By Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC
Have you ever wondered what your work as a parent would look like if you had to write a job description? Probably the closest many of us have come is jotting down a few notes for grandma — reminders about snacks, naptimes and how much television the kids can watch. But most of us haven't really thought about what our job truly entails, and I think this contributes to much of the stress we feel as parents. Lots of energy is invested in a list of tasks that — in the grand scheme of things — do not matter. This, of course, takes energy and time from the things that do matter.
What is a parent's job description? Let's start by looking at a couple of things that don't belong on your job description. Understanding what your job isn't is as crucial as understanding what it is.
Impossible job No. 1: Ensuring outcomes
Recently, I talked to a concerned mom. "Nathan won't use words," Naomi said. "He prefers sounds — machine sounds, animal sounds, all kind of sounds. How do I get him to talk more? I'm worried that if he keeps using noises, he'll never get married."
Did I mention that Nathan was only a toddler?
As we talked, I could tell Nathan was fine. No speech problems to worry about. Naomi is just a nice Christian mom who wants her child to grow up "just right" and find that "just right" girl who will become his "just right" wife. But she was putting a ton of pressure on herself! She's not alone. A common line on many parents' job descriptions is this: "Make sure your child turns out right."
What an incredible burden. Even if it were possible, everyone has a different interpretation of what "turning out right" looks like.
"But I do want my child to turn out right," you say.
I understand. That's your hope and prayer. You would do anything for your children, and in your job as parent you will have countless opportunities to influence and guide your child toward wise choices. But you simply cannot control every step along the journey. And that's all before you even consider your child's independence and free will — that beautiful gift from God that gives a child the ability to choose what paths he or she will take in life.
Impossible job No. 2: Perfection
Another line that often sneaks onto parents' job descriptions is this: "Make sure you do everything right."
I once knew a mom who was convinced her children were going to be an Olympic swimmer and a sports physician. From the time her children were preschoolers, she worked toward these goals. She pursued perfection in everything she did, yet her children eventually veered off their preordained paths.
Discipline, orderliness, education, birthday parties — there are hundreds of opportunities to succeed or fail in parenting. But perfection shouldn't be on your job description. It's simply not possible to know exactly what to do in every circumstance, to never make mistakes. And God is not watching with a clipboard, evaluating every move. He knows we're not perfect. He loves us anyway.
Even if parents could be perfect, children would make foolish decisions. On the other hand, you may struggle in your parenting, and your children may still end up making wise choices.
So scrap the notion that it's your job to do everything right. You simply are not in control of every factor. Life happens. Grasping this reality will make your parenting job clearer and more enjoyable.
It's not rocket science
So what is a good job description for parents? What should moms and dads do? First, let's acknowledge that certain aspects of parenting are more natural for dads because of how God built males. Likewise, a mom may tackle responsibilities from both roles, but some things are simply more natural because of the unique ways females reflect God's image. A single parent can provide aspects of both, but as any single parent will tell you, it is more difficult.
Your job description can be boiled down to this:
- A dad's main job is to validate his children.
- A mom's primary job is to nurture her children.
Validation means letting your child know over and over, through words and actions: "Hey, you matter to me. You belong in this family. You're a hard worker. I love you."
Children get their earliest, most lasting impressions about who they are from what's reflected back to them by parents. They're always wondering if they really matter, if they're important. A child who doesn't get this level of loving validation every day begins to feel like she's not really part of the family: I'm not important. I'm not a good kid. A dad's biggest job is to affirm that his child is always accepted. She needs to hear it, sense it, see it and feel it from you again and again.
Nurturing is — well, most moms have a good idea what nurturing is. Here's what a couple of moms said:
"Nurturing is filling your child up with aliveness."
"A nurturing mom takes the time to play, read and take pictures when a child's rice end up on his head. She enters the child's world to see things from his perspective, even if it means the carpets aren't vacuumed for a while. She provides empathetic understanding from a position of strength and support."
Nurturing isn't about "doing it all." It's definitely not about doing it perfectly. It's about giving life to a child, meeting his needs without driving yourself crazy. Remember, God created you with the absolute "enough-ness" to be a good mom.
Three ways to validate and nurture
While the jobs of dads and moms are similar, they tend to be carried out in different ways. Here are some ways that moms and dads can validate and nurture:
Physically connect with your child
Healthy physical connectedness from dad is critical. Swing your child around. Give piggyback rides. Wrestle on the living room floor. If you have an especially rowdy son, be sure to win the wrestling match occasionally — not in a harsh way, but in a playful way. Your son needs to understand you're physically stronger — strong enough to be the boss, strong enough to keep him safe from life's boogie monsters.
Moms, your physical contact takes a different form. Your touch is gentle, your voice naturally more calming. Pour life into your child through touch. When you play hide-and-seek, you're infusing your child with aliveness. When you scoop her up in a big towel after her bath, that touch is nurturing. I can't overstate the value of having plenty of physical connectedness with your child.
If you have a child who doesn't like being held, you can still provide the needed touch through play and through casual touch, such as when you show her how to hold a crayon or sit together reading a book. You also provide physical nurturing when you mend his cuts and scrapes.
Keep your voice gentle and lighthearted
While toddlers understand words, they understand volume and tone better. Dads, ensure that your communication is upbeat and pleasant as much as possible. When correction is needed, see if you can turn the situation around by keeping that unthreatening tone of voice. A child's mind is more open when your voice is pleasant. Yes, there will be times when you need to use a more deliberate and powerful tone. That's fine. But, overall, try to keep your tone inviting. This translates into a sense of belonging for your child.
Moms, know that your playful, gentle voice nurtures your child. It just does. Studies have shown that children learn much quicker in a lighthearted, playful environment than they do in other environments such as school. Your voice naturally imparts calm, creating a welcoming environment for learning and exploration.
Keep your child safe
As your young child ventures into this new world, he needs to know he's safe. Dads, reassure him that you will protect and rescue him. And be sure you are there to rescue him as much as possible. Let him wander a bit, within your visual awareness. Acknowledge him when he returns. You represent his safe zone.
Moms, you can convey a sense of safety by attending to your child's physical needs — finding his bedtime bear, making sure he has a snack when he comes charging in from outside. Apply colorful bandages freely — even if it isn’t really needed. All these little actions are declarations to your child that you're making sure he's safe.
Condensing your job description down to the "big two" — validation and nurturing — is the beginning of lowering the pressure you feel as a parent. More importantly, your kids will grow to be more healthy and resilient as you start parenting with a clear understanding of what your real job is.
Adapted from The Low-Pressure Guide to Parenting Your Preschooler, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. © 2016 Tim Sanford. Used by permission.