Every Parent's Unfinished Job

It seems that once you become a parent, your job is never finished. Children are often a joy, routinely a challenge, and always a lot of work. First, there is the constant attention required to meet every need of the helpless infant; then, the hovering supervision of the toddler and early childhood years. As your child grows, there is safety to ensure, noses to wipe, lessons to teach and schoolwork to review, trips and playdates, sports and music, limits to set, hobbies to venture, friends to approve, privileges to entrust.

The maturation process unfolds, revealing who your child is becoming and providing clues and uncertainty about how you’re doing as a parent. Every child is different, and no amount of experience as a parent or professional fully prepares you for what is in store.

As your child matures through the stages of growing up and becoming more independent, there are lessons you try to teach repeatedly and thematically. Among the most fundamental of these are the following:

  1. I can't protect you indefinitely.
  2. You have to find your own way.
  3. Other people matter, too.
  4. As you get older, your perspective will change.
  5. Know your strengths and limitations, including a fluid awareness of your emotional and thinking patterns.
  6. Your beliefs, attitudes, and selfishness will influence how you filter your perceptions and the actions of others.
  7. Learn how to test your desires and will against reality and the ways of the world that conflict with what you want.

Inevitably, you release your child into the world to fend for himself. Truly, you repeat this act of faith many times. You wait with ambivalence, and weather the pride and anxiety as you watch the achievements, mistakes, and growing pains that follow you and your child as you both age, with you always leading the way.

As necessary and when you can, you intervene. You contribute money (always welcomed), advice (sometimes tolerated), and emotional support and presence. Whether it seems necessary or futile, you worry. Despite being reassured or chided against worrying, you cannot help but worry for your child's well-being.

From the moment you met, your child needs you, and you delight in many aspects of that need. Though it turns wearisome, you and your child will argue and contest about his/her need for you and the extent to which you are welcomed or tolerated in his or her affairs. It is the nature of parenthood that your heart is meddlesome. It is a job never quite finished: this burden of providing what you can, investing in the outcome, waiting for results, and wondering what you did. Even when your child is gone—grown, independent, married, estranged, or perhaps missing or deceased—you will always be the one who came first, but tried to put your child ahead of you.

One of the most important life skills your child must learn is the self-awareness and self-regulation of emotional states. We must know our own bodies and minds, from the most basic functions of filling ourselves with food and water to emptying ourselves of unnecessary waste. This is true also of feelings and the ever-shifting balance of emotional and neurological states: those events that provide us with information and sensations about our degree of satiety, whether we feel threatened or safe, and whether we can relax or must gear up for action. We are "hard-wired" this way for survival, and from our earliest moments, we discover and practice this balance through the bonding with a mother figure who provides primary nurturance and security. Whether or not this early bonding goes well (sometimes babies are difficult, or mothers are stressed or absent), the process of sensing and regulating one's internal affairs continues throughout life and assumes more sophisticated disguises in the veneers of personality, cultural mores, and social and business customs and expectations. You have to hold some volatile feelings in check, express your desires and frustrations in acceptable ways, read and interpret the messages of others, and somehow manage all of this for decades without overly taxing or exceeding the capacity of your organs to help you deal with all that life throws at you.

Every parent and child engages this process routinely and repeatedly throughout the rigors of family relationships: "I want this. Can I have this?" "Don't do that! You must do this." It is how people learn to relate, act safely and productively, and manage life's demands and rewards. It is acted out and practiced over bedtimes, getting dressed and ready, homework, eating, tantrums and aggression, possessiveness, respect and compliance, and many other activities that happen in families. We all learn to cope, but many do not do it successfully, thereby collecting traumatic scars and habits that detract from physical, emotional, and social wellness.

Every parent knows the challenge of managing his or her own stress levels and reactions when a child is acting up or unreasonably. We also know that children are modeling from us, and that they learn lessons and have side effects we wish we could divest from their experiences.

The job of teaching your child to manage the inner life of feelings and states remains unfinished because we are all lifelong learners and practitioners of how to enjoy and control ourselves. You give your child an intense and protracted head start, but children grow up and must manage themselves independently. You hope to get them going in the right direction.

There are many techniques for fostering this development, some natural and seat-of-the pants, and others fancy or therapeutic. I am reminded of the ethnic comedy standup routine about the use of "time-out" in certain strict families: "After my father would whup me, he'd give me 'time-out' to pick up my teeth."

Not all were disciplined into fear and submission. I remember how my father used to communicate feelings, often through the use of physical metaphors. We had in our small kitchen a shelf on the wall above the kitchen table. The shelf supported an ancient transistor AM radio that doused my father with news. Hanging from the shelf under the radio was a toy plastic "doghouse"-a small replica with four plastic dogs hanging on hooks beside it. My father had labeled the four dogs with adhesive tape bearing our individual names: dad, mom, my brother, and me. Though my father took the lead, there was an unwritten rule that each of us could place his own dog or another family dog in the doghouse. This symbolic representation was powerful: it could be a statement of depression, despair, illness, or victimization, as in my father's frequent self-description, "I'm in the doghouse today." (My father was often depressed throughout his life.) Or, it could be an intended aggression or perhaps sympathy and validation, as when one of us placed someone else's dog in the doghouse. This could mean, "I'm mad at you, so get away from me and stay there!" Or maybe, "You look sad and hurt. I recognize this, so take some time to lick your wounds and heal. I won't keep bothering you."

The doghouse plaque was barely three-dimensional. Each dog had his own hook, but the doghouse had only one hook. It was deep enough to allow two dogs. I don't know if the manufacturer was working out any "issues," but the way my family used the doghouse, a maximum of two people could have recognizable emotional constraints at any one time. The doghouse was only so big. Was this a metaphor for the emotional competition in my family, the jockeying for pity, solace, or recognition? Perhaps my memory is stained, and my family members would take none of this seriously. I do know that my father's game we played provided an outlet and taught me the rudiments of nonverbal expression in a family that had difficulty expressing emotion intelligently and accepting its varied and intense manifestations in others.

Unfinished as it was, my parents handed over this job of emotional awareness, regulation, and expression to me. I practice a lifetime of getting better at it and helping others to do so, too. It is a very important job whose value cannot be measured or compromised by a lack of completion.

The old plastic doghouse is long gone. We have modern-day tools including many gadgets and graphics to materialize and express ideas. It is a love affair between art and science. To foster self-awareness and emotional interpretation and expression, I use "emotion meters." (See below.) These are renditions of applause meters that register degrees of intensity in decibel levels. Of course, there are many such meters, such as those in Radio Shack and the sophisticated instruments used by scientists. The ones I use are makeshift, though extremely sensitive. You assess the level of satiety, intensity, and arousal in yourself and others. Parents and children can use it adeptly and satisfactorily. It is a simple and useful tool for an important and unfinished job. There's something quite satisfying and powerful about identifying and expressing feelings in yourself and those important to you. Play with the meters and have a good time!