Self-Parenting: It’s All in the Attitude


When he treats himself seriously,

he receives back in turn what is more than himself.

- Karl Jaspers

hen children have parents who are less than ideal, when they don’t hear the basic truth about how difficult life can be, and when they hear lies that tell them they are doing poorly, they stop experimenting in their lives. Without experimentation, children are unlikely to discover their personalities and their gifts. With no sense of their potential, these unfortunalte children will fail to proceed down the road toward mastery. And because mastery is the ultimate human experience, life without it is tragic. If this has been true for you, if you believe that you are without talent and drive, and if you have stopped dreaming about a better life for yourself, it’s time to replace that flawed set of parents inside your head with a new, complete and beneficial model.

How do we do that?

Here’s a nifty, little secret. Existentially speaking, being a good parent involves only five fundamental tasks, so there are only five areas we need to review and repair relative to the parenting we received.

Five Fundamental Parental Tasks

The five areas of responsibility that adults have when they are shepherding little ones through childhood are: take their job as parents seriously, hold themselves accountable, find their child delightful, strive to live their own lives existentially, and work on their own adult relationships.

Task One: The first requirement, that adults take their job as parents seriously, doesn’t mean that moms and dads need to do everything perfectly, or even correctly. What it means is that they put consistent effort into constantly expanding their parental expertise. This task involves researching the role (reading parenting books and blogs, talking with more experienced parents, taking classes, etc.), talking with each other about their philosophy for parenting, and taking the time to think about – and often agonize over – what they are doing. Every single bond between every single parent and every single child needs to be custom made, based on the uniqueness of both the child and the parent as well as the zeitgeist within which the relationship exists. Creating that special bond takes thought and effort over the entire length of the relationship. Parenting doesn’t stop when the child hits 18 or 21 or 61. As long as you are alive, you are your child’s parent. You will not be overtly directing their lives after a certain point, but you remain an invaluable consultant, role model and supporter to the end of your days. Even your dying process is a significant part of your parenting role. If you take that last step as seriously as you did the task of bringing your little baby home from the hospital, you bookend your parenting duties with stellar blueprints your child can reference as necessary.

It is tricky but important to demonstrate some of your efforts to your child. It is tricky in that you don't want the child to feel that you are virtue signaling, that they are a terrible burden to you, or that you are feeling overwhelmed by your parental duties. But please don't ignore the importance of being somewhat transparent about your internal work as a parent. So when, for example, you set limits with your child, describe how you arrived at your conclusion in some depth, illustrating the many and disparate components that you had to struggle with to reach your decision. Let your daughter also know that holding her to those limits is difficult but that your commitment to her is such that you are willing to put in that sustained effort.


A Wrinkle In Time

- Madeleine L'Engle



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I want to point out here that a popular myth about the need to present a united front to children actually interferes with helping the child see that the parents are taking their jobs seriously. If all agonizing discussions are held behind closed doors, the kids will be less exposed to the effort the parents are making. They will also be less exposed to excellent examples of how to hold difficult discussions – a crucial skill needed if we are to talk to ourselves well. I think it's a good idea for parents to fairly routinely discuss concerns with the child present, with, of course, attention paid to maintaining a highly respectful dialogic tone and attention to how much truth the child can handle at that point in their life.

And I need to pause here to address the verbal tic: “We did the best we could.” Why do parents feel so vindicated when they fling down this excuse, and why do we so routinely take them off the hook when they do? Yes, it’s true, they did do the best they could. Everyone always does the best they can – by definition. So one big problem with this justification is that parents are pulling the “I’m just a fallible human” card when they use it. It is a stonewalling move that can only serve to stop the conversation because how can an adult child rebut the truth that his or her parents are human?

