How (And Why) To Be Humble When You Parent

It's funny that we don't speak more about humility when we talk about parenting. God knows, if anything is humbling, it's the experience of being a parent.
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There is so much to like about David Brooks' recent "Moral Bucket List" essay that I am still thinking about it, after sending it around to everyone I know. I am particularly fascinated by his description of humility as "an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness." This is as good a definition of reflective parenting as I have heard. It's the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes while simultaneously remaining aware of your own thoughts, feelings and motivations. In fact, it's a pretty good model for relationships in general, which (perhaps as Brooks intended) has made me ponder the role of humility in human relationships.

It's funny that we don't speak more about humility when we talk about parenting. God knows, if anything is humbling, it's the experience of being a parent. It starts from the first moment of your infant's life when you realize you know nothing whatsoever about how to keep her alive. Then it carries through the years of raising an adolescent when you make the same mistakes over and over and over again.... well, you get the picture. It's really one long exercise in humility.

So, it makes no sense at all that parents are taught to view themselves as the "experts" in the parent-child relationship. As adults, we have more knowledge of the world, to be sure, but we are all utterly untutored in the ways of any individual child. We learn to understand infants and children by watching their behavior for clues about what they are thinking and feeling, and then, just as we have them figured out, they change again. We are perpetually in the position of learning from our children, learning from them and about them.

Of course they are watching too, trying to figure us out. In fact, in the early years of childhood, they are usually the more vigilant observers. Children watch their parents closely for clues about how to feel, if they are safe and what people and events mean. They depend on us to interpret their world. As a result, they are acutely "other-centered." In fact, research done with traumatized young children in war and national disaster zones demonstrates that the factor most likely to precipitate the development of PTSD was a threat to their caregivers. In other words, they feared danger to their caregivers more than the danger to themselves.

How many parents would say the same thing in reverse about their children? It is perhaps the ultimate description of other-centeredness when we think we would far rather experience fear and danger ourselves than witness the other suffer. But short of these extreme circumstances, as parents, we often fail to put ourselves in the position of the other. All the self-awareness in the world will not help your relationship with your child if the only time you can imagine yourself in his shoes is if disaster strikes.

Of course children don't yet possess the other side of the side of the equation. Self-awareness only comes with maturity and experience. As they grow, children move from a preoccupation with their parents to an intense concentration on their peers. Eventually, they focus on understanding themselves, a developmental arc that prepares them for the other-centeredness required in a successful relationship.

So, if we accept that humility, as Brooks defines it, is essential to a good relationship, it's fair to say that children lack the first ingredient -- self-awareness -- and adults too often lack the second, other-centeredness. Each needs to develop their weaker side; children by growing and maturing, and parents by focusing on the experience of the other. And how do we do this, you ask? How do we develop our other-centeredness?

By remembering that when it comes to them, they are the experts.

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