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Parenting Differently Than Your Parents

By Karen James, LCSW-C 

Did you hear about a 2015 New York Times essay titled, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This? Based on a research study to test if specific questions and conversations might create and deepen a sense of intimacy between 2 people, Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love piece lists the 36 questions to foster closeness. They are interesting questions, but I don’t think I’d go through the experience with just anyone! There needs to be some level of trust between you because the questions focus on exposing our vulnerability as a means to become closer. 

I realized I’ve used a form of at least one of the questions for years in my work with couples and in thinking about my own life. Question 10: “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”  Sometimes I will add, “What qualities and activities that you experienced in your family as a child are important to you and you want to bring to the family you establish?” 

Sometimes we do not even realize what we valued or wanted to change about our families, but they could still be affecting our decisions and behaviors. My childhood fantasy was that someday a King and Queen who were my real parents would come to get me, and I could finish growing up as a Princess. I knew they would let me have anything I wanted and never say “No” like my parents sometimes did. It seemed perfect…from a child’s perspective. 

We all know as adults that living a life where parents never set limits, have no rules, and allow us “to get everything I ever wanted” might not turn out so well—for any of us. But the child’s view is simple, and children know nothing of long-term consequences. And we’ve learned through the media lately that being Royal does not seem to make people happy anyway! 

It really helps us be better parents to think about our own childhoods. How are they affecting our methods of parenting?  One client described feeling that her parents were too busy and distracted by problems to provide much guidance. She also felt that they were critical and judgmental. In therapy she realized that she felt so worn out as a parent now because she was working so hard to parent in the exact opposite way that her parents had. She was always present, always attending to a child’s needs, and truly a “helicopter parent.” It was exhausting. Had it been the right choice? 

In her reaction to her childhood she saw things as black and white, as if there were only 2 choices. Either she repeated her parents’ mistakes, or she went entirely the other direction. Because she was still being reactive, she didn’t even think to look at other choices for parenting style. Might there not be something more in the middle where children’s needs were met without sacrificing a mother’s? Where children felt supported but could learn self-reliance?  Where they knew they were loved but were also resilient and not over-protected? 

When we do not think things through, we often act on our reactive feelings. Our awareness of thoughts and feelings about the parenting style from childhood and the ways it affected us can help us make more rational choices. Choices that could be better for both the child and the parent. Unexamined, those thoughts and feelings may lead to choices that we also did not examine. I think of change as a pendulum that sometimes swings too wildly and too far in trying to be different.  

We can’t keep our childhood’s simple views of what makes a happy family or a happy child. While we may be very clear about the consequences of our parents’ choices, we also need to carefully think of the consequences of our own choices. And not just for the sake of the kids, but for ourselves, too. 

Karen James, LCSW-C is a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services 

JCS provides a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland.  We offer guidance and support when you are seeking solutions for emotional well-being, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, employers and businesses, achieving financial stability, living with special needs, and preventing risky behaviors. To learn more, please visit  jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.   

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