Which brings us to the deeper problem with this rationalization – it abdicates any ongoing parental responsibility by implying that the parenting role has ended and the damaging behavior has stopped. It tells the adult child “Yes. I may have failed you, but that’s all in the past.” But right there, right in that second when the parent is expressing that excuse, they are yet again failing their child. As I stated above, your parenting role only ends with your death. You remain responsible for how you treat your children until that event. So one should never say: “We did the best we could.” Parents should say: “We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but KNOWING WHAT WE KNOW NOW, let me say this: I’m sorry we did such and such. We should have done this other thing. You deserved better. I wish I had been able to do that for you. I will do that now and in the future.” And, right there, right in that second, you are doing your job as a parent by taking the job seriously and holding yourself accountable.

Therefore that old saw – “We did the best we could” – is an unacceptable get-out-of-jail-free card in my mind when it comes to the job of being a parent. It is a job. Any job worth doing requires learning. This may seem so obvious as to be inane, but many, many adults believe they instinctively know how to parent. They would never believe they instinctively know how to raise cattle, tropical fish or guide dogs for the blind. They would expect to study, learn, and expand their knowledge to take on one of those tasks. And, most likely, to continue learning as the world around them changes. Nor do most people fail to see that ongoing learning is a critical part of any profession. Renewing certification, continuing education and conferences are all examples of the ways in which we keep our learning curve extending upward throughout our careers.

This learning requirement is absolutely true for being a parent, arguably the most demanding job humans have. It’s simply not enough to “wing it” based on what you have observed around you. There are committed people who study parenting and who write about it. If you intend to take your job seriously, you need to do some in-depth homework.

The last few haranguing paragraphs are meant to cement in you a depth of understanding that you deserved well-trained parents. To the extent your parents belonged to the improvise-as-they-go-along school of parenting, please take a moment to sit with that truth and perhaps wonder how your life might have gone more smoothly if your parents had committed to educating themselves about this crucial job.

Task Two: Being serious about the parenting role leads adults naturally to the second attitude – holding themselves accountable. Parenting is impossibly difficult. The job is going to involve lots and lots of mistakes because parenting is happening in a time in history that is only now unfolding with unique participants who are constantly changing. No biggie. And because even well-meaning parents are going to have bad days, parenting is going to be inconsistent. Some of that inconsistency and some of those mistakes will cause injury to the child. Adults need to accept full responsibility for what they do as parents because they have tremendous power relative to the child. And, of course, because it's the job they took on. If parents remember that, for example, their son is trying to establish who he is in large part by understanding their reactions to him specifically (Why is dad angry at me? What makes mom proud of me? Do they like me when I do this?), then the parents will understand why it is critical to remain as consistent and predictable as one can. And why it is also critical to apologize unreservedly when one missteps.

It may seem obvious to hear that when parents make a mistake they need to apologize thoroughly for the error, but many adults fear that an apology will make them appear weak. In addition, to all intents and purposes few adults understand what an apology entails. This human skill is so important it has it’s own article. Let me just say here that a complete apology is a difficult, honorable and impressive behavior and, as such, is an indication of strength of character. When a child receives a heartfelt apology from a parent, that child receives the following messages from that parent: you are important enough to me to that I will put in great effort to be a good parent; I can be trusted to hold myself accountable; you can be trusted to handle the truth that I made a mistake; together we can weather this misstep that I made; and, I am a person who wants to continually grow.

A well-crafted expression of regret is a contract that spells out who created the wound and how that wound will be healed. With a complete apology, an injured child is being reassured that this adult is safe and that trust is being built – what a gift!

Again, if you never received appropriate apologies during your childhood, you are entitled to grieve over that. You deserved better.

An additional benefit of the second attitude is this: When parents can hold themselves accountable, the truths these adults tell the next generation will have a greater ring of authenticity and thus authority. In other words, when you tell the truth as best you see it to your daughter and she senses that you consistently act responsibly toward her, she will simply have greater faith in your credibility. That credibility will come in very handy when she is 15 years old.

All this is to say that kids don’t need parents to be faultless, but they do need them to be accountable.

