Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Putting the Parent-Child Relationship First (Unconditional Parenting Principle #4)

In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and for links to all posts in the series.

Kohn's Unconditional Parenting Principle #4: Put the relationship First

As we saw with the third principle of Unconditional Parenting, it's essential to have a vision of where we are going in our parenting journey. One vital aspect to this long view of parenting is to put the relationship with our child first. Placing a premium on the relationship itself provides the structure and freedom to parent with unconditional love. Our role as parent and offspring is not just as leader and follower, dominant and submissive, or authority figure and citizen. Instead, it is a partnership in which the parent is the primary guide and teacher, and often the willing student and listener.

Putting the relationship with our children first means taking the time to consider their viewpoint. It means taking pause when we become upset with them. The challenge is to return our focus to the relationship, rather than just the 'acting out' or irritating behaviors of our children. When making decisions about discipline, we have to consider whether our actions will negatively affect the relationship. This doesn't mean that a child must be happy with every parental decision. It does mean that we should consider whether our choices might damage the relationship. Not getting one's way all the time is one thing and kids can learn to cope with that. Feeling rejected, misunderstood, or unheard, however, could very well create rifts in the parent-child relationship.

In many ways, it helps to think about our role as parents in the same we do our other long-term roles, such as in marriage and friendship. If we genuinely care about the lasting relationship, we spend a lot of time and effort on communication, trust, showing respect and gratitude, and working through disagreements. We screw up. We get angry and hurt. We fight. We make amends. We change. We accept. We also love each other, find meaning and connection, laugh and have a jolly good time.

It's not so different with kids. This is not to say that having a partnership with children means letting them do whatever they want. In equitable, adult relationships, we aren't allowed to do whatever we want, either. Don't mistake partnership for permissiveness.

Having a sound relationship with our children also makes the job of parenting that much easier. When a child has trust, respect, and deep love for a parent -- based on experience, not the biological imperative of being a dependent child -- he becomes easier to guide. Cooperation, communication, and problem-solving are all facilitated by a willingness and sincere desire to interact with the parent. It's no big surprise because adults are the same way. Would you prefer a boss who orders you around or one who treats you with decency?

When the parent-child relationship is strained or broken, however, kids are more likely to "misbehave." Ever notice that when you're stressed, distant, or otherwise not well connected to your child that he becomes harder to deal with? It's not just because your mind and heart are elsewhere or your threshold is low. It's because children can sense a strain on the relationship. Acting out may be the way they ask for help or express their own concerns about the situation. We just have to be willing to listen and pay attention. We have to work a little harder to get what it is they're saying - or screaming, whining, singing, crying, or shouting hysterically with laughter.

The good news is that if we make the relationship with our kids a top priority, then the relationship can recover from the many mistakes we are likely to make as parents (and yes, we all make mistakes). Smaller problems often magically resolve themselves after we take the time to connect. Larger issues may take more time and effort, but even those can be repaired if we genuinely care about our relationship.

If we want the loving parent-child relationship to last beyond eighteen years, beyond independence, distance, and differences in adult lifestyles, it's worth making it a priority. Of course, there’s also the intrinsic value of the relationship. Who can deny the transcendent power of holding your little one close in your arms? On many days, that’s enough to fuel the tiring work of parenting. On other days, it’s nice to know that having that core foundation will make parenting just a bit easier.

Do you have the kind of relationship with your child that you’d like to have?

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