A million years ago (actually, it was only about 15 or so), I worked for a small agency that provided services to people who were court-ordered to take parenting classes. This program used THE best definition of the role of a parent I have ever encountered. I have continued to use it with clients, in presentations and books ever since, and I want to share it here now.
Let’s start with the actual definition, and then unpack it a bit;
The role of a parent is to create an environment that is safe, structured, and supportive, in which a child can explore, make decisions, make mistakes and self-correct, in order to become an independent and self-sufficient adult.
This is a deceptively simple sentence, which seems straightforward at first glance, but contains a huge amount of information, and is also remarkable for what it doesn’t include.
The role of a parent is to create an environment
This phrase sets the stage for everything else. By focusing the parent’s job on creating an environment, we acknowledge that a child’s development resides fundamentally within themselves. Development and growth are not a thing we do to our children; rather, we help create the context and situation around them which encourages their own innate development.
This concept is particularly important when your child is asynchronous, and developing along a non-standard pathway. We are not focusing on the content of their achievements measured by an age-based yardstick. We are looking at where they are right now, and what they are working to become, and then focus on supporting that immediate next step. What step it is comes from within the child, not from without.
The power of this approach is that it conveys a strong belief to your child that they are fundamentally whole and ok, whatever their developmental task is. This is one of the basic underpinnings of self-esteem, in my experience.
that is safe, structured, and supportive
I’ve never met anyone who argued with the importance of these three qualities — of course a child needs such an environment. Here’s what this section leaves out: any specific descriptions about what “safe, structured and supportive” includes. This is because, beyond the basic safety of food, clothing, shelter and non-abusive behavior, the answer to that depends heavily on a child’s age, developmental tasks, learning differences, and a variety of other individual attributes.
For example, if you are parenting an infant learning to walk, you will make the environment safer by putting bumpers on the coffee table, and moving nicknacks out of the way. You will make it structured by being sure it’s predictable — if the baby is just learning to cruise around the room, don’t rearrange the furniture before they are somewhat stable. You would be supportive by encouraging the child to try, and reassuring them when the fall that they are not hurt.
By contrast, if the child you are parenting is a teenager who goes out at night with the car, safe may mean building a close relationship with them so they feel they can come to you with problems, or that you won’t embarrass them in front of their friends. Structure might look like firm, clear boundaries about using the car and coming home on time, and supportive could include encouraging them to try new and difficult things.
Considering what is “safe, structured, and supportive” for your child at any given time is a great way to cut through a lot of overwhelm, especially if you have been doing a lot of research about choices — about interventions, educational pathways or even family decisions about where to live. It’s also a very reassuring baseline to come back to when you are feeling unsure of whether or not you are doing an ok job.
in which a child can explore, make decisions, make mistakes and self-correct
These four steps are the foundations of how we build a map of our world inside our heads. Keeping these in mind also ensures that we leave the space for the child to do their basic work. Even if your child has special needs, and in their current stage isn’t able to do these four things yet , you can use the four steps as a guide for how to scaffold your child. They might need help with the explore part of the process, if they are wary of new situations, or suffer from social anxiety. Anxiety can also make decision-making hard, as can motor-planning or executive functioning issues. Using these four steps will help you figure out where the process is stuck, and how you can help unstick it.
And of course, we need to talk specifically about the make mistakes part of the process, both because lots of the kids we work with at Gifted Matters deal with different kinds of perfectionism, and because it’s frequently hard and painful to watch your child make mistakes. Of course we want to spare them unnecessary suffering. But the only way to learn to be ok with mistakes is to … well, make mistakes.
Going back to that example of a child learning to walk: as adults, we can understand that falling down is an integral piece of figuring out how to walk. It helps develop the proprioceptive and vestibular senses that let us understand our relationship to gravity and where our body is in space. If we prevent those falls, or react badly to them, we risk inhibiting very the growth process we are trying to support. Our emotional reactions are also key, telegraphing to the infant that they are ok, and that it’s not catastrophic to fall.
Adjusting to letting our infant fall down is pretty easy, but as our children grow, the stakes get higher, the mistakes get more complicated, and it’s harder to let them happen. It’s also a challenge to invite your child to do self-correction, and that brings us to another thing that’s not in our definition: punishment. Especially with intense, smart and sensitive kids, punishing as little as possible is usually a good idea. This is partly because a lot of the time it won’t work anyway (have you ever banished your bookworm child to their room?). It’s also hard to punish a child who didn’t get the memo that adults are supposed to have more power than children. But inviting a child to figure out what went wrong, and why, and what to do next time? While it’s complicated and time-consuming (and also may require scaffolding), it’s much more likely to be effective. It’s also more likely to build your relationship, where as being seen as “the punisher” is not.
in order to become an independent and self-sufficient adult
This is another piece of the definition that rarely has arguments against it — pretty much everyone can agree this is a good idea. The word that isn’t here which is important: happy. Jennifer Senior gave a great TED talk about that. Happy is a tough goal, and in fact is probably better attained by not working towards it directly. Happy is a by-product of other things, like independence and self-sufficiency.
And finally, possibly the most important word in our definition: adult. We can so easily forget that we are not trying to raise 3 year olds, or 10 year-olds, or 17 year-olds; we are trying to grow functioning adults. And when you orient your parenting towards adulthood and away from childhood, you can begin to see that emotional self-regulation isn’t just about behaving well now, it’s about laying the foundations of working with frustration and disappointment that the world will inevitably throw our way throughout our lifespan. It’s about learning words to describe our inner lives, not just so that we can calm our little ones’ meltdowns, but so they can connect in meaningful ways with friends and colleagues, and for some, romantic partners. And when they speak their minds and make other adults uncomfortable, take solace in the fact that the very thing that causes problems for them now is the thing they will need in order to take care of themselves later.