Self parenting 

When we are growing up, our parents ensure they teach us what to do, and advise us on what to think, but I feel they rarely teach us how to think. Normally, their reactions will tell you if you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. You get praise, gifts, or a smile when you do something they perceive as right, and you get criticism, punishment, or a frown when you do something wrong.

As young adults, we emerge into the world knowing what to do (what they wanted us to do)  or what not to do but not how to make our own decisions and think for ourselves. 

Emerging into adulthood, many struggle with making decisions for themselves.

What do you want?

This approach to parenting has several downfalls I shall try to highlight. First of all, what a young child desires the most from their caregivers are attention, affection, and approval. This is because, when we came here, we had no idea how this crazy planet works. Initially, our parents or caregivers are our worlds and so their happiness is our lighting guide. Eventually, our world expands to include teachers, friends, family, those we work with, and other acquaintances.

The main problem with this is the fact that rarely are we taught to consult ourselves to find out what we truly want or desire. When adulthood finally arrives, we are expected to be grown up and able to make these decisions for ourselves but we are often paralyzed because we don’t know if the decisions we are making reflect our desires or what our parents or caregivers would have wanted us to want. Furthermore, we continue to seek the approval of or avoid the reproach of people when making decisions instead of asking ourselves what is right for us. 

Classical Conditioning

Pavlov’s experiment demonstrates how conditioned responses can shape behavior.

I can explain the second problem through the experiment of classical conditioning conducted by Pavlov. This series of experiments included bells, dogs, and food.

In the experiments, they were to work with a response the dog already had (unconditioned response), which is salivating at the sight of food. Then they began to ring a bell each time before the dogs were given food. Eventually, whenever the dogs heard the bell, they began salivating. Their brains had linked the thought of food with the bell.

Now, maybe you are wondering how this relates to my topic. Human beings can also be conditioned. We have many conditioned responses in life. Our brains, for purposes of saving thinking time, learn certain triggers and cues, and eventually, you can execute them without thinking, like how once you press the toothpaste on your toothbrush, you don’t wonder where to put the toothbrush or how to brush.

There are two types of conditioning, positive conditioning, and aversive conditioning. These types work because our bodies have inbuilt instincts to avoid pain and seek pleasure. When, for example, the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen results in shouting and criticism (aversive conditioning), you will learn to be more careful when handling those glasses the next time not to get the same response. Similarly, if getting an A results in a new bicycle, you will want to get an A again to experience more pleasure. 

The unfortunate thing about the ‘real’ world is that there is no one to pat you on the back when you do something good, and many ‘bad’ things you do may not result in shouts and criticism (immediately). So how is a young adult conditioned to seek approval or reproach to guide their actions expected to act when no such responses are forthcoming? 

The third downfall can be explained using a concept I learned from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steve Covey called the P/PC balance. The P stands for the product or the result, and PC stands for production capability. Without going into too much detail because it is such a captivating topic (to me at least), you have to balance the quality of your results and your production capability.

Balancing results with production capability fosters long-term habits.

In an example he gave in the book if a parent wants their child to keep their room clean, then the result is a clean room, and the production capability is the child’s willingness to do said task. When the child cleans their room in fear of the parent’s wrath or anticipation of their praise, more emphasis has been placed on the result than on the production capability.

This is no problem for the parent as they get what they want at that time, but when they are on their own, they probably won’t keep their room clean because there is no incentive. If the parent had taken the time to explain the benefits of keeping the room clean and rewarding the good behavior, they would have a child willing to clean their room with or without incentive because they understand why they are doing what they are doing. (As I said, it’s a fascinating topic I would love to expound on if you want.)

Let’s be clear; I am not saying any of this to bash parents or caregivers because they did the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had. After all, they too (most of them)  did not receive these lessons from their parents.

I am writing this because I have realized that I sometimes hit a wall when I want to make decisions or to initiate new habits in my life. I don’t usually know how I can reinforce a habit/action for myself. Most of us do what we want, then thoroughly criticize ourselves if there are bad consequences, or praise ourselves if there aren’t.

The main problem comes when the desired action has no immediate reward, like starting a new exercise regime or quitting a bad habit. Science has shown that self-criticism rarely gets anyone motivated, so something has to change. I think the change needed is to learn how to be parents to ourselves. 

I will give you an example first. Imagine a child learning how to walk. When the child starts standing, they are met with jubilation and praise. Any movement made on their own is regarded with joy and wonder, most especially when they walk on their own for the first time.

After that first time, do you see anyone criticizing the child for falling or expecting them to run a marathon the next day? No! When they fall, they are comforted and encouraged to start again. They are shown how to do it if need be, but there is normally no shouting or criticizing. What we (I) need to learn is how to be a parent to myself. And mostly like the parent to a young one who is learning and finding their way. 

Just like learning to walk, new habits require patience and encouragement.

If you are trying to install a new habit, it’s like learning how to walk because you are learning something new. It requires a lot of supervision at first, and you will make a lot of mistakes, but with patience, you will get better and better with time.

What are some of the characteristics we would desire in a parent at such a stage?  We desire empathy, compassion, and a lot of forgiveness, and those are the same qualities your inner parent should adopt.

As we attempt to go through this new landscape of adulthood, as we discover who we are and what we want, we should attempt to cultivate a peaceful and productive inner environment, and this begins by ditching the praise/ criticism as the main way to motivate/discourage the behavior and begin looking at our actions from the lens of a parent.

When you feel overwhelmed by a task, soothe yourself; become aware of your feelings and deal with them in the most appropriate and empathetic way to lead you to the best result. Learn how to show yourself self-love and compassion.

Cultivate self-compassion and empathy to navigate the challenges of adulthood.

When you fail, acknowledge it and find a way to prevent the same mistakes again. No matter the circumstance, consult with your inner parent on what you think is the best way forward and why. In this way, you will be able to make better decisions based on what is best for you at the time and find more peace within while progressing positively in whatever direction you want to move. 

Till the next one, 

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