Task Three: Finding the child delightful. Again, no adults find their children perfectly delightful or delightful all the time, but, overwhelmingly, our children should bring us tremendous pleasure and joy. (If this is not the case, immediate professional attention is required.) But it is not enough to just feel the pleasure and joy, a good parent also consistently communicates their specific delight to the child. There is no correct way to communicate how we take pleasure in our kids – we get to custom design that as well. The only thing that is critical is that the child has no doubt that he or she is uniquely wonderful. My maternal grandmother used to frown and stare at my sisters and me when we were little, and we learned to look to see if her belly was jiggling with laughter because that’s where we found her pleasure in us. Luckily for us, it almost always was.

Two additional points need to be made here.

Signaling delight needs to be administered carefully. If we are cavalier in how we freely we distribute our sense of wonder in our children, as with ineptly speaking truth, our words will lose all sense of meaning. Gaze and listening should be routine. Expressing delight should be very thoughtfully and honestly sprinkled into our child's life. The fourth and fifth tasks of healthy parenting will protect adults somewhat from hyper focusing on the children. When you are tackling the challenges of your life with care and consideration, and when you are filling your life with abundant attachments to people, places and things, your life will have a natural balance that both inspires your children and allows them a little breathing space in which to try things out in their lives. Within that space there will also be plenty of room for you to think about the frequency of positive feedback you give your youngster and plenty of confidence within you to allow you to resist the fear-based pull to drive your child's behavior by doting.

When kids are going through an existentially difficult stage (for example, twos and teens), parents may need to look a little harder to find delight within themselves relative to these exasperating offspring. In addition to catching the kids being good, a wise parent can occasionally express their admiration specifically for how the child is navigating a trying time. In other words, the content of a child's behavior may not necessarily be impressive, but the process of them trying to figure out life can absolutely delight us. It just hurts to be alive sometimes and very often misbehavior is caused by this pain. Bless their little hearts, they may be acting out, but they are trying!

Task Four: Next, striving to live their lives existentially to the fullest. This concept may be somewhat novel, but an adult who is living an existentially savvy life is one who is willing to take responsibility for their unique, difficult, urgent and often lonely human search for personal meaning. This is an inspiring parent, excited by and committed to living a passionate life – whether that involves shoeing horses, fixing teeth or growing organic plums. Whatever their chosen path, these vital adults will automatically make grownup life seem alluring, pulling children surely into more and more mature behavior. Another way to put it is this: It’s not so much that we feed our children on our dreams, it’s that our dreaming big dreams for ourselves feeds our kids on the act of dreaming.

An existentially stable adult will be both a more predictable and well-rounded adult. Because a child develops an identity based almost exclusively on the input of other people, the child needs stable and reliable information from the most important people in her or his life, the parents. Parents who are strongly committed to life will steadily provide a wide range of emotional and cognitive feedback to their children as well as interesting and diverse experiences. Rich data create rich identities.

An existentially stable adult also will be a powerful one. If we remember that power means to be able to do, when an adult has spent her lifetime working to fully manifest her signature strengths, she will very likely be a strong and resourceful person. Kids are extremely reassured by having parents who are powerful.

A helpful way to look at this particular aspect of parenting is this: as your child matures, your job becomes more and more about being a lighthouse and less and less about being the Coast Guard. This need to let children struggle to navigate on their own is made slightly easier when the adult has maintained a passionate and consuming life for themselves.

Since few of us are offered training as youngsters in how to develop an existentially coherent life, most of us need to make an overt effort to learn how to do so as an adult. Some people are enthusiastic readers of the original existential writers, some read secondary sources (such as this website) and some learn by harvesting metaphysical nuggets from novels. But the process of becoming an authentic version of ourselves remains the same for all. We need to gather information about how to face the difficult givens of existence and then we need to think. The article on petulance in the section on complex psychological skills provides an example of this process of learning and thinking.

