Whenever in social circles or coaching sessions, when talking about themselves, people tend to refer to their way of dealing with life experiences as their personalities. There is never a second thought about this. But is that all that there is to who we are? And if so, how does personality come about?
Nature Versus Nurture
As a mother, for the longest time, I have struggled with the nature versus nurture dilemma. Even though I knew kids aren't born a blank slate where we (parents) can write whatever we want, I've always placed the most significant responsibility of who they turn out to be on upbringing.
To an extent, I still feel that it is true. But if kids aren't born a blank slate, how do the dyad nature and nurture play out?
Parenting a Newborn
On one side, we have the child’s personality. Some kids are born great sleepers, others not so much. Some children are more demanding while others are more “independent.” I, for example, had three children who weren't great sleepers and were very demanding of contact and attention.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have parents with their personalities, which is a result of inherent characteristics and life experiences. Some are more anxious; others are more laid back. Some are great at responding to high demands; others feel overwhelmed by them. Some had parents who were very responsive to their needs while others had parents who thought children could be spoiled if immediately attended to at every one of their whims. Truth be told, wasn’t that the prevailing thought about parenting for the past 5 or 6 decades, at least? Different parents have not only different personalities but also had different parents, which will influence their parenting style. And that will shape how they will deal with their children.
Now, let’s put both of these things together: on one side, the child’s personality, on the other, the parent’s. Let’s imagine that, as fate would have it, a parent who feels easily overwhelmed by demands gets a high-need child. The way the parent handles the child's needs will shape not only the child’s personality but the relationship between parent and child. And that relationship, as the child’s first relationship model, will be internalized and will likely set the tone to every relationship they have afterward.
Research shows that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most important, which is approximately the first three years of their lives. Or, if we look at life since conception, it will be roughly the child’s first two years. This is when the most significant developmental milestones will happen, where the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established. During this period, the child will slowly become more independent and more exploratory of their environment. But this is when they need their caregiver’s (mom, dad or someone else who is a constant part of their routine) support the most. And this is when the support of a network is critical to the caregiver.
By network, I don’t mean a lot of people (or a village, as some would say). A couple of friends (or family members) that one can turn to when one feels tired, overwhelmed, sad, insecure, or anything else. The importance of a support network when parenting in a culture where relocating for work is so prevalent is severely underrated, but of ultimate importance to help a person parent to the best of their abilities.
Parenting, like any other job in life, can get tiring, boring, repetitive, and exhausting. Sometimes we will feel insecure, overwhelmed, happy, fulfilled, an expert at it and that we are failing miserably. All of that is natural and part of the process. But having people around to help keep our feelings in check and our head straight can make it all a lot easier. We need to be able to vent and to normalize most of the roller-coaster feelings that so many parents go through. This is especially true for single parents, who don’t have a partner to share the responsibilities, either because the partner is there but is uninvolved or because he/she is not there at all.
One’s Own Childhood
As with most experiences in life, the way our parents raised us will work as a matrix for how we will raise our children. The matrix will be formed by how they responded to our demands, handled our tantrums, accompanied us at school and made us feel in general. Did you feel love? Did you feel seen and respected? Did you believe that you matter? All of that will set the tone to how you will handle your child’s needs. And if you aren’t able to see and feel how their actions affected you, you are very likely to automatically repeat with your children even those things that you didn’t like. Of course, this is an unconscious process. But any pattern of behavior is at its peak power when it happens outside of our awareness, which is why it is so important to look at it objectively. Self-reflection and personal insight is very important to help us be the parents we want to be.
In that process, it doesn’t matter if you turned out ok despite what hurt you terribly because you and your child are different human beings with different personalities. In other words, it is fantastic that any pain you may have gone through made you stronger/more resilient/etc., but that isn't a guarantee that your child's response will be the same. You and your child are different, and good parenting is being able to respond to your child according to their needs and according to who they are.
Some people are more sensitive than others, and those will probably be more susceptible to actions or words. We can't teach a sensitive child to be tougher by being tough with them. They may eventually learn to silence their feelings to appear stronger, but that is only a coping mechanism, which may come with a price. Later in life, as teens and adults, what will they do to keep their sensitive nature at bay? Drugs? Alcohol? Pills? We won’t know until later. So being able to take that into account from the get-go is critical for success.
Formulas for successful parenting?
Of course, there are no formulas to what will work with every child, because they don't arrive with an owner’s manual that describes their nature and inherent characteristics, so we know how to “handle” them.
But I think that knowing that our relationship will be the result of an interaction between who we are and who they are is a great place to start. When they arrive, they are a blank slate regarding experiences, but not personality traits. And, because we are the adults, we will be the ones making the efforts to adjust to them initially. We can’t expect them to adapt to us (nor should we try to teach them that), because they aren't equipped to do that, emotionally or cognitively. They need to develop for at least 1,000 days after birth to be able to start adjusting to their environment. But during that period, the ball is in our park, and the responsibility to make it work is ours.
For that, we need a support network, and I can’t stress that enough. We need to have people who we can ask for help, be it for the physical caring of the child or for our emotional and psychological care. It is ok to feel overwhelmed, tired, annoyed, angry, loving or fulfilled. Every feeling is ok. But we need an escape for them, or we will turn them onto our babies, and that isn't ok. They should receive only our best, and that is an attainable idea 90% of the time.
Furthermore, we have to be mindful of our patterns of behaviors that are automatic repetitions from our own childhood. It is ok to be critical of our parents because it is possible to love them while recognizing where they hurt us, and what we don’t want to pass along to our children. For that, you need to get in touch with your pain, because if you don’t, you won’t be able to see how that behavior will hurt your child. Keep in mind that even if you turned out ok despite what shouldn't have been done, your child may not. Parenting isn't about you and what worked for you, but about them and what they need from you.
Lastly, remember that development doesn’t need nudging. As with plants, all we have to do is offer a nurturing soil, water, adequate exposure to natural light, and wait for nature to run its course. With children, their nurturing soil is love, routine, and care within an environment that makes room for exploratory behavior. Be attuned to their needs and signs of maturation, and feed into them. Don’t force it.
One last word: love! You can never love your child too much. Love will never spoil a child. Love them immeasurably. I genuinely believe that is the ultimate key for success.