In Praise of the Transparent Parent

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What does it mean to be a good parent? Must you always control your anger? Must you always be 100% consistent in enforcing rules? Must you always maintain a unified front with your partner? What if it was OK to be inconsistent, upset, and even at odds with other caregivers? What if giving our children a safe window into the real stresses and conflicts of being an adult is exactly what our kids need to become competent adults?

There’s no lack of sources of advice on parenting. If we’re not being goaded into the parenting style du jour by books, magazines, or TV, then we’re receiving unsolicited advice from teachers, our own parents, in-laws, and even total strangers. To this mountain of injunctions, I’ll add my own: in your struggle to be a good parent, letting your true feelings show, and getting your own needs met are usually good things — for you and your child.

Needs in Focus

If you really want to understand behavior, almost any behavior, you need only to discover the needs it fulfills. Children are renowned for odd behaviors, but I’ve observed that much of the strangeness evaporates when the underlying need comes to light. Parents become attuned to their child’s needs almost from the very beginning when they try to decode an infant’s cries. As kids develop, their needs become more complex, but fortunately they also have more tools to let us know what they need, at least in theory. But what will happen if you as a parent continually deny and ignore your own needs? “Putting the kids first” may be both noble and necessary at times, but if it becomes a rigid pattern, what will our children learn? Remember, kids don’t do what you say, they are far more likely to do what you do. So if you’re not expressing yourself, then what are the odds that you’ll get a straight answer to questions like “how are you feeling?” or “what happened at school today?”

Rules Revisited

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“Children crave consistency,” the parenting experts proclaim. And there’s a good amount of truth to this statement. Having a regular routine can be soothing and provide a framework so everyone in the family knows what to expect and when to expect it. Structure and rules help make sure everyone is fed on time, gets enough sleep, and does their share of the housework. But you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to rules and structures. Circumstances change beyond the expectations of the rules. If there isn’t some flexibility in the process, the rules become pointless restrictions or a weapon for one family member to wield against another.

With a little reflection, we often discover that important values underlie most of our rules. If we truly desire to teach our children values, then making the connection between values, rules, and practices is imperative. We stick to a bedtime because we value our children’s attentiveness and energy level the next morning. We insist they brush their teeth because we value good health. And if you do go through the process of asking “why” when considering a rule, you’ll usually find the right places to be flexible. Losing a bit of sleep to observe a once-in-a-lifetime event may well be worth the grogginess the next day. On deeper consideration, some longstanding rules may turn out to be without foundation and out of step with what matters most for the family right now.

Competent Conflict

Kids fight. And they usually do so in a childish way. Parents often disregard or intervene in the fight, but whether they ignore the conflict or break it up, a chance to learn about conflict and resolution has been lost. Meanwhile, if mom and dad are keeping up a “united front” despite their differences, the kids may miss out on another chance to learn how to settle differences with more maturity. Once again, the parents also pay the price if they have to keep their disagreements bottled up until the children aren’t around. Many children are also keen observers of the nonverbal cues that signal something is not right between the parents. Without further input, children will often assume the worst. I’m certainly not advocating that parents should air all their differences in front of the children, and a vicious, bitter argument will do no one any good — but modeling good conflict resolution skills on real conflicts when they’re really happening may offer some of the most valuable lessons a child ever learns.

Even Dad Gets Sad

Speaking purely from personal experience as a small child, I remember feeling as though adults were a great mystery. They had so much knowledge and they could do so many things I couldn’t even imagine doing myself. Their level of emotional control seemed limitless…at least until I got into trouble. Then all bets were off. As an adult, I suspect that a lot of my “getting in trouble” was mostly irritating them when they were particularly emotionally vulnerable due to things I knew nothing about. It would have been wonderful if I could have known how they were feeling, even if they were irritable, angry, or sad. As I got older, I would have learned when and how to “give them space” so they could deal with their own stuff. Today I am grown and they have both passed, but I keep my childhood desire in mind and make sure my son knows how I’m doing emotionally.

For whatever reason, parental repression of needs, thoughts, and emotions have become part of “good parenting.” But reversing this trend with good communications skills and common sense about when to disclose and when to keep mum can make life more pleasant for us and our children.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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