When I first became a mom, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. To give you an idea of just how clueless I was, when I was in the hospital in the days following the birth of my son, I always had the nurse change my baby’s diaper. I had never changed a newborn’s diaper before, and I was so afraid I’d do something wrong. Of course I was terrified that in just a day or so, I’d have to go home and would have to figure it out–It turns out you can’t take the nurse home with you!
And then, there was the first time I had to cut his fingernails. I had no idea how to cut such tiny little nails, but I knew from a couple small scratches on his face that I would have to do it anyway. I was so scared, and when I did cut one of his precious little fingers, my over-imaginative mind jumped quickly to the conclusion that he wouldn’t ever stop bleeding. Of course, he did stop, but I realized again just how much I didn’t know about this whole parenting thing.
I’ve been a mom for over ten years now, and it would be impossible to count how many times during those ten years I wished I had an easy answer (or any answer, even if it was hard!) for what to do to for the next parenting challenge that came my way. My kids just never seem to stop throwing new challenges at me! Eventually, I did figure out how to change diapers and cut tiny fingernails, and these days the challenges are usually more related to homework, sibling conflict, and talking with my kids about big, difficult issues that they’re seeing and learning about in the world around them.
As a family counselor, I’ve learned many theories of parenting and family dynamics. I took a number of classes on child development as a student, and now I teach classes where we cover parenting concerns. Even with this professional and educational background, I find parenting to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve done a lot of hard things! It’s one thing to have book knowledge about parenting and child development–it’s another thing entirely to apply that knowledge in the real world when you’ve got little eyes looking up at you, needing guidance and a good parenting response in the midst of a puzzling parenting situation!
Everyone who parents reaches the limits of their parenting knowledge and skills, over and over again. Sometimes many times in a single day! What can we do when reach these limits? Keep learning! As your child grows, so too will your knowledge of parenting strategies need to grow and evolve.
While it’s true there’s not an instruction manual that comes along with kids, parents today aren’t left completely alone to figure things out on their own. There are many ways that parents can strengthen their parenting skills, including through books, online resources, and parenting workshops and classes. Parents who make a commitment to ongoing learning about parenting knowledge and skills take an important step toward providing a happy, healthy, and safe environment in which children can thrive. In fact, strong parenting skills have been identified as a barrier against child abuse. When parents have stronger parenting skills, they have more tools available for providing nurturing, developmentally-appropriate responses to their children’s ever-changing needs. Even when parenting educational opportunities don’t provide the exact answer to the challenges that parents face, they can help parents move closer and closer to the best solution to the problem at hand.
Adults can take the following steps to nurture strong parenting skills:
In the family:
- Never stop learning! Read parenting books, take online and in-person classes, and seek parenting mentors among other parents who have faced similar experiences.
- Don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve reached the limits of your parenting knowledge and skills. This is a normal part of parenting and is a natural result of children growing and changing over time.
- If a parenting strategy isn’t working, consider trying something else. As children grow, it’s typical for strategies that worked in the past to stop working. Be mindful of the strategies that both work and don’t work so you can build on the practices that work and change in the areas that don’t.
In organizations that serve children:
- Consider innovative ways of sharing parenting knowledge. Workshops and classes are great, but new technologies offer new opportunities for reaching parents in different ways, such as through social media, webinars, and text messaging.
- Keep parent education messages and strategies simple! Parents today are extremely busy and have many demands on their time and attention, so organizations can work to make parent education as easily accessible and digestible as possible. Focus on a few key points at a time to avoid overwhelming parents with too much at once.
In the broader community:
- Community members can advocate and provide resources to make parent education opportunities accessible to all members of the community. Consider making a donation to a local organization that offers these services to parents with limited financial resources.
- Be honest and open about the challenges of parenting! It’s tempting for parents to want to look like they’ve got their acts completely together. However, hiding behind a facade of perfection adds to the stigma that makes it harder for people to reach out for help when they’re struggling.
Parenting is an extremely difficult job. The weight of the importance of doing it well adds even more pressure, because as a parent you realize that you’re impacting the future course of the next generation. Don’t be afraid to admit you need help and information to guide you through the ever-changing challenges of parenting. Commit to building the best parenting toolbox you can–and keep building it throughout all of your parenting days!