The Laws of Parenting

This guest article was graciously contributed by Greta Lutman, LCMHC-NC, LCAS-NC, LPC-GA. Greta is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor that specializes in life transitions, parenting, adoption, family conflict, and young adult identity & functioning. Serving as one of our parent coaches, Greta helps parents learn beneficial and effective parenting skills. With support, parents can begin to re-build healthier emotional connections, draw clear boundaries and allow balance and peace within the family system.

Over the past thirty years, while working with and learning from parent-child relationships and overall dynamics of countless families, I have observed certain common misperceptions that seem to underlie many difficulties, misunderstandings, and conflicts between family members. This article identifies several useful principles that, once understood, may help us develop more thoughtful parenting skills, and by extension, skills of life and relationship in general. 

The “Laws” do not describe things parents MUST DO. Rather, these are somewhat universal concepts and principles that might explain problematic behaviors in the parent-child relationship and can illuminate healthier and more helpful courses of action. Often as parents we become stuck in our own early childhood dramas, which may foster a dependence on, a repetition of, or a reaction to, our own lessons from our parents. The simplistic, reflexive stances of parenting in “the way we’ve always done it” or “the way I was raised” or even “the opposite of how I was raised” are the antithesis of conscious parenting. Understanding these principles can help us to raise our awareness, create better relationships, and teach our children without dictating who they are as people.

The Laws themselves are written simply, without much description or explanation, so the reader can think about them, wrestle with them, and come to understand them in their own way. 

  1. The Limits of Influence. You bring your children into the world, or you bring them into your family by adoption or fostering but they have their own paths and wiring, gifts and strengths, which are not dictated by you. This might hurt. 
  1. The Nature of Parenting. Parenting can be tyrannical. Understanding how people respond to tyranny can help you understand your child’s actions, feelings, and beliefs, and your own actions, feelings, and beliefs if your childhood was characterized by tyranny.
  1. My Container. If your container is not big enough or strong enough, your children will tell you this by taking control of the family. 
  1. Who’s in Charge? You must be in charge, but you can’t be in control. 
  1. Over-Functioning. If you over-function to solve your children’s problems or protect them from the natural consequences of their actions, you deprive them of learning how to solve their own problems; and worse yet, you might be teaching them that they’re not capable of doing so. 
  1. Our Division. The further apart we drift as parents, the more we may try to protect the child from the other parent; left unchecked this can become grotesquely skewed, until we no longer see the child at all. 
  1. Consistency. There are two kinds of consistency: consistency over time and consistency between parents. Lack of either or both teaches your child to argue more effectively.
  1. Emotions. Even though there is love between you and your child, it is not your child’s job to manage your emotions or to give you fulfilment. 
  1. “Why” Questions. If you believe you must answer every “why” question your children ask, it may be a sign they have grabbed too much power in the family. 
  1. My Child’s Power. In the face of overbearing parenting, your children might default to the only power they perceive they have: the power to do nothing. 
  1. Agendas. If it becomes more important to you than to them, they probably won’t do it.
  1. Needs. If your children cannot get their needs met directly, they will try to meet their needs indirectly, passively, forcefully, or manipulatively, or they will deny they have needs at all.
  1. My Child’s Choices. Your children’s choices and actions are not about you or at you, unless you try to control who they are, and then their choices and actions might be about you or at you.
  1. Arguing. Children need to argue with their parents. This is uncomfortable but necessary.
  1. Manipulation. If your children are manipulative, look at how you may have manipulated them, or how you have allowed it.
  1. Boundaries and Relationship. You must balance boundaries and relationship: too many boundaries without relationship leads to resentment and rebellion; too much relationship with too few boundaries leads to entitlement and lack of respect. Lack of both boundaries and relationship leads to pain, loneliness, and emptiness. 
  1. Guardrails. The boundaries you set are the guardrails for your children. It hurts to hit the guardrail, but it really hurts to go over the cliff. 
  1. What Works? Whether something “works” or not depends on what your goals and expectations are.
  1. Expectations. Our children often know how we feel about them. If you believe your children are “good” or “bad,” they might prove you right.
  1. Who Is My Child? Your children are who they are, which may or may not coincide with who you think they are, or who you want them to be. This might hurt.
  1. Identity. Your children may not know who they are, but they know who they’re not.
  1. Separation and Individuation. Children must separate from you to figure out who they are. This is uncomfortable but necessary. 
  1. Specialness. Your child is both special and not at all special. 
  1. Values. Your children may have different values than you do, but that isn’t something you can control, and their values are just as important to them as yours are to you.
  1. My Child’s Job. If your children are allowed to manipulate you or are asked to take care of you, they will have less time and energy to play, explore, grow, mature, and learn who they are, which is their primary job. 
  1. What Does My Child Want? Primarily, your children want the time, energy, focus, and emotional presence that characterizes your authentic self. If they can’t get this, they’ll settle for rage, money, gifts, or control. 
  1. Attention-Seeking. Attention is made up of time, energy, focus, interest, respect, and love. If your child is “attention-seeking,” try to understand which of those needs they’re trying to meet, and then give them that.
  1. Learning My Lessons. Your children might be acting out your unresolved pain, and therefore will teach you some important lessons. You can learn the lessons or not…but if you choose not to, you are losing an opportunity to heal some of your own pain. 

Forgiveness. You will hurt your children and they will hurt you. Be willing to forgive them and yourself. You might have to go first.

Perhaps the takeaway from all of this is that somehow our children are our teachers, not because we should put pressure on them to solve our problems, but because we humans teach each other all the time. If we are parenting with open minds we must learn to manage our own reactions and behaviors; to listen, to be consistent, to say what we mean and mean what we say; to understand when to be flexible and when to be firm; to tolerate our children’s feelings, mistakes, and consequences; to cultivate consistency; to be calm and unreactive; to communicate responsibly and respectfully even in periods of difficulty; and to love them unconditionally. 

All of this leads to the final Law, which I call “The Best Kept Secret of Parenting:” It is the parents that must grow up.

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