What is a Good Parent

by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.

Some people think that a good parent is someone who has “good” kids. The truth is, however, that good parents can have any kind of kids-well-behaved kids, poorly behaved kids, calm and confident kids, anxious kids, mentally ill kids, super achievers, underachievers, kids with health problems, kids with learning problems, gifted kids, average kids and all other kinds of kids. Kids are a product of their genes, their communities, their schools, their culture, their family placement, their experiences and their parents’ guidance-among other factors. To claim credit or blame for a child’s outcome is presumptuous on the part of parents. What parents can claim credit or blame for, however, is their own behaviour.

Parents can do a good or poor job of parenting: socializing and educating their kids and providing a healthy model for them to emulate. Whether children successfully integrate parental lessons is irrelevant to the definition of a good parent; what is relevant is that the parent has done his or her part in the teaching-modeling process. Whether the impact of parents accounts for only 10% of the adult personality of the child or whether it accounts for 50% or more, also matters little. What matters is that the parent has done everything possible within his or her sphere of influence.

What is in the Parent’s Sphere of Influence?

It was not unusual for parents of earlier generations to think that their job primarily involved the physical care and practical education of their children. In this view, the parent succeeds at the task of parenting by virtue of getting kids washed, dressed, fed and out the door for school, then fed, washed, undressed and into bed at night. Deluxe versions of this model add frills like providing a clean and orderly house, help with homework, particularly nutritious or delicious meals and maybe even extra-curricular lessons or activities. Plus the occasional family vacation.

However, a quick look at the modern field of developmental psychology tells us that more is going on in childrearing than meets the eye. Adults fill the offices of psychologists and psychiatrists tracing their depressions and anxieties to events that happened two, three or four decades earlier, in the first decade of their lives at home with Mom and Dad. Most of this has little to do with the quality of dinner or the fashion statement imposed by their parents (although these are factors in some situations of deprivation). Much of it has to do with family communication processes: how they were spoken to and how they were listened to. Much has to do with the emotional flavor of the household-warm, cold, frightening or safe. Lots of it has to do with what the model that was provided-a display of healthy or unhealthy thoughts, feelings and actions.

In addition to adults requiring mental health services, adults living out their normal lives also reveal the impact of childhood programming. How they manage stress and anger, how they communicate with others, how they spend their money and their time-all of this can be shaped by parental influences. Spouses can clearly identify these patterns in their partners: “You’re just like your father” or “All of you Smiths feel that way.” Some generational patterns are obvious to social scientists and other observers of human nature: survivors of abusive childhood homes frequently grow up to form abusive homes of their own. Children of alcoholics marry addicts. Children of politicians, doctors and actors often become politicians, doctors and actors.

Indeed, adult characteristics of children point to the influence of parents in endless ways. Although adult personality is not only the result of parental influence, it is clearly affected by it. In other words, YOU will have a profound and enduring impact on your child’s life. You can have that impact accidentally and unconsciously, since it occurs inevitably through your dealings with the child without your permission or awareness. Or, you can take a more active role. You can think about what messages and lessons you really want to convey and then you can endeavour to model and teach them to your child. Success is not up to you; there are too many other factors at play. However, a farmer who doesn’t even plant the seeds has very little chance of growing his desired crop. Planting them, of course, does not ensure that they will grow. Even watering, weeding and nurturing them does not ensure success. There are factors that are beyond the farmer’s control. But making the conscious effort to plant in the first place, gives him a greatly increased chance of achieving his goal.

Parents who purposely aim toward helping their children acquire the skills for a successful adult life also have a greater chance of achieving their goal. And although these skills include competence at self-care (health habits and the ability to earn a living), a truly successful adult life requires many more skills beyond these survival basics. Skills that foster good relationships with oneself and others lead to quality of life. Ultimately, a person lives in the world of feelings. Chronically disturbed feelings make for a disturbed life while chronically happy feelings make for a happy life. To a certain extent, the feeling thermostat is set at birth: as a result of genetic inheritance, people tend more or less toward positive states of mind and emotion. However, childhood experience in the parental home also plays a part. Children who learn dysfunctional ways of relating, feeling and thinking will be less happy both in childhood and in adulthood, while children who learn healthy patterns will be happier even if they are “genetically challenged.” The happiest ones, obviously, are those with both happy genes and happy home environments. The least happy are those with unhappy genes combined with unhappy homes. Although parents can do nothing about the genes they pass on to their children, they can do much about the home environment they provide. In fact, learning how to create a positive atmosphere in the home is easy. Following simple but powerful communication strategies can make a peaceful home a reality for every family.