Parenting and Coping with Stress

NOTE: Other than describing two events that were in the news, this entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the second person personal pronoun “you” is used as a generic universal. The post presents analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

I remember taking a course in Adolescent Psychology when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s. The professor made a comment one day and it has stuck with me over the years. He said, “Being a parent is a job, but it’s kind of unique. I don’t know of any other job where the goal is to be unemployed.” The class knew what he was saying: At some point, the child of  successful parenting will declare independence – cut the cord, so to speak – and venture forth to make his or her way in the world, thus rendering the parent unemployed.

            Two recent events made me think of that job analogy of parenthood. The first was when a Texas Senator packed up his wife and kids, age 9 and 11, and they headed with him to Cancun. Texas was in the midst of a Winter emergency as temperatures plunged below freezing for days, power went out, and water pipes burst in thousands of homes. People were running out of food and becoming desperate, while the Senator acceded to his kids’ pleas to take them somewhere warm. He said he wanted to be a good dad. I wondered: Was he doing his job as a parent? Should he have taken his kids to a food bank or a shelter and handed out food, water, blankets, and other basic necessities? Was he being a good role model by suggesting to his kids that when the going gets tough, get out of town? Was he teaching them how to cope with adversity? Was he teaching them that sensitivity to the needs of others was an honorable value? Just wondering, not passing judgment.

            The other event was a group of parents standing around a fire burning face masks. They were protesting the mandate to wear masks during the virus pandemic. Several parents had their kids – who looked about 8 -10 – with them, and the kids were helping them toss masks into the fire. I got to thinking: Is it parents’ job to educate their kids, or to indoctrinate them? Educate means explaining all sides of an issue to the kids, presenting the evidence for each position, and when their understanding is mature enough, letting them form their own opinion. Indoctrinate means convincing kids to adopt the parents’ values as being correct.

To answer all these questions, of course, parents would need to develop a job description of their parenting employment. If the family is like a company with you, the parent, in charge, what kind of product do you want to produce? An independent or a dependent kid? A kid who seeks perfection, or who seeks curiosity? A questioning or an accepting kid? An active thinker or a passive listener? A kid who values rigid, stern actions, or who values flexibility? A kid who is willing to accept challenges and work hard to overcome them by learning from mistakes, or a kid who feels entitled, wants others to do the hard work, and blames others for failures?

From a context of coping with stress, I believe that as a parent, you can only answer these questions by looking inside yourself, and including such a self-analysis as part of the parenting job description. For instance, are you trying to be a perfect parent? Do you fear losing your parenting job? If your kids choose actions and values that are not yours, will you feel you are imperfect – a loser, a failure – as a parent? Are you insecure with your own principles such that you must have your kids accept them to reinforce your beliefs and standards, and thereby allay your insecurities? Are your kids simply crutches that you use to justify who you are, and to show yourself you are a worthy person?

Success at the parenting job boils down to how you decide to cope with your stressors. In making that decision, you need to accept that the goal of your psychological life should not be self-preoccupation, inflexible thinking, and perfection in all you do as a parent. Come to think of it, success at living involves those things, too!

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