What makes a good parent?
Ask people this question and you’ll get a range of answers. Some will focus on that person’s experiences with their own parents; others on the person’s knowledge level, especially in terms of parenting philosophies. Some might emphasize the parents’ religious upbringing, or how moral and ethical they are—or how hard they work at being consistent, kind, patient, and so on.
All of those factors can definitely influence our parenting. But as we explained in chapter 1, decades of rigorous research provide a specific answer to this question, and it’s profoundly hopeful. If we want to look at why kids do well in life (emotionally, relationally, socially, educationally, and so on), we can examine whether they’ve developed secure attachment with at least one caregiver who consistently shows up for them. And the best predictor for whether caregivers can provide this type of secure attachment is that they have what we can simply call “parental presence.” Parents with presence have reflected on and made sense of their own story and attachment history. Even if that history was challenging, making sense of one’s life empowers parents to have the open, receptive awareness of presence that enables them to show up reliably for their children.
To restate it as simply as possible, kids are most likely to become resilient, caring, and strong when parents show up. We don’t have to be perfect, but the ways in which we show up (or fail to show up) influence who our kids become and how their brains get wired.
Naturally there are other factors—random events, inborn features of temperament, inherited vulnerabilities—that we cannot change and that also influence how our children develop. But when it comes to what we can do to shape our kids’ growth, the research is solid. Parents who show up are the ones who have made sense of their own life experiences, creating a “coherent narrative” and being able to offer parental presence so that they show up inside and out. Inside we come to understand how the past has shaped who we are in the present in a way that frees us to be what we want to be now and in the future. And outside, we learn how to have an open, receptive awareness—to have parental presence—so that our child feels felt, understood, and connected to us. Making sense and being present: That’s what showing up is all about. And that’s where we’ll begin, with helping you consider how well you’ve made sense of your experiences with your own parents and how you can be present in the lives of your kids.
How much have you reflected on the ways your childhood experiences influenced your own development, thus predicting and influencing the ways you interact with your children? How do you think your early family life impacted the ways your brain developed in response to those experiences, either directly or by how you had to learn to adapt, or perhaps even survive, in the face of challenging events?
The good news is that if you’re willing to do the work, science can show you how to understand your own attachment history. What’s more, even if you didn’t receive an optimal upbringing—because of your parents’ absence, their blind spots, their mistreatment of you, or any other reason—your attachment strategy is not fixed. History is not destiny. If your parents failed to show up for you, or showed up only sometimes, or behaved in scary and damaging ways, that doesn’t mean you can’t be there for your own kids in healthy and constructive ways. But it does mean you may have some work to do in terms of reflecting on your own attachment history and determining the kind of attachment you want to provide your own children. You can actually choose the extent to which you show up for your kids, and yes, you can build your own capacity to show up by examining your history and making sense of it for yourself.
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