Shaping Your Child’s Future

Parenting is a process through which children and parents grow and develop together. Through a series of stages, parents guide their child’s present and help shape their future. From pregnancy to the time when their child leaves home, parenthood can be divided into six broad categories. According to researcher Ellen Galinsky, parents grow and change as they progress from one stage of parenthood to the other. At each phase, they tend to assess their own successes and failures as a parent, and the whole experience is quite complex and diverse! Here’s a brief outline of the stages of parenthood, based on Galinsky’s research.                    -- Sumana

Stage One Image-Making (pregnancy)

Even if you don’t know it, you begin fulfilling your parenting duties at the pregnancy stage itself. You begin to shape your role by preparing for your newborn’s arrival, taking up responsibilities of the new life, and getting ready for the changes to come. While adults tend to paint pictures in their minds about what lies ahead of them – with the birth and parenthood – this imaginative process does not stop at this stage. Rather, it continues throughout your lifetime.

You’ll discuss many things related to the arrival of the newborn, like the equipment, space issues, your daily schedule, and how you’ll change your lifestyle to support your baby’s growth. There will be long chats with your doctor about the health of your baby, and insights into your approach towards the birth experience and your child’s first days. Growth at this stage occurs when parents modify their own behaviour to adapt to the image they’ve created of the future. No matter whether parents resist this change or welcome it, people are bound to change eventually, as parenthood is a transforming experience.


Stage Two Nurturing (birth to 18-24 months)

This stage is all about forming a strong bond with your baby. Typically a difficult phase for the parents to balance the needs of the baby with their own responsibilities, parents gain a feeling of attachment by holding, touching, kissing, and caring for the baby. You may have doubts about your priorities, time constraints, and how to divide your time between the baby’s needs and handling other aspects of life. It may be challenging to find time to converse with your spouse about how they’re coping, manage your job, and take some time out to have fun with friends.

While it’s natural to compare your imagination with the actual experience, getting to know your child can help resolve the differences. As you sail through this stage while forming bonds of attachment with your baby, it is imperative that you make decisions about child care. You can decide whether one parent needs to stay at home full-time, or arrange for flexible working schedules. 

Stage Three: Authority (two to four or five years)

During this stage, parents do everything for their child and assume the role of a dictator. They tell the child what to eat, what to do, and when to go to bed, and discipline him or her when they don’t behave properly. This phase also requires the parents to be disciplined. You’re expected to nurture and guide the child, while also allowing enough freedom for each child to grow and develop. You too will grow and learn more about parenting, while the child travels in the same boat with you. The challenge for you is deciding how to set rules, what to do when the rules are broken, and how to demonstrate authority, apart from explaining why certain things are prescribed and prohibited. A key factor for successful parenting here is the theme of control versus the lack of control. While parents are sure of their identities, they must also realise that the child is not merely an extension of themselves.

You may have formed images of the kind of parent you want to be – not getting angry, showing unconditional love, or being different than your own parents were. You may also have notions about your child – how they’ll always be nice, or that they’ll remain the same year after year. Both parents and children must adapt to the situations and reflect on their behaviour in order to grow harmoniously. You need to understand that problems between the parent and the child are inevitable. The way you resolve problems – by establishing your own brand of authority – is the solution for overcoming this challenge.

Stage Four: Interpretive (preschool to adolescence)

Parents must decide how to interpret their children’s existence for them. You can teach your child about life in general, help them interpret the actions of others and aid in evaluating themselves. During this stage, although parents are usually concerned with the influences of peers on their children, they need to help their child understand the consequences of his or her actions. It is often the case that when parents’ expectations don’t meet that of the child’s actual behaviour, they begin to question themselves and their parenting methods.

This stage also prompts parents to review their own behaviour and the images they’ve formed of parenthood. Parents can become more realistic about both themselves and their children through self-evaluation. A crucial aspect during this time is understanding what kind of lives their kids want, and balancing this against what you want to provide. It is important for parents to understand when to say “yes” and “no” to their children’s requests. Explain, describe and interpret facts, skills, and experiences to your children. There’s an endless range of ideas and situations here – theft, bad dreams, people who aren’t kind to their pets, a person your child thinks is unfair, or even the meaning of words like incest and rape.

Apart from interpreting or talking about things, you should also listen patiently to your children. Decide how involved you wish to be in your children’s lives. Discuss how you want your children to behave, and determine how giving them responsibilities like household chores will work for the best. Along with that, it’s critical to decide on the amount of time you want to spend on yourself and with your partner. Encourage your children to do things independently and understand when to let go. You must respond to your children’s concepts of fairness as they master new reasoning skills.

In families with several children, parents face the challenge of dealing with conflict between them. These issues may lead to slipping in and out of control for both children and parents. You need to figure out how you are going to handle sibling spats, competitions, and put-downs. While this phase enables parents to re-establish their own beliefs and convey them to their children, it is also a demanding and challenging process.

Stage Five: Interdependent (adolescence)

Around this stage, parents involve their children/teenagers in more family decisions. This is a sign of an evolving parent-child relationship. While this a stressful time for the adolescent, realise that you are no longer the driving influence in your child’s life. They are trying to establish their own identity and are seeking to gain independence from their parents. On the other hand, parents are also struggling to give up control and their urge to protect their child. An important task at this time is enabling your children to transition from dependence to independence. You need to be prepared for the unexpected, including changes in your child like changes in clothing, behaviour, language, physical growth, etc. Avoid parenting your teenagers in the same way that you did as toddlers or grade-schoolers. Encourage them to take responsibility in decision-making. Warn them about the potential consequences of poor decisions, and leave the decisions up to them most of the times. Over time, they will find their own course.

To handle your children effectively in this stage, you must know your own standards and expectations, as well as understand the guidance your teenager may need. Find new ways of communicating to facilitate talking to each other effectively. Respond to what teenagers say and do (and what they don’t say and do) by setting limits and giving guidance. Help them resolve important and sensitive questions like what after finishing school? Which college? Which field do they want to work in? Where and with whom can they go out? What about drinking, smoking, sex, and drugs? How to handle money?

Stage Six: Departure

This time is often about your child leaving home and you evaluating your own self. It is characterised by considering whether you’ve achieved the relationship you wanted with your children, and reflecting on the overall successes and failures of your own life. New relationships between the parent and the child emerge when the child leaves home. And this is the time when parents need to redefine their own identities. Parents tend to form images of what their future may bring to them, such as how far away their child will go and how often will they be together.

The emotions parents experience during this phase cannot be put into words. It is not about active involvement in your child’s life anymore. Although each stage has its own challenges, the departure stage can be especially difficult, as it requires letting go of the role of your child’s counsellor. You will need to loosen your control even more. If you continue to command or coach (which has been the case for decades), it may create resistance in your relationship. It is meaningful if you can simply offer to help your child; not only does it affirm your availability, it also means you are respecting your children’s independence. You need to begin accepting your grown child’s separate identity, and learn that by accepting separateness, you’re establishing a new connection.

Parenthood cannot always be measured and doesn’t always have a scientific explanation. Recognise that parenthood is characterised by multiple phases, but that you may not even realise when they begin or end. And of course, different children need different kinds of flexibility and attention while growing up as they move from one stage to the next. It’s a fascinating journey, with potential rewards as great as the challenges encountered along the way!