She can make a bag of candy, especially licorice, disappear like magic.
- She doesn't seem to ever worry about makeup.
- She wears practical shoes.
- She used to go around barefoot a lot.
- She has freckles.
- She does her own taxes.
- She handles all the bills.
- She likes to fix things and is good at it.
- She gets addicted to video games.
- She is always learning.
- She can talk about computer software, programming, web technology.
- She has a knack for picking out unique, special presents for me.
- She surprises me.
- She likes watching art and indie movies that aren't in major movie theaters.
- She never really told me what I should do, be study, etc. when I grew up.
- She makes delicious rouladen, pork shoulder, and other slow-cooked meats.
- She's easily amused.
- She has a good memory.
- She has good taste in music and not just in one genre.
- She has shiny dark brown hair.
- She appreciates corny jokes and puns.
- She has a good voice for reading stories out loud, especially to kids.
- She's very good with kids.
- She has a lot of imagination.
- She obviously loved her parents very much.
- She is full of love.
- She's very patient.
- She's incredibly observant.
- She wonders about things others don't wonder about.
- She likes to make things from scratch.
- She gives me good advice, even when I don't exactly want it.
- She is generous.
- She doesn't lay guilt trips.
- She's done an amazing job taking care of my dad's medical care.
- She's done charity work through church for decades.
- She reads a lot of different types of books.
- She tells interesting stories about life in the '30s & '40s.
- She makes me laugh.
- She has a nice nose.
- She doesn't take herself super seriously.
- She's awesome."
I read this list and within two minutes had added a bunch more:
- She let us wander around loose in the woods and for miles around on bicycles when we were kids.
- She taught us to use public transportation.
- She likes to walk.
- She doesn't bug you when you ignore her advice (even if she does say 'I told you so' when you don't and you should have).
- She did really, really cool crafts with us when we were kids—dyed and palsanki eggs, painted rocks, tissue paper and paper mache plaques, and pine cone wreaths.
- We went camping a lot.
- She wears dresses all the time—even camping.
- I saw her balance on her bottom holding both feet up with legs straight while she was at least eight months pregnant with my sister.
- She never acts old.
- She lets my kids just act like kids. And she let us act that way, too.
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 classic—book on parenting style and its influence on the development of children. In that seminal work, and in work since the '50s, 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, generosity 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—generosity 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—the joy of being—is again an expression of an active engagement in life and a vibrant curiosity 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.