Isn’t it funny how much time and energy we put into learning for our careers – and how little we put into learning how to be parents?

Think about it, the majority of Americans attend school until they’re 18 years old. Then, some go off to spend another 4 years in college and potentially another 3+ years in postgraduate education. All of this is done in an effort to learn the skills needed to build a successful career.

But we are never once in life taught how to be parents – a job nearly everyone ends up doing. Sure, there are books and classes available if we want them. But there’s certainly nothing mandatory like there is in traditional education.

Because of this, we enter the workforce feeling prepared for what’s ahead (somewhat…. education isn’t perfect), but we enter parenthood with a fear of the unknown that can be downright paralyzing. Why do we do this to ourselves?

I can argue philosophical questions all day, but I know that’s not going to help. Instead, let’s talk about how parenting can be learned even though it’s rarely taught. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t matter if you’re thinking of kids, bringing home a newborn, or raising a teenager. These are lessons we can all benefit from at every stage of parenting.

Fill Your Parenting Toolbox with Empathy

The most important tool for parenting is something that we all have to some degree but can vastly improve upon: empathy.

Empathy is the act of stepping into the shoes of other people, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions.

Note the order of importance here: action is absolutely last. Before we act (or react, as the case may be), we must first stop, then put ourselves in their shoes, attempt to understand their feelings and perspectives, and finally act with that understanding.

Stop, listen, put ourselves in their place, and then act. This enables us to respond rather than react – and this is the key to empathetic parenting.

Being empathetic doesn’t mean you have to let your child slide if they’ve done something wrong. And it doesn’t mean you have to bend to their every will and desire. All it means is you have to think from their perspective and not yours before you act. Then you’ll be able to communicate in their language and in a way that addresses their needs and desires. This is the most effective way to communicate with anyone – not just our children.

Here’s the thing about empathy: it’s hard to do in a heated moment. But if you practice and practice and always use the platinum rule (treating someone the way they’d like to be treated – not the way you’d like to be treated), then you can get better at it over time. And it doesn’t matter if your child is 2 years old or 20 years old, empathy will always see you through a tough interaction and enable you to be the kind of parent you’ve always wanted to be.

Practice Active Listening

Along with empathy comes another very important practice that will serve you for your child’s’ whole life: active listening.

All children want is to be heard. They want to know that their parents care about them, value their thoughts, and want to engage with them. Active listening is the best way to do it.

This is much easier said than done. As we’ve become more connected through technology, we’ve become more disconnected on an interpersonal level. Whether our phones are buzzing with work emails or Facebook notifications, we’re constantly being distracted by our devices. It’s so easy to think we’re “just checking” “real quick,” but if it’s always happening during our interactions with our children, they’ll notice.

They’ll notice – and they’ll think our phones are more important than they are. The same goes for our tablet and devices too.

Practice active listening no matter how busy you are. If your child (young or old) is talking to you, put the phone away. Give your child your full attention. Show them verbal and nonverbal clues that indicate that you’re listening. Believe me, your kids will notice. And not only will they notice, you’ll notice things you should (such as clues to a change in their lives or red flags that could alert you to something you need to know more about).

Another component of active listening is understanding that no topic is too big or small. Whether your child is talking about their favorite play doh color or the drama that goes on in high school or their favorite car, listen actively. It may not be important to you, but it’s important to them – and therefore, it should be important to you by default.

Think back to when you were younger. Remember how everything seemed like such a huge deal? Even the smallest thing could have us in a tailspin, convinced our world was crashing down. As adults, we now know that wasn’t true at all – but it was our truth in that moment. That means it was important to us in that moment.

It’s worth repeating: all children want from their parents is to be heard, to feel valued, and for their parents to engage with them. This is such an easy thing to provide – it doesn’t cost a thing. All you have to do is stop, listen, and engage. Your child will notice (whether they’re 2 or 20).

Never Forget that What You Do Is As Important As What You Say

All of the behaviors I’ve mentioned above are important for you to do not just because they will enable you to be an empathetic parent, but also because they will enable you to model the behavior you’d like to see in your children.

Children notice everything.

If our words and our actions don’t line up, our children will notice (sometimes they’ll even call us out for it). Think about it, children are going through the world trying to figure out how it all works. They’re constantly receiving verbal and nonverbal signals that they end up internalizing. These signals become their practices, which become their philosophy, which guides how they live and what they value.

In other words, children will do what they see.

Your words and your actions need to line up. The phrase, “Do as I say and not as I do” will get you nowhere and fast. Be the behavior your want to see in your children.

Reflect Often

If there’s one thing we often forget as parents, it’s that we’re not expected to be perfect. In fact it’s really easy to forget this because we constantly feel like we’re being evaluated by our parents, by other parents, and by the worst critic of all (ourselves).

We are not perfect, we’re human. The best we can do is try our very best. And if that’s not good enough, we can try again. And when we mess up, we can learn from it and do better next time.

The worst thing we can do is to allow ourselves to succumb to feelings of pressure or shame. These feelings will make us want to shove our heads in the sand, when what we need to do is reflect and learn. More than anything, we need to be as aware as possible so we can make adjustments when necessary.

No matter how much you might fear you’ve messed up or how long you’ve been a parent, it’s never too late to course correct. Every day is an opportunity to model the behavior you want to illustrate. And as long as you don’t beat yourself up for mistakes, you will be able to do it.

We’re parents, but we’re human. Expecting perfection is the most painful and detrimental thing we can do to ourselves. If you want to do the best you can, reflect, gather what you can learn from situations, and move forward.

Don’t Let the Past Take Away from Your Future

Sometimes the most difficult thing about being a parent is the fact that we were children once ourselves – and we inevitably endured something in our childhood that has stuck with us over time.

If that something we endured came from our parents or the other adults in our lives, we might fear that we’re already failing as a parent out of sheer inevitability.

None of us had perfect parents (see the point above). And we often say how we do or don’t want to parent based on the good and bad we remember in our childhoods. This is totally normal! When this can become a problem is when you fear raising children because of the bad you may have endured as a child.

If your parents were not the picture of love and support, that does NOT mean you can’t be the picture of love and support for your children. And if your parents made you go through things you wish hadn’t happened, that doesn’t mean you’ll do the same to your children. The kind of parent you will be is exactly the kind of parent you want to be.

The kind of parent you will be is exactly the kind of parent you want to be.

It really is that simple. Every day is an opportunity to be the kind of parent you want to be. Look back at the past so you can learn from it. But then understand that the past does not have to dictate your future. And even what you go through today doesn’t have to dictate your future. As long as you’re mindful of the kind of parent you want to be, you can make it happen.

Every Day Is An Opportunity

No matter how old or young your child is, all of this advice can be used to better your relationship with your child. But if you remember nothing else, remember this:

Every day is an opportunity.

None of us gets to take a high school class on parenting. We have to form our own philosophies over time – and much of it is trial and error. As for the trial part, when we find change we want to create, it can take a lifetime for us to enforce it. But the good news is, every day is an opportunity.

Wake up, decide what kind of parent you want to be, and do what you can to make it happen. Your practices will get easier over time (though being a parent is never easy). Parenting may not be taught – but we can all learn!

Image Credit: Kazuend