Task Five: There are several reasons why the fifth area of responsibility, parents working on their own adult relationships, is a key aspect of parenting. It is the parental bond that anchors the emotional health of the family, and parental bonds take a lot of work to create and maintain. Similarly, good friendship networks support the natural social needs of the parents, providing the parents with energy and resources to bring back into the family unit as needed. Healthy peer relationships also protect adults from needing friendship from their children, freeing the parents to stay parental. And not least, kids who grow up watching their parents put effort into their relationships become adults who know a thing or two about relating well with others.

When moms and dads maintain these five attitudes most of the time, children learn to move psychologically in that direction themselves, inspired by the potent existential example provided by the grownups. The result is this: sons and daughters who take themselves seriously, who hold themselves accountable, who find themselves and others delightful, who have the courage to face the existential challenges of robust living, and who are willing and able to put consistent work into the relationships in their lives. Good health all around.

If you are a parent

Here's a teeny, tiny section that I urge you to read and reread if you are a parent. The five parental behaviors described in this article are both necessary and sufficient if we want to excel at this most demanding of undertakings. Condensed they are: See them. Think about them. Admire them. Impress them. Free them.

Tutorial: Filling in the blanks left by your parents

When as adults we find ourselves struggling to get our lives going, we must learn to recognize that our families underserved us in critical ways concerning these five parental attitudes. To move forward, we need to take steps to uncover and undo the damage caused by that under-parenting.

Step One: Odd as this may sound, the first step toward filling in the blanks in the parenting you received is feeling entitled to having had good parents. If you cannot even imagine that you were worth the time and effort that good parenting requires, it will be impossible for you to extend these important attitudes toward yourself. If you find yourself in this situation, please seek out healing relationships (therapist, pastor, friend, sister, etc.) to help you create that basic sense of entitlement. If you only have a tiny sense of entitlement, it might help to reread the article on shame and work on that concept first. If you have even a moderate sense of entitlement, a belief that you deserved good parenting, proceed on.

Step Two: Clear the time and space in your day to have a couple of hours free to sit and review the parenting you did get in light of the required five existential parental attitudes. Try to capture, in writing if possible, the ways in which your parents did provide you with each of these aspects of parenting and the ways in which they didn’t. Take the time to fill in specific examples within each category.

Step Three: Now think beyond your immediate family. Were there adults like aunts, grandfathers, teachers or coaches who were able to extend some of these nurturing attitudes toward you? It’s best if you can record specific examples. Don’t be modest or shy about writing down evidence that certain grownups in your childhood thought you were terrific and why they thought that.

Step Four: Again, clear several hours for this step. Review the notes from Steps Two and Three, and then think about the attitude you have toward yourself. To what extent do you hold the five parental attitudes toward yourself and to what extent do you not? Write examples.

Step Five: You won’t be surprised to note that those elements of good parenting that were absent in your childhood are probably those that are now absent in your attitude toward yourself. You will need to start practicing those missing areas to build them up. One way to practice creating a complete parental unit is to write out a conversation from the point of view of each attitude around an issue that is currently of concern to you. Taking the issue of food and health as an example, the exercise might look like this:

Take myself seriously: What I need to focus on right now is taking my health more seriously. I want to pay more attention to how I’m eating and how much sleep I’m getting. I won’t be ready to make other changes in my life until I feel physically better during the day.

Hold myself accountable: I need to pay attention to the way I pretend I’m making decisions about how I feed myself or when to go to bed at night. I think I pretend that I’m making decisions when I’m really not.

Find myself delightful: I’m a great cook. Maybe I can have some fun shopping for fresher ingredients, finding new recipes and making healthier meals.

Live my life existentially: I want to be the kind of person who is able to jump up and join friends in fun activities like hiking or volleyball. I’m going to practice putting some urgency into my attention to health concerns so that the next time a chance comes up to go out and play, I’ll be in good enough shape to go do it.

Work on my relationships: I have friends who manage to take good care of themselves. I will ask them to spend time with me and mentor me as I work to learn new habits.

Once you’ve completed Step Five, you will have two powerful tools. One, a clear example of how to guide yourself relative to an important issue in your life. And two, a template to follow when you need to hold an internal