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Keeping Parental Influence in Perspective

By Carl Pickhardt
Author of Keys to Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem

Some parents subscribe to the input/output theory of parental influence: put in “good” parenting and a healthy, successful child will result. Effort equals outcome, they believe, because quality of parenting makes most or all of the difference in how a child “turns out.”

Certainly parenting matters – the time and energy and loving dedication invested in one’s mothering or fathering task. However, many other sources of influence also shape the course of a child’s growth. Consider just a few of the more influential factors over which parents have no control.

Parents don’t control the larger CULTURE and the onslaught of media messages that it sends – the experiences it glamorizes, the ideals it presents, and the motivations it encourages. Parents don’t control the child’s inborn CHARACTERISTICS -- the temperament, personality, and aptitudes that genetic inheritance endows. Parents don’t control the CHOICES the child makes -- they can inform those choices, but final decisions are up to him or her. Parents don’t control the CIRCUMSTANCES to which a child is exposed away from home – the unfamiliar and challenging situations he or she gets into out in the world. Parents don’t control the child’s COMPANIONS and the pressures they can bring to bear – inviting opportunities for risk taking, for experimenting with adventure and the forbidden. And parents don’t control CHANCE events – how luck can spare or victimize a young person’s life.

Within the large array of significant influences, parenting is only one, and keeping that perspective is particularly important when conduct of a child’s life is not going well. For parents to take total blame for what is happening (substance abuse, for example) or for what is not happening (maintaining grades commensurate with ability,for example) is crediting the power of parental influence too much.

Parents need to limit their liability. “We cannot fully protect any more than we can fully prepare. We can be right some of the time, but not all of the time. We can give a full faith effort, but we cannot have complete control.”

Parents who assume responsibility for everything that happens to their child become bound by a false equation: parents = child. This linkage ties adequacy of parenting to performance of the child, how well or badly a child does becoming a measure of the parenting received. Bound by this belief, when the child makes a bad choice, parents must fault themselves: “What have we done wrong?”

Better for parents to break this equation and maintain a realistic perspective instead. “Good parents have good children who will sometimes make bad choices in the normal trial and error process of growing up. A bad choice does not make a bad child any more than a badly acting child makes a bad parent. We can do what we can, but we cannot be responsible for it all.”

The power of parental influence comes down to this: the example parents model (who and how they are) and the treatment parents give (how they choose to act and react with their child.)

Copyright 2001 All rights reserved. Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.



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