It Runs Both Ways - Kimberly Thompson

With the birth of a baby, a mother is also born. Motherhood comes with a sense of all sorts of responsibilities, from keeping the baby physically safe to nurturing her mind and spiritual growth. That sense of responsibility soaks into every aspect of motherhood, so that it’s tremendously hard to shake when that “baby” flies the coop as a fully-grown adult. We cannot go back to who we were before we became a mother … motherhood has changed us forever.

Not many people give much thought to the fact that our offspring shape us as much as we shape them, but they do. The influence runs both ways. Every human being is born with a predisposition to different types of behavior, different types of emotional experience, and with different responsiveness to reward and punishment.  That’s why there is no parenting formula that works for every child. Oh, there are broad principles that make sense for just about everyone — for example, building a positive and warm relationship is crucial; positive behavior should be rewarded (and naughty behavior should not); stability and routine give children a sense of security.  Beyond those broad principles, though, most of us parent by the seat of our pants. We use trial and error to discover what works for our child, and in this way they themselves shape the way they are parented.

There are some people who are smug and think they have this parenting thing all sewn up. I say to those people — you just haven’t had enough children yet, or maybe you just aren’t far enough along in this parenting journey. There will come a time  when your child will surprise you, frustrate you, or disappoint you.  There will come a time when you don’t know how to handle what your child throws at you.  You will eventually experience a situation where you have no idea what a good parent would do.

Kids who are very impulsive are particularly tricky to parent well. These children aren’t nearly as responsive to reward and punishment as other kids, and parents can end up becoming stricter and more punitive in an effort to get impulsive kids to think before acting. It is frustrating in the extreme to deal with a child who seems to make the same mistakes over and over again, despite the parent’s consistent application of appropriate consequences.  The parent may feel disrespected, ignored, or even unloved. Often the relationship between parent and child deteriorates into negativity, irritation and frequent anger. In this way, the child is shaping the way she is parented.

This is just one example of how kids bring their own issues to the family table — and how they wield influence over their own rearing. Shy, withdrawn, anxious children are challenging in a different way, as are children with differences such as developmental delay, sensory deficits, learning disabilities, and social skills deficits.  Nobody is saying that these things are the children’s “fault,” but learning how to parent them is a challenge.

What you find challenging in your child may depend on what your geographical, socioeconomic, or religious community expects of children. If you live in a community where intelligence and giftedness is held in highest esteem, it will probably be a challenge to admit that your child is having a hard time keeping up academically. If your community expects children to be friendly and outgoing, an introverted child might feel like a challenge to you. If your community expects mental and physical toughness, a sensitive child may be challenging to parent.

There’s nothing wrong with having expectations of your child. Just hold them lightly. Know that your child will shape you just as much as you shape her. Sometimes her strengths and gifts will coincide nicely with your hopes and dreams, sometimes not. Commit yourself to doing the best job you know how to do, and let the outcomes take care of themselves. There’s a certain relief knowing that it’s not all up to you, that the parent-child relationship runs both ways.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.