“This is the way I was brought up. There’s no way I can change.”
“My mother did this too… I can’t help it!”
“It’s in my DNA. That’s the way it is.”
It’s the popular belief that your early experiences as a child determine who you will be as an adult. If your parents spoke to you in a certain way, then you will inevitably speak to your children that way. If your mother gave you guilt about that second cookie you ate, then you will give your daughter guilt about her second cookie. The tenth anniversary edition of Parenting from the Inside Out comes to tell us once again that our childhood is not our destiny. You don’t have to be defined by your childhood experiences. Shaped by them? Sure. But, you don’t have to repeat those experiences, you can use them to learn and grow as a parent.
There are six essential points to the method that the authors Drs. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell call “parenting from the inside out.” Those points are the foundation for parenting that allows you to take the memories and experiences of your childhood and transform them into a positive parenting system.
- Being mindful. The idea of mindfulness is to be present in your thoughts and actions. What that means is that when you are interacting with your child (not every minute of every day!) you are not worrying about the past or the future. This living in the present moment helps your children not only learn about you and the way you function in the world, but also about themselves. When we emotionally connect to our children, they develop a deeper sense of themselves and their ability to interact with the world around them.
- Lifelong learning. Sometimes, it’s hard not to view parenting as a chore. But, if you approach parenting as a burden, you will ultimately stumble because it is impossible to happily carry a burden for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a lifetime. If, instead, you approach those challenges as learning opportunities, you can continue to grow and develop. Ultimately those challenges can give you a second chance at those difficult situations you might have been placed in before. Research shows that our brains never stop developing, and parenting provides you with an opportunity for lifelong learning.
- Response flexibility. It’s extremely important to respond to different situations in different ways. It is also sometimes important to respond to the same situation in different ways because of extenuating circumstances. Drs. Siegel and Hartzell write that “Response flexibility is the ability of the mind to sort through a wide variety of mental processes, such as impulses, ideas, and feelings, and come up with a thoughtful, non-automatic response.” As opposed to a knee-jerk reaction, response flexibility means that you come up with a thoughtful and appropriate response. To that end, children challenge us to remain flexible and to maintain our emotional calm. This is difficult to balance with the need for structure in a child’s life, but responding flexibly helps our children learn to be flexible as well. This flexibility will greatly aid them later in life when they are faced with challenges of their own.
- Mindsight. Mindsight is the capability to see our own minds and the minds of others. This means that we understand that the actions we take and that others take are just the surface of what we are feeling, but that there is a deeper process taking place in the mind. As parents, we often respond to our children’s behavior by focusing on the experience itself, rather than what might be going on in the mind. If as a parent, you focus on the mind, you are helping your child develop emotional understanding and building their social skills.
- Joyful living. This one should be an easy one. The idea behind this one is that parents and children should revel in the wondrous world they live in. This is an important piece of creating a child’s positive sense of self. Even our everyday experiences can be joyful. We can reflect on those everyday moments with our children and appreciate them. While it might sound cheesy, simply enjoying being with our children is an important piece of the puzzle.
Our Memories, Ourselves
Now, we get to the part about using our past experiences to shape who we are as parents, rather than to define us. Of course, when we are parents, our previous experiences influence the way we act with our own children. And, if we have not fully processed those experiences, those possibly negative encounters could trigger negative interactions in our own parent-child relationships.
Drs. Siegel and Hartzell call these memories “implicit memories,” or memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Even though these memories are outside of our conscious control, they can change the way we interact with our children. Rather than seeing our children’s actions as present phenomena, we react to them as manifestations of past experience. These implicit memories can interfere with our abilities to live mindfully, respond flexibly, and maintain mindsight. For instance, if you remember your little brother frequently screamed before he went to sleep at night for an hour and no one picked him up, but do not have conscious memory of this, you might react with rage and frustration when your own child screams when he scrapes his knee.
What can you do to prevent these implicit memories from taking over your ability to respond flexibly and live a life of joy? When you feel yourself having a disproportionately extreme reaction to minor setbacks, you can take a moment. Be mindful. See the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Evaluate your choices of response. Look at it through another perspective. And, finally, choose to parent with joy.