Successful Parenting: How Can It Be Defined?

By Josette Kehl, LCSW, TBRI® Practitioner | December 22, 2023 

 “Before I married, I had 3 theories about raising children. Now I have 3 children and no theories.”  You may have heard some version of this varyingly attributed quote. It usually strikes a humorous note with parents as it succinctly summarizes an important truth about parenting:  expectations and reality are often quite different! Success in parenting is easier said than done.

If you have been a parent for any length of time, you have likely learned that children frequently do not act in accordance with our expectations.  Many people expecting or waiting for their first child speak happily of their hopes and dreams for that child and the things they will do to help them reach those goals.  But it does not take long to realize that children don’t always get the memo.  At this point, parents typically discover another important truth:  you cannot control your child. 

Parents can and do shape their child.  Parents can craft an environment that will be conducive to learning (or not).  Parents can set the tone for a relationship that will be loving and open (or not).  Parents can contribute to their child having a healthy sense of self-worth (or not).   There is much that parents can do… but parents cannot control their child’s response.  Sometimes, a child will not respond well to a parent’s overtures of love and nurture because of past experiences or trauma that have left them mistrustful. Sometimes a child will not take advantage of learning opportunities that parents provide because of organic and physiological impairments.  Sometimes a child will reject a parent’s attempts to guide and correct because of temperament or personality. 

We do not control how our children respond to our efforts, and there is precious little we can make them “do”.  Even a young toddler who can be physically carried to bed or to their room retains control over eating, sleeping, elimination and emotional expression.

The realization that we cannot control our children and that we therefore have limited ability to ensure they meet our expectations can be discouraging to say the least.  Some parents make huge expenditures of time and money (not to mention emotional energy) to ensure that their child makes a particular team or gets into a particular school.  Other parents must focus on more basic efforts like trying to get their child to stop hitting and biting classmates so that they can stay in a particular daycare. When our children do not live up to our expectations pain, anger, grief, and resentment may result. We may feel that we have failed.

A wise woman once said that we can have desires for other people, but we can only have goals for ourselves.  This is because we cannot actually control another human being.  We can only control ourselves (and sometimes not very well!)  We can desire for our child to stop hitting and biting. We can desire our child to get all As and Bs. We can desire that our child makes the team or gets into the school. Often, we can provide support and environments that will make the achievement of these desires a reality.  But at the end of the day, we cannot control whether our children achieve them.  What is a parent to do?

One excellent way to get off the treadmill of disappointment in parenting is to change our definition of success.  Rather than having expectations or ‘goals’ for your children that involve them meeting certain criteria by which you will determine success, make your goals about things you can control. “If you define success around your [child’s] reactions or behavior, you are setting yourself up to fail.  We encourage you to define success by factors you can control, for example:

  • Our children will be heard, and their feelings accepted.
  • We will model regulation and repair.
  • We will provide a safe place until our kids are ready to launch. We believe they will when they can.
  • I will get enough sleep each night, so I have the energy to co-regulate the [children.]” (Qualls and Corkum, 2023).

Other examples of goals that involve what you can control include:

  • I will make birthdays special by asking my child what they want for breakfast and dinner and fixing those foods.
  • I will praise good character qualities I see in my child at least once per week.
  • We will be affectionate around each other in front of our children to model healthy romantic relationships.

The list could go on and on.  Quite a few things are in our control when we focus on what we, as parents, can do and provide for our children.  When we change our focus, we are then free to change our definition of success to encompass being the kind of parent we want to be and providing the best possible environment for our children.  Of course, we will not always live up to the expectations or goals we have for ourselves.  But we will have taken the burden of expectations off of our children, freeing us up to hopefully enjoy them more, rather than being regularly disappointed when they do not live up to these. And when we choose to define success by what we can and do control, we will likely become much more intentional in our parenting, resulting in greater contentment now, and fewer regrets down the road. And this, in turn, is most likely to result in children who feel seen, heard, and loved by their parents…no matter what.  This would be a monumental success.

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 “Before I married, I had 3 theories about raising children. Now I have 3 children and no theories.”  You may have heard some version of this varyingly attributed quote. It usually strikes a humorous note with parents as it succinctly summarizes an important truth about parenting:  expectations and reality are often quite different! Success in parenting is easier said than done.

If you have been a parent for any length of time, you have likely learned that children frequently do not act in accordance with our expectations.  Many people expecting or waiting for their first child speak happily of their hopes and dreams for that child and the things they will do to help them reach those goals.  But it does not take long to realize that children don’t always get the memo.  At this point, parents typically discover another important truth:  you cannot control your child. 

Parents can and do shape their child.  Parents can craft an environment that will be conducive to learning (or not).  Parents can set the tone for a relationship that will be loving and open (or not).  Parents can contribute to their child having a healthy sense of self-worth (or not).   There is much that parents can do… but parents cannot control their child’s response.  Sometimes, a child will not respond well to a parent’s overtures of love and nurture because of past experiences or trauma that have left them mistrustful. Sometimes a child will not take advantage of learning opportunities that parents provide because of organic and physiological impairments.  Sometimes a child will reject a parent’s attempts to guide and correct because of temperament or personality. 

We do not control how our children respond to our efforts, and there is precious little we can make them “do”.  Even a young toddler who can be physically carried to bed or to their room retains control over eating, sleeping, elimination and emotional expression.

The realization that we cannot control our children and that we therefore have limited ability to ensure they meet our expectations can be discouraging to say the least.  Some parents make huge expenditures of time and money (not to mention emotional energy) to ensure that their child makes a particular team or gets into a particular school.  Other parents must focus on more basic efforts like trying to get their child to stop hitting and biting classmates so that they can stay in a particular daycare. When our children do not live up to our expectations pain, anger, grief, and resentment may result. We may feel that we have failed.

A wise woman once said that we can have desires for other people, but we can only have goals for ourselves.  This is because we cannot actually control another human being.  We can only control ourselves (and sometimes not very well!)  We can desire for our child to stop hitting and biting. We can desire our child to get all As and Bs. We can desire that our child makes the team or gets into the school. Often, we can provide support and environments that will make the achievement of these desires a reality.  But at the end of the day, we cannot control whether our children achieve them.  What is a parent to do?

One excellent way to get off the treadmill of disappointment in parenting is to change our definition of success.  Rather than having expectations or ‘goals’ for your children that involve them meeting certain criteria by which you will determine success, make your goals about things you can control. “If you define success around your [child’s] reactions or behavior, you are setting yourself up to fail.  We encourage you to define success by factors you can control, for example:

  • Our children will be heard, and their feelings accepted.
  • We will model regulation and repair.
  • We will provide a safe place until our kids are ready to launch. We believe they will when they can.
  • I will get enough sleep each night, so I have the energy to co-regulate the [children.]” (Qualls and Corkum, 2023).

Other examples of goals that involve what you can control include:

  • I will make birthdays special by asking my child what they want for breakfast and dinner and fixing those foods.
  • I will praise good character qualities I see in my child at least once per week.
  • We will be affectionate around each other in front of our children to model healthy romantic relationships.

The list could go on and on.  Quite a few things are in our control when we focus on what we, as parents, can do and provide for our children.  When we change our focus, we are then free to change our definition of success to encompass being the kind of parent we want to be and providing the best possible environment for our children.  Of course, we will not always live up to the expectations or goals we have for ourselves.  But we will have taken the burden of expectations off of our children, freeing us up to hopefully enjoy them more, rather than being regularly disappointed when they do not live up to these. And when we choose to define success by what we can and do control, we will likely become much more intentional in our parenting, resulting in greater contentment now, and fewer regrets down the road. And this, in turn, is most likely to result in children who feel seen, heard, and loved by their parents…no matter what.  This would be a monumental success.

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References

Qualls, Lisa and Corkum, Melissa (2023). Reclaim Compassion: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Overcoming Blocked Care with Neuroscience and Faith. Adoption Wise Press.

References

Qualls, Lisa and Corkum, Melissa (2023). Reclaim Compassion: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Overcoming Blocked Care with Neuroscience and Faith. Adoption Wise Press.