Parenting is similar to navigating a ship around the world. At every new port the child’s growth and development represents a whole new culture that needs to be understood. In order for parents to become part of their child’s culture they must ‘go through the streets of the town’ and observe, witness, and experience their child’s developmental changes.
INFANCY: THE PORT OF ENGAGEMENT-During the first couple years of a child’s life, the role of parents is to engage the infant and toddler in a dynamic family relationship. The critical markers during this time of the child’s development are establishing a trusting and secure parent-child relationship. Children are truly dependent on their parents during these early years. The research clearly indicates, for example, that children of depressed mothers tend to be depressed themselves. Parents feed, bathe, clothe, and, for the most part, literally manage their child’s life. The child’s ability to master challenges is directly related to the parent’s level of engagement.
CHILDHOOD: THE PORT OF ENACTMENT-Being a parent during the childhood years is a time when parents establish rules, formulate disciplinary guidelines, regulate relationships, and among many other decisions, determine the academic setting for their children. All these adult decisions are made with intent and performed by decree. Parents enact these family laws by executive decision. What differentiates parenting during this time? Style. The classic study by Lewin, Lippitt, and White (1939) examined three leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. The autocratic leader determines policy and gives orders. The democratic style of leadership encourages participation of all the group members. The laissez-faire leader is removed and has minimal participation in the group. The researchers found the democratic style as the most effective leadership style. However, they also reported that all styles were effective depending upon the situation. Like any leader, the parent must adapt his or her style to the developmental needs of his or her child. Effective parents learn to enact the routine of daily living in their family’s lives by combining the autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire styles of leadership.
ADOLESCENCE: THE PORT OF LETTING GO AND REGULATION-Teenagers desire independence and freedom yet still require direction and support. Erik Erikson, the renowned child psychologist of the 20th century, said adolescents seek their own uniqueness in the face of doubting their own identity. The task of adolescence is to seek an independent and unique identity and in order to do so; the teen must separate from his or her parents. Therefore, parenting teenagers becomes a juggling act of being anonymous when your child wants uniqueness and being strong and level-headed when your child needs support. Being a parent of a teenager has been likened to ‘nailing jell-o on a tree’. One must learn to balance letting go of control while still maintaining the right to regulate disorder and provide support.
YOUNG ADULTHOOD: THE PORT OF COMMON GROUND- Amidst the many differences and similarities a child and parent possess, as the child enters adulthood there must be a spoken or unspoken negotiated settlement or compromise. A compromise, by definition, implies each side must give something up that he or she warrants important. Therefore, parents and the adult child must find common ground. The common ground recognizes the vitality and uniqueness of every individual in the ‘adult’ family.
Every family has its own Plymouth Rock–the point at which the journey begins. Traveling from port to port is a pathway rich with the knowledge of learning for both parent and child during the ‘growing up’ years.