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Update Your Parenting

Keep the best from how you were raised, discard the rest, and fill in the gaps.

Key points

  • Our parenting default is how we were raised.
  • Use the attitudes and strategies you choose rather than what may automatically come to mind.
  • You can update your parenting by writing down good things about your upbringing and filling in gaps you may have in your parenting style.

Whether we like it or not, our automatic go-to for parenting ideas is often the messy stack of memories from our upbringing. Or as I like to call it: The Repository Of Useless Balderdash, Love, and Everything Else (aka TROUBLE).

We Can’t Help It

No matter how many parenting books or blogs we read, no matter how solemnly we swear never to say to our children the things that were said to us, we still return again and again to that repository. These memories are usually a mix of awful, lovely, and neutral. Because of how the unconscious mind works, the ones etched in most early, most often, or with the most intensity are the ones that spring back to mind under stress.

When our children do things that drive us nuts, or we feel like parenting failures, there is a good chance that our first impulses will be harsh, disconnected, distant, critical, or violent. Of course, we can resist those impulses and bring to mind all we have learned about connection, nurturing, and empathy. My child isn’t a terror. She’s just overloaded with emotions. But somehow, the "TROUBLE-maker" keeps popping up. We repeat those old patterns. We aren’t using fresh, original thinking to deal with each fresh, original situation.

Three-Step Plan to Update Parenting

Here is a three-step plan to replace that automatic process with a more rational approach, so you can use the attitudes and strategies you choose, not the ones that scream inside you the loudest or jump to your lips the fastest. The three steps are: Keep the best, discard the rest, and fill in the gaps.

Keep the Best

Keep the best means writing down all the good stuff from the way you were raised. (Do it right now!) Are you staring at a blank page? I don’t believe you. If you are able to read this and have even an inkling of a desire to try it out, you got some good stuff. Be as specific as you can. Who said what? What flavor of goodness was it? Protection, playfulness, kindness, nurturing, empathy? All five love languages?

Discard the Rest

Source: Lawrence Cohen
Do your parenting ideas spark joy?
Source: Lawrence Cohen

The next step is to discard the rest of it. Use the Marie Kondo method if you want—bring out each item and only keep it if it sparks joy in you. Shaming? Nah. You only got a 98—what about the other two points? Doesn’t spark joy–discard. Hitting, yelling, nagging, lecturing? Keep it if it belongs in your “best” pile.

Otherwise, you know what to do. How do you discard it? Visualize a U-Haul truck carting it away. Write it down and burn the paper. Throw a retirement party for that aspect of your childhood caregivers. There is no need to hate the people who gave you these parenting ideas you don’t need. (You can hate them if you want, but only if it sparks joy in you, right?)

Fill in the Gaps

Now it’s time to fill in the gaps. When you look at yourself as a parent, do you see a deep capacity for protection, nurturing, for playfulness? If any of these are absent, you get to fill in those gaps now. Let’s say you were not well-protected as a child. That means you don’t have instant access to heartwarming protection memories that you can tap into when you need to be in protection mode with your children. But you can still be protective.

Think of someone who represents the protection of children. It could be someone you know or knew in your past. It could be a historical or fictional character or a symbol of protection, such as Mama Bear. Don’t give up until you find someone. Once you have that figure in mind, write about them. (Do it now!)

Draw a picture or find one on the Internet to post on your wall. Write quotes from that person—real or imagined quotes—on Post-it notes, so you can be inspired. Repeat this process for every gap that needs to be filled. If it is a real person, let them know you have honored them with this new role in your life, to embody protection, nurture or play in your mind, so you can access those crucial elements of parenting more easily. I bet they will be very moved.

Put the Three Steps Into Action

Now go about your parenting life. When something arises in you that is from your “best” column, acknowledge it. Offer a thanks—out loud or in your mind—to the caregiver who planted that seed in you. When something arises in you from the discard pile, don’t panic. It happens. And happens, and happens. Just calmly remind it to get lost. Repeat your letting go ritual. Let it know its services are no longer necessary. Hint: If you thank it for showing up to try to help, it will leave more readily than if you hate it for being there.

When you become aware of a gap in your protectiveness, playfulness, or nurturing capacity, bring to mind that embodiment you discovered in step three. Imagine that person or that being beside you, offering compassion and wisdom to you.

Won’t it be amazing when you are that figure for your children?