What Makes a Parent Great?

From hard feelings to bad memories, some parents worry that the relationships they had with their own parents will dictate the parent they will become—that they will fall victim to the very practices of their own parents that did not work for them as a child. However, what is misunderstood is that nature has a way of preparing us for caretaking despite the examples we are provided! While wonderful role models are helpful in shaping a new parent, poor ones don’t define our parenting potential. The idea that you had to have an idyllic childhood to become a good parent is a harmful message that disempowers parents and casts doubt on their ability to rise to the occasion.

Play makes the parent

Ask yourself: what is a “great” parent? In your list of attributes, you probably didn’t include one who never makes mistakes or one who always lives up to their intentions. Even a great parent can sometimes struggle to find enough warmth to give or can feel frustrated with all the sacrifices that come with parenting.

A great parent yearns to connect with their child, offers comfort when they are struggling, and endeavours to know what they need before they have to ask for it. It is about cultivating a deep sense of belonging with them, conveying that they matter, and offering them an invitation for a relationship that is unwavering.

The truth is that great parenting has little to do with us and is all about how our children look at us and find comfort, contact, and caretaking there waiting.

Surprisingly, regardless of our upbringing, the capacity to parent already dwells within us. The ability to care, protect, nourish, guide, and to cherish someone was first revealed in the hours we spent in play as a child. Here, we practiced protecting our “babies”: animals, younger siblings, insects, and toy trains. It was in our play that we experimented with what it meant to be in charge and responsible. It was in our pretend world, created from our imagination and emotion, that we took our first steps towards revealing the caretaker in us.

It was in play where our instincts and emotions to care for another were preserved and nurtured. It was here we were free to make mistakes, to get frustrated, and to walk away from it all. Play provided a dress rehearsal space where no one was hurt or worried if we got it right. No one judged their actions (or they shouldn’t have), and we had no sense that knowledge was required to take care of something. In play, our caretaking was instinctive and lacked words or insight. It has always been there, dormant, waiting for the child who could unlock the caretaker in us.

It is the transition from play caretaking to real parenting that allows the provider in us to arrive in solid form. It is when we accept the emotions that come with being a parent that our shape solidifies, and our identity is transformed in the process.

What great parents do

Insight into our kids and what drives them can come at the strangest times–while we are in the shower, making dinner, or in the moments before we fall asleep (or wake us up in the middle of the night). There is no recipe, toolkit, or instruction manual needed to find that place inside of you where you desire to make sense of a child. This focus on caretaking is born from your desire to be their answer to contact, closeness, and caretaking. Your only task is to willingly give yourself to the places where guilt, confusion, joy, fulfillment, sadness, yearning, and mixed emotions mingle together. In other words, being great doesn’t come from having all the answers as a parent; rather, it is found in striving to be the answer to a child.

Here are some of the ways we can strive to be the answer:

They care deeply

With deep caring, we can grow to be the answer to our children’s needs even if our own were not taken care of. Caring is what motivates us to nurture, be generous, forgive, be conscientious and attentive, and take responsibility. Caring is what makes a parent seek information when they have questions. When we feel the push inside to consider our child’s needs, to look out for them, guide them, and share our values with them, caring has driven us there. Parents who care are moved to show up to do the work of parenting, even when it is hard.

They embrace their responsibility

Without fail, the parent who sees themselves as the one to lead a child and as responsible for their relationship with them is the “greatest” parent of all in their child’s eyes. When the parent aims to be unconditional in their invitation for a relationship, a child will recognize that nothing they could say or do would make that parent give up on them. If the parent makes a mistake, they can admit it and graciously move on, continuing to care for their child. It means they will not let anything come between them.

They adapt to challenges

There are so many challenges and obstacles that come with parenting, from figuring out how to get children to sleep, eat, and toilet train, to separating from you to go to school. As parents, we often expect more from our children than they are developmentally capable of (e.g., sleeping independently). Parents who pay attention to their frustration and seek to understand it realize that they sometimes need to be the ones to change what they are doing.

When we pay attention to what doesn’t work and are willing to sometimes change our agenda, then we can adapt to the child with a version that does work and find a way through.

We can recognize and re-evaluate what isn’t working, they can then better determine what course to take. So much of parenting involves trial and error and figuring out who our child is, from the child who is only soothed by a story and a lullaby, and a long, accompanied transition to sleep, or the one who just needs us to hold their hand as they drift off.

They emotionally stretch

There is nothing like the force of an immature child to test the maturity level of a parent. We soon find that we must be the one who emotionally stretches to hold onto not only our frustration but theirs as well. We may need to be braver when we are scared and confident when defeated. When they are in the throes of an outburst, we may need to stretch our caring wide enough so that they feel our invitation for a relationship is unwavering despite their undesirable conduct. When you become a parent, you realize you are not only responsible for your feelings but for helping your child learn and understand theirs too.

They lean on others

We need to consciously build the villages that will help us raise our children. We need to introduce our children to their care providers, teachers, and coaches, and in doing so, not take for granted that they are partners with us in raising our children. When we honour and support the other adults in our child’s life, we take matters of their relationship into our hands. We “play matchmaker” and cultivate a connection by pointing out similarities and shared hobbies, or simply by conveying confidence that these other adults will take good care of our child.

They roll with conflicting feelings

There is often no “right” answer to some of the decisions or challenges we face in caring for a child. Parents who don’t shy away from sitting in the middle of their mixed feelings often make more well-thought-out decisions because they have looked at many sides of the issue. There are many decisions we make that have consequences for our children, such as whether to hold a child back for a year from schooling or how to help our child deal with peer conflict at school. Sometimes we need to wrestle with many sides of a problem before making headway.

They feel guilt

It is not possible to parent well without guilt! Just ask the parent who worries about their child being bullied at school, or the parent of a child who is sick. It sometimes feels too much when you have had little sleep, have outside work responsibilities to “balance” with home, or when your child is having a tantrum when you want to have one of your own. If our child gets hurt by accident, we may feel guilty that we didn’t prevent it. If we say yes to something and it goes poorly, we may kick ourselves that we didn’t say no like we wanted to do in the first place.

The best way to deal with guilt is often to share it with another adult you trust and/or to permit yourself to shed tears about all of your perceived imperfections.

Being a parent is not about the performance we give, a script or formula we follow, or a way of talking or walking, but something that comes from deep within as the moment calls for it. We cannot find the parent in us by following someone else’s mantras, or in the hours spent processing our pain from childhood (not that this isn’t important sometimes). We are made into the parents our children need when we vulnerably accept the emotions and feelings of this role. When parenting isn’t a mask you wear or a performance you give, you will feel much—sometimes too much—and it can be messy, but it is from this place where your children will be genuinely nourished and grow. It is the invitation you give your child for caretaking that matters most, and it is this, that truly makes you great in the eyes of your child

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of EcoParent Magazine

Copyright —  Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet counselling center, she is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), which has been translated into 11 languages, and a children’s picture book The Sorry Plane. For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com