Parenting is one of the most difficult and most important things that many of us will ever do. And some days it might seem like there are a million competing forces telling you how to do things differently – blogs, books, parent friends, grandparents, teachers, clergy. On top of that, life as a whole can be so overwhelmingly chaotic. Between changing social values, economic uncertainty, and your family’s busy schedule, it can feel like you have no control over your relationship with your child, or the morals and values that they are developing.
But that doesn’t have to be the case!
What guides your interactions with children and adolescents?
If you work with kids, there’s a clear guiding principle in your interactions with them. Teachers educate, and ensure that students are meeting certain standards, while developing their knowledge and skills. Social workers ensure that youth’s non-academic needs are being met, that they’re being cared for and loved. Clergy focus on young people’s relationship with God, and their spiritual development.
For parents, things are much less clear. What is the responsibility of a parent? Is it to keep your kids alive, to feed, clothe and house them? To provide them with the best of everything, regardless of the cost? To help them grow up to become good human beings?
Regardless of this uncertainty, one thing is for sure. Every child is an individual, and you have to find different ways to relate to them in the context of the family unit. It’s in this context that many experts recommend using “intentionality” to connect with children and adolescents.
What is Intentionality, and how can it help?
In its most basic sense, intentionality means being deliberate. It’s a concept that philosophers have debated over for over a century but that many people find helpful and valuable in their daily lives.
Life is complicated and messy. Sometimes it might feel like you have no control over your life, your relationship with your kids. Intentionality allows you to back some sense of control through living purposefully. You can cultivate and grow meaning in your life and familial relationships through the use of intentionality, by living deliberately and purposefully.
Intentional Interactions with Children and Adolescents
In interactions with your children, the goal is not to use them as a means to an end: you don’t use them to make yourself feel happy and fulfilled, but rather guide them towards well-being, towards achieving their moral potential. Their development is the goal. Parent-child relationships can help both individuals grow as moral human beings.
Being intentional in interactions with children and adolescents is all about maximizing the impact of your adult humanity on their developing humanity. As a parent, you don’t only want to make sure that your kids are clothed and fed; you want to make sure that you help guide them into becoming good human beings. You want to be proud of who they are, who you’ve helped them to become. This requires thought and effort.
Three Steps to Intentionality in Adult-Child Relationships
In Psychology Today, Gleib Tsipursky outlines three steps to Intentional Living, and they’re very applicable when we’re thinking about relationships with kids.
Step one: Evaluate reality clearly.
Be honest with yourself! Has you child’s interest in your favourite sport faded? Admit that you no longer have that particular shared interest.
Step two: Make effective decisions.
If you can admit that you’ve lost something in common with your child, you can bond over a new activity or topic that has captivated their attention. If they’re interested in cooking, try making a new dish together.
Step Three: Achieve short-term and long-term goals.
Once you can evaluate reality and make effective decisions based on that reality, you can achieve goals related to that new reality. In the short term, you get to spend quality time together and make memories. In the long term, you’ll have a stronger relationship with your child that you have intentionally cultivated by making efforts to learn about their likes and interests.
As a parent you’ll need to be open to changing these short and long-term goals, based on what you learn about your child along the way. Children change as they grow; be adaptable and flexible as that we learn about them, and your relationship will benefit greatly.
Avoiding Parenting Pitfalls through Intentionality
Nobody said that parenting was easy, and at times it can be a real struggle to maintain intentionality in relationships with children and adolescents. Sometimes parents react in the moment to correct undesirable behaviour in their children, but you need to be thinking long-term to avoid falling into the trap of quick-fix parenting.
Does your child ask embarrassing questions when you’re in line at the grocery store? Your instinct might be to shush them, ignore the question, and get out of the immediate situation with some dignity intact. Maybe you also reprimand the child for being rude. But you want to instil inquisitiveness, openness, innovation in your child; you want them to grow up to be unafraid to ask questions and learn from their mistakes.
Unfortunately that acute pain (the embarrassment of the loud, rude questions in public) can cause you to react (silencing them or even punishing them for asking questions) in a way that is counter-productive to the ultimate goals and values that you want to give to your kids (the negative reinforcement teaches them not to ask questions, to accept things as they are).
Rather than trying to prevent specific behaviours that cause problems or pain for you, the parent, in the short term, focus on what type of individuals you want your children to grow up to be. What types of qualities and values do you want to install in them? Work towards these long-term outcomes, rather than short-term fixes for the things that bother you right now.
With a little bit of effort, some self-reflection, and a frank assessment of your relationship with your kids, you can put intentionality to work for you. Just think about the morals and values that you want to pass on to them. Let those inform the way that you parent, and make sure to be deliberate in your relationship. It will benefit both you and your child.
That’s intentional parenting.
Ed Winn has several years experience counselling children and youth.