My wife is pregnant with our first child. We have wanted a child for a while, but now she is saying things that have me concerned. She seems really worried that she won’t be a good mom and that somehow we will “mess up” our kid. She has some family members who have been through depression and substance abuse and she feels like it was the fault of the parents that they suffered. How can I assure her that she can be a great parent and not to worry so much?
— Father To Be
Dear Father To Be,
Thank you for opening up a question that concerns a lot of people. Healthy worry, which is a form of fear, reminds us to pay attention… because there is something important to attend to. A little worry is part of recognising that the role of parent is a very important one and can have a great deal to do with shaping the lives of the children we raise. But, too much worry can bring fear and insecurity into the process and disrupt the natural confidence we have to be “good enough” parents; no one is perfect.
Let’s start by talking about what children need from those who raise them, parents, family as well as teachers and others who influence their lives. Three things create the foundation.
1) It is the parents’ responsibility to keep their children safe. It means physically and emotionally safe. While it is impossible to protect children from all the ways that we can be hurt in our lives, a child learns inner security when they feel the adults around them are aware of what they need and can console them when they are in pain. Emotional safety is the foundation of a life that leads to one’s ability to trust one’s own judgment, and to navigate relationships in a healthy way. Our inner security is directly related to how secure we felt as children. As a child grows older they need to be given more freedom to take risks and understand the dangers of life with the awareness of adults who can assure them of their constant support. Under-protected kids develop anxieties and might seek security through controlling the aspects of life they can. Over-protected kids can grow into adults who are unimaginative, depressed or expect too much of others.
2) Nurturance is the process of feeding a child what they need. What we all need more than anything else is love. Unconditional love is not connected to performance, good or bad, and is a message that instills value and worth to a child. This too is at the foundation of any life… to feel loved, valued, validated, accepted for who we are, and to feel that we belong to our family, friends and larger community. This isn’t something that we should assume a child will know or feel. Affection, through hugs, words of acceptance and encouragement and other messages that communicate that we “matter”, create an inner security that is displayed in natural confidence. An un-nurtured child grows into an adult who might lack confidence and suffer from low self-esteem or self-worth.
3) It is the parents’ responsibility to generate developmentally appropriate tasks. It means that a feeling of success is achieved because the child is able to do what they have attempted to do. The adult can see what a child can and cannot do and can support and encourage them in ways that allow them to continue to accomplish what they are trying. It is important to see the smaller parts of any task and to help guide children through the steps to completion. Children who learn success early are able to apply it to other challenges as they grow older. It is important not to focus too much on the outcome, but rather on the process. The reward is intrinsic. We all love to feel like we can do what we set out to do. Having developmental tasks that are too difficult can produce frustration and undermine a child’s belief that they can be successful. Too little challenge leads to complacency or lack of motivation.
These three guidelines can help create priorities for parents. We must remember that children each have their own personalities, abilities, interests, as well as fears and limitations. Guiding a child is a relationship dynamic and no script or plan can be right for every child or parent. It is important to do the best you can and recognise that much of life is outside of your control.
The less fear we bring the better we will do. Children are resilient and life is more of an adventure than a straight road to certain places. Live your life freely and with joy, and your children will learn that from you.
Share this with your wife to begin a discussion of what her fears are and how you will work together to raise your child.