I recently attended a workshop where the speaker asked participants to list ten items that define them. My silent reaction: Ah, I hate this kind of stuff. But I began to write. It was actually fairly easy. I had six items before I ran out of time. Number six was a little cheesy: “citizen of the world.” Two through five read “teacher, counselor, musician, friend.” In my number one spot, I had proudly penciled “parent.”
Many parents today—including me—are having children later in life. Often these parents are set in their careers, have saved a little money and invested in homes, and feel emotionally ready to nest. These parents also typically have well-established identities. For better or worse, American identities are usually tied to our jobs. This makes me wonder: As caregivers for children, are we more concerned about our personal identities or our positions as role models? I think that regardless of our individual priorities, if we’re not on our game as role models, we’d better work on it. Our children are watching our every move!
Finding your identity can be as difficult as parallel parking; it just doesn’t come naturally for everyone. And maintaining your identity—especially while serving as a role model—can seem downright impossible. Parental role-modeling is not a perfect science. As a teacher, mental health counselor, and fellow parent, two concerns I often hear from parents are: (1) “I don’t want to give up my personal identity” and (2) “I’m so overwhelmed, I can’t think about my identity; I’m just surviving day-to-day.”
If I’m putting my best foot forward as a role model, that should be good enough, right? It should…but some how I’m never totally comfortable with my best effort. Still, I pat myself on the back occasionally for my triumphs. Parenting ain’t easy.
But how do I really know how well I’m doing with the children in my life? Well, as a special education teacher, I document behavioral and academic progress while providing the district with quantitative data. In my counseling practice, I document progress on a continuum of clients’ behavior patterns and discuss changes with them. How do I evaluate my parenting, though? I’m still waiting for a report card in the mail! I fear that report card will never come, however…
In most cases, our best indicators of parenting performance are our children’s general behavior, academic progress, and social interactions. So, if we’re successful in all these areas, have we given up our personal identity and devoted our whole-self into parenting?
Monitoring successes as a parent is complex and honestly, it’s not necessary to be too judgmental with ourselves, either. As my old history professor exclaimed on many occasions regarding historical changes, “there are multiple factors of causation.” Households with children can be very busy and even chaotic. Two parents working together in a family unit is very difficult work in itself. However, if you’ve ever experienced a day-in-the-life of a single-parent home, it definitely gives rise to a new-found respect for tolerating extreme logistical pressures while running a household.
As data suggests, children watch adults’ every move with extreme interest and curiosity: Their true desire is to secure an ongoing bond and trust with us…they depend on us, so they will study us like a lab experiment! And yes, they will mimic us! If you swear, they will swear. If you hit, they will learn it. If you say please and thank you, so will they. If you hate, the anger cycle continues. What you consume, they, too, will seek it. Note: Reinforcing behavior is best measured over time: if you want to teach new behaviors, be patient, but repeat, repeat, repeat.
Children with special needs are even more sensitive to adult behaviors. They often have limited communication or processing and social skills and rely heavily on our role-modeling for a social road-map: words, actions and suggestions. Of, course depending on the severity of a child’s disability, the complexity of our interventions may vary.
Dr. William Gasser, a world-renown behaviorist, suggests that a child will collect pictures in their mind through their experiences and as adults we should facilitate in that process by providing her/him with positive and productive experiences for their cerebral photo album. As children grow, they draw from the collection and use it for a point-of-reference. When they are confronted with a new experience or challenge, the images help in their decision-making process of how to proceed.
So, can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we maintain a personal identity juxtapose with parenting? Why not! As mentioned, children study us with intense curiosity, so let’s offer them a show of a lifetime! Let’s give them a good example to follow: our light is their light. We’re not perfect, and if we need support along the way, children can be surprisingly understanding in this process as we seek assistance and answers to improve our care-giving skills: Children often know us better than we know ourselves. For fun, ask them to share a short list of what they think defines you. Then, slice some cake; sit with your children and talk. It might be a lot of fun!
Ron Zuchora, MA,LPC, runs a private mental health practice in S. Mpls. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-719-5304.
This article first appeared in our May, 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.