Parenting as a safe holding environment

Parenting as a safe holding environment is an interesting concept. One of the struggles that most parents have is how to establish the delicate balance between power and freedom. The primary social function of good parenting is the adequate socialization of children. What that generally means is that children are born with potential capacity, basic personality orientation, and a blank slate in terms of knowledge, culture, religion, and behavioral skills. Parents are supposed to take this blank slate and write on it. The goal for the parent is to “build” a child into a person who is capable of at some point of functioning as an adult, contributing, independent member of society.
Socialization of children so that they can become grown up members who contribute to society and pay their own way is a challenge that involves four basic developmental things. These parenting/socialization skills are in the areas of: delayed gratification, anger management, impulse control, and specific functional skills such as typing, cooking, driving, reading etc..
When parents think about how to parent they typically talk about global concepts, i.e. should we spank? Will we go to church? How do you feel about co-ed sleep-overs? Or they talk about specific things such as what do you do if your child sasses you, or takes money from your wallet, or skips school? My usual recommendation to parents who come to see me is to work on building a framework of rules and structure that is mostly consistent. (I use mostly because circumstances always change, and no one, is perfectly consistent.)
I recommend that they talk about and develop sets of consequences, both positive and negative, which they will use to reinforce behaviors they want and eliminate or reduce behaviors they do not want. Within the framework established by the basic rules of the household: i.e. we don’t hit each other, we don’t steal from each other, we speak with respect, etc., the options for behavioral experimentation by the child are pretty fluid and open. Children need to know where the lines are drawn. They will constantly look for them and push to discover where the boundaries are drawn. They learn from the consequences they experience, not the talking they hear. Most parents talk too much. Somewhere they have learned that if they just “explain” and “reason” their children will modify their behavior and be angelic. This is just not the way it works.
You must create a safe holding environment. Create a place where the child is safe, and nurtured, and that nurturing includes making sure the child knows what behaviors are acceptable and what are not. There are consistent standards, there are known and predictable consequences. As children age, parents loose the ability to micromanage them. It becomes even more important to loosen the reins and let the children run around within the safe box of structure, and test the environment and their own skills and interests so that they learn what works for them and what does not. The goal of this process is to create a situation where the child will try a behavior, experience a consequence (either from life or from the parents) learn whether or not it was something they want to experience again or avoid, and modify their strategies, gain new skills, and move forward. It is important to allow or encourage this experimentation when the children are young so that the consequences of their choices are not so very expensive.
An additional central concept for the safe holding environment is the issue of parental modeling. Children learn more from how you, as parents, behave than they do from the rules you set, or the consequences you administer. Your kids watch you constantly the way lab scientists watch lab – rats! They want to know what you are doing, and why. They want to be able to use their knowledge to predict how you are likely to behave in the future. This is about learning to impact their environment and manipulate it to get more of what they want and less of what they do not want.
One of the interesting things about human nature and human skills is our ability to learn without having to experience something first hand. We can watch others and conclude from what we see them experience whether or not we want that to happen to us. We do not have to have that actual experience happen to us in order to use the information to make changes in our own behaviors. This is partly why it is important to remember that we model for our children on a twenty four / seven basis. How we behave, especially in the areas of the four dimensions of socialization, is a critical parenting issue!
How do you respond when you are angry? Do you model for your children the ability to not lash out and attack others when you are angry? What kind of impulse control do you have? Do your children hear you plan for things you want, and work to get them in a reasoned and reasonable way? Do they see that you manage your money effectively? Do you take risks that make no sense at all from the outside observers point of view? Do you live on credit or do you have the ability to work towards goals and wait for the pay off? These skills of yours, the ones that manifest your strategies for anger management, impulse control, and delayed gratification, are on display for your children to learn from. They watch, they see, they imitate!
Children with whom I speak often talk about their parents behavior patterns. These children frequently say “I am not going to be like my Dad, I am going to…….” Or they say: “My mom is crazy, she always……” They say “my dad always says…… but he does not act that way, he…….”. Sometimes, not very often, they say “ I want to be like my Dad, or my Mom because s)he …………
Modeling your values for your children is such an important parental behavior. KNOWING that you are modeling and making good choices in your behaviors is among the best of the things you can do as a parent. Your child will experiment, they will act out, they will challenge, but they will also internalize the values and beliefs that you have. The children of your family will learn how to be socialized by you and by the community in which they live. They will learn the four skill sets from church, school, and home. By the time they are teen’s almost all of the central behavior patterns that will identify them as adults are in place. At this point, it would take something of a traumatic nature to make fundamental changes. If you have a teen, remember to model, to have good boundaries, predictable known consequences for choices they make, and don’t talk too much. Do not micromanage, do not preach, and do not be afraid to use consequences that are age appropriate and that impact the behavior of your children with appropriate costs. Having said all that, hopefully at this point, you will be able to laugh with and enjoy the child you have wrought!

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