I love this quote by Robert Brault: Parenthood is the passing of a baton, followed by a lifelong disagreement as to who dropped it.
Ordinarily, your style of parenting will in some ways naturally mimic that of the adults who were most involved in your social and emotional development throughout childhood. I often encounter parents who don’t want this to be the case, who take on the work of parenting with defiant determination “I will NEVER do to my kid what my parents did to me!” I am afraid, dear reader, such determination is usually not enough. To leave behind the parenting styles and habits you were exposed to as a child requires more. What you were exposed to and learned growing up is now wired into your brain, and this conditioning is quite powerful. To modify it will, predictably, require much more than a promise you make to yourself about how you will and will not behave as a parent.
What we experience as children largely determines the formation of our neural pathways. The stimulation from what we observe, hear, and otherwise experience in our early years influences our brain and central nervous system will respond to future situations and circumstances. Our tendencies to be optimistic or pessimistic, passive, assertive or aggressive, generous or withholding, highly reactive or emotionally regulated, often represent the legacies of personality and responsiveness I refer to as “family heirlooms.” Families pass these heirlooms down from one generation to the next.
As mindful parents we recognize the importance of choosing which heirlooms we want to hand down to our children. Sooner or later, we will realize that we simply can’t reshape our behavior by making promises like, “I will never do that to my child!” What we have learned is that a persistent, focused practice of thinking and behaving differently from what heretofore has come naturally is required. Paying attention, using attention, and practicing what is not necessarily second nature can ultimately enable the reorganization and creation of our neural pathways. Such practices can involve a variety of cognitive strategies which may include mindfulness meditation, the disruption of negative patterns of thought and behavior, processes of relational interaction, and cultivated reflection.
Understanding who you are in your role as a parent starts with taking an honest look at what is within you and where it came from. As you proceed with this task, you can take intentional steps toward a deeper self-understanding, and you can edit and even rewrite your life story. You can decide the ways of being and behaving you want to keep and those you want to leave behind. For example, if you commonly experienced harsh teasing or felt put down or shamed as a child, you can choose not to pass on this relational pattern—this harmful family heirloom—to your own children. In becoming more aware of such patterns and choosing to change them, you may be surprised at how you can discover new ways of seeing and loving yourself that were formerly unavailable to you.
What we know today is that children who do well in life have parents who have taken some time to make sense out of their own lives. As parents, exploring where we came from and how we have become the way we are arms us with the understanding, emotional sensibility, and healing we all need to mature into the individuals we want to be, and, into the kind of parents we promised ourselves we’d be—more empathic and more effective in raising children who, as they grow into adulthood, are themselves more likely to be caring, resilient and effective people.
Picking through the Family Heirlooms
In the course of being a stepparent, I discovered firsthand how the brain can be trained through the intentional use of the mind to sort through and either keep or discard my own inherited parenting practices and social rules. When I became a stepmom, I quickly realized just how my brain had been “prewired” in childhood in ways that had not prepared me for my current situation.
For example, my new stepchildren would frequently do things that made little sense to me. In response, I would become emotionally prickly. At such times, sarcastic questions swarmed in my head, such as “Why is that backpack and its contents spread all over my favorite chair?” or “How many empty water bottles does it take to cover a 9 by 11 bedroom floor?” or “Does my blow-dryer have feet?” In retrospect, I realize I was reacting negatively because they weren’t doing the things I was taught when I was their age. The sarcasm came from negative judgments that set my “right way” of perceiving and doing things against their “wrong way” of being and behaving. After several of these judgmental moments, I eventually realized that I was reacting and behaving based on what my parents had modeled and taught me. Not that my parents’ ways were necessarily bad, but they were definitely grounded in a different set of rules than the ones my stepchildren had learned.
Inspired to be Re-Wired
During my early stepmom days, my brain was being challenged to develop new neural pathways; different from those heirlooms of thought and behavior that had been passed down to me. I was confronted with the opportunity to identify which of my family heirlooms would served us all well in my new role as a stepmom, and which would not. With this new level of awareness, I was then disposed to choose how I would think and behave differently. All parents and primary caretakers face this challenge; we have been wired to parent as we were parented. In our childhood, our brains developed particular neural pathways, a process in which synaptic firing communicated and built connections among neurons in different regions of our brains.
This is important because the structures and functions of our own brains and central nervous systems have a direct influence on the attachment bond we have with the children in our care. These attachment bonds significantly influence their neurological development and integration.
While growing up, I had been conditioned (or wired) to expect that, if I left my backpack and possessions lying around the house, I would get in trouble. This became an embedded belief in the area of my memory called implicit memory. Implicit memory is encoded in us beginning with our first year of life, without any involvement of conscious awareness. This is why I had negative reactions to my stepchildren if they did something that was opposite of my encoded belief of the way things should be. Until I was able to identify the unconscious belief, or the embedded “should,” I was unable to operate as the stepparent I consciously desired to be. I soon learned I had some self-understanding and rewiring to do if I wanted them to develop a healthy bond with me.
When I went from being single and living alone to having an instant family, I was fortunate to have already incorporated mindfulness practice into my life. Moreover, I was nearly finished with my dissertation on Mindful Parenting and running a successful clinical practice in Marriage and Family therapy that involved teaching relationship-building and cognitive restructuring to my clients. Yet even with all my education, clinical experience and years of mindfulness practice, nothing prepared me more for my new life and role as a parent than two teenagers. I had to do more work than I could have formerly imagined to become the kind of stepparent I wanted to be. And today I am convinced this is why I have developed such a
strong and meaningful connection with my now-adult stepchildren, and their own developing families.
Though my approach to parenting focuses on a set of principles and encourages a homegrown mindfulness model, there are many paths you can take to get you where you want to be as a parent. If there are family heirlooms you want bury you can begin by considering the following suggestions:
- In a special notebook, list all the family heirlooms you want to get rid of and those you want to keep.
- Next to each heirloom, write down the name/s of the person from whom you learned it.
- Examine the heirloom and ask yourself, “How did this way of parenting make me feel about myself” and “What effect has it had on me today?”
- List your answers to the question: “What legacies (of thought, behavior and responsiveness) do I want to pass on to my child(ren)?”
- Spend a few minutes upon rising and before going to bed reading over your answers. Do this few several weeks.
Remember, as you work at becoming a mindful parent, you can shed those heirlooms you don’t want to pass on—including any skeletons in the family closet. Families are systems. Some are like well-oiled machines that occasionally need an adjustment here or there. Others could use a complete overhaul. Whatever the case in your family, as you sort through family heirlooms and begin to develop a more intentional sense of the legacy you want to leave to your children and grandchildren, you will do well
to be gentle with yourself and stay out of any kind of judgment that may arise. This is not something that can be accomplished in just a few days but a process that takes attention to your intention in a mindful and compassionate way.
In the final analysis, children need one thing more than anything else to maximize their chances of growing up to be well-adjusted and happy adults: They need you to be the best YOU you can be.