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In memoriam
A happy family sharing a meal


Parenting is one of the most fundamental human abilities ~ without a minimum level of competence as parents, there will be no next generation. Although there are undoubtedly genetic predispositions towards the basic impulses we feel as healthy parents, good parenting is at least partly learned behavior, passed down by our own parents (and their stand-ins, the child-rearing experts among us). Yet, until recently, few people have actually been taught, as in a classroom, how to be "good enough" parents.

The following lesson plan for new and experienced parents is offered in the spirit of empathy for the challenges that face us when we accept responsibility for nurturing a young human being towards adulthood and beyond.

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Lesson 1. The Benefits For You

Congratulations! You are (or are about to be) a parent, i.e. someone who parents. Here are some of the benefits you can look forward to receiving as you successfully parent:

  • You will be challenged and as a result grow as a person
  • You will learn more about yourself and how to live with others
  • You will gain the satisfaction that comes from nurturing a young person
  • You will contribute to the next generation of people and as a result to their planet's future
  • You will reduce your existential anxiety by proving that there is at least one reason for your existence
  • You will enhance your self-esteem by demonstrating to yourself and others a wide range of skills
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Lesson 2. Basic Responsibilities

Along with access to those benefits, you are also given several basic responsibilities:

  • You will nurture yourself so that you can fulfill your other responsibilities.
  • You will nurture your child and help her or him grow to their full potential.
  • You will do the best job you can, by educating yourself about the best practices as well as the possibilities and pitfalls of parenting and by learning from others' mistakes as well as your own.
  • You will ask yourself and your child to aim for a "personal best" rather than try to live up to arbitrary standards or compare yourselves to others
  • You will encourage in your child an appreciation of the interdependence of all living things and the spiritual and existential aspects of life
  • You will maintain an open family in which you, your children, extended family, friends and neighbors participate together
  • You will lead primarily by example and in cooperation with others in your family
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Lesson 3. It takes a village

You can, if you want, parent on your own; it is certainly possible, for example, to be a single parent and raise healthy and happy children while pursuing your own goals and satisfying your own dreams.

It's just harder, that's all, for you and your children. Why add extra challenges for everyone when you can make everything a lot easier?

For thousands of years, our species has developed primarily in bands of hunter-gatherers; the so-called "nuclear family" has existed for only a recent fraction of that time:

Our brain has special capabilities that helped promote survival in the environmental conditions the ecosystems and social systems facing thousands of generations of our human and pre-human ancestors. This is important. This means that the human brain, our brains, have structural and functional capabilities that were selected to promote survival in "primitive" hunter-gatherer bands of about forty people. For 99 percent of the time we have been homo sapiens, our ancestors lived in these small groups where their lives were characterized by nomadic migration, cooperative hunting of large game and foraging for non-cultivated fruits and grains. The social structures, economies, communications, technologies and manifestations of abstract creativity that now characterize human life were not present when the human brain was evolving.(1)

In other words, we've been bred to prosper in the company of others. If you want to give your children the advantages of living in accordance with the preprogrammed tendencies of their own bodies and brains, instead of despite them, you'll surround them with more caring people than less. In fact, although at birth children thrive on the close attentions of mom and dad, the older children get, the more people in their lives they should have, so that teens are interacting with dozens, even hundreds of others.

This can seem contrary to cultural values such as independence, self-reliance, or viewing the home as a "man's castle". And these are fine for adults pursuing maturity and self-actualization. But children are just starting out and need the nurturance that comes from contact with others.

Obviously, these "others" should not be just anyone; living in a large city, for instance, does not in itself provide nurturance of children. We mean caring others: family, friends, and neighbors who supplement and compliment the parenting provided by mother or father.

Another major benefit of raising children "by committee" is that it takes a load off the primary caregivers. In traditional cultures there were many people raising our children; today we're happy if our children are in the care of one adult, who usually must also do the cleaning, cooking, and carting. Instead, we can build into our parenting plan the benefit of helpers who not only are better for the child (see preceding paragraphs) but help us to be better parents. When we have help, we can stop to take care of ourselves, thereby reducing our stress and our potential for irritability, anger or abusiveness. Remember:

In the case of deployment of emergency oxygen, your first priority is to put on your own mask. If the cabin is depressurized, you face the risk of loss of consciousness. Putting on your mask first decreases the risk of your passing out before having the opportunity to help your children.(2)


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Lesson 4. Parent yourself

You may discover as you grow as a parent that you missed out on some parenting yourself when you were younger. One way this can come to awareness is when our child asks for or needs something and we respond, "I never had that as a child -- so you don't need it either". The problem is, our children may want to meet their childhood needs in ways different from ours or even their siblings and friends. For example, I never wanted a telephone as a child, but my sister begged for a "princess" phone for months until she got one on her 16th birthday. And my nephew may want to play a computer game instead of playing in the woods with friends as I did.

Instead of holding our children necessarily to our standards of fun or value (i.e. just because we played baseball doesn't mean they will want to), parent yourself. Give yourself the things you missed out on as a child. It's a way to take care of yourself and a great model for your children of how to be a self-nurturing adult. And it helps you avoid taking out on your children any buried resentments you might still have about the way your parents raised you.

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Lesson 5. Behave yourself

You're a parent now. It is time to leave the priorities and interests of childhood behind and assume the position of adult. That means no more wild parties, series of sexual partners, or impulsive purchasing or traveling. (See the movie "Hideous Kinky" for a good example of how children suffer in an atmosphere of anarchy.)

Children need structure and an atmosphere of caring in order to best develop. Knowing that a simple dinner is every evening at 5pm is more important than having a fancy dinner on an unpredictable basis. In fact, too much chaos can be damaging to children and their self-esteem.

A sad truth is that children find it confusing and almost impossible to believe that their parents make mistakes, some that are hurtful to their children. So they blame themselves -- it restores a sense of order in that they now "know" what's wrong. It's up to us parents to take full responsibility for the atmosphere in our homes and keep bickering, arguing, and drama to a minimum. If you can't quite manage it yourself, get some help. Now.

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Lesson 6. Be yourself

You're a parent now. But that doesn't mean you have to give up being you.

Sometimes we think of situations in life in black and white, either/or. Either I'm obligated or I'm free. Either I'm with my children or I'm on my own. But this is only one way to think about life. Another way is to consider that a combination of choices may be most appropriate. For example, my brother hikes with his two young daughters instead of leaving them at home. That way, he still gets to hike but he isn't choosing between hiking and his children. (See the movie "Hideous Kinky" for a fascinating examination of the struggle to maintain one's individuality while parenting.)

Your children will appreciate being included in your life. On the other hand, they won't suffer if you occasionally leave them. It's okay, in fact essential, for you and your children's other caregivers to take a break every now and then and be by yourselves, adults without the immediate job of parenting.

We have needs, too, and they're often different than our children's. If you don't satisfy your needs directly (like trying out for the community theater's next play), you may unconsciously try to satisfy them through your children (like encouraging them to join the acting club in high school). You owe it to your children to find a way to satisfy your own needs without jeopardizing theirs.


back to top Sources:

1. "Brain Structure and Function I: Basics of Organization" 2000. Child Trauma Academy.


2. "Top 10 Airline Safety Questions" 2003.


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