How children give parents the power to change

At this time of year, many people are contemplating the changes they want to make to their lives over the next year.  It was perhaps with this in mind that I came across a study by Jennifer Silva and Allison Pugh from the University of Virginia.  Their research focused on the way that children enhance the lives of parents but what struck me as I read it was how it described the transformational impact children can have on their parents’ lives.

Using data from an ongoing study of young adults, the research team analysed the transcripts of 24 in-depth interviews with mothers and fathers to understand how children positively impacted their lives.  The participants in the study were parents in their twenties who were from working class backgrounds.

The researchers found that having a child often resulted in five changes in parents.  Firstly, the arrival of a child allowed parents to develop new dreams or aspirations.  In some instances, the parents described becoming a mother or father as offering them the chance to have dreams for themselves for the first time.  Driven by a strong desire to give their children a better life than their own, they had hopes for their children often centred around education and giving their child more opportunities.

Secondly, many of the participants saw parenting as offering them a second chance.  It was an opportunity to start over and for them to become a better person. Children almost had a redemptive effect, with mothers feeling a greater sense of responsibility to take care of themselves and in some instances to insist that their partners shaped up too.

Having a child also offered parents a chance to break destructive family patterns.  For many parents, their greatest fear was following in the footsteps of their own parents.  Determined not to repeat the behaviour of their parents, they were driven by a strong sense of how they did not want to bring up their own children.

Parenthood offered many the chance to deepen and widen connections.  It enabled them to heal broken relationships with their parents and to give more to others.  It allowed them to tap into emotional reserves that they were not always aware existed.  This seemed to apply particularly to the fathers in the study, who expressed a desire for their role to go well beyond that of financial provider.  Fathers talked of a wish to be involved in the active care of the child and to develop an emotional connection with their children that they rarely had the opportunity to develop with other people.

Finally, parents talked of erecting barriers between themselves and people who might be harmful influences.  The parents’ strong desire to protect their children led them to severing links with people involved in illegal activity or who might not act as the type of role model they desired for their children.  They drew strength from their role as a mother or father to distance themselves from people who may cause their children or themselves harm.

The research focussed on young parents from working class backgrounds, but I think the research has potential interest for more parents.  The arrival of a child seemed to give parents power to make quite considerable changes within their lives.  The examples given in the article included giving up illegal drugs and rebuilding long fractured relationships with parents.  The changes could have been seen as daunting and yet the participants managed to make them for the sake of their children.

The research also highlights some questions for parents to ask themselves as to how they might enhance their own lives.  Namely, what do we want for our children and what lessons do we want to learn from our parent’s mistakes?  How do we want to change our lives to make it safer or better for our children and what relationships do we want to heal?  What kind of emotional connection do we want with our children and how can we deepen our relationships with others or extend them further?

Silva J M,  Pugh A J.  Beyond the depleting model of parenting:  narratives of childrearing and change.  Sociological Inquiry, Vol 80, No. 4, November 2010, 605-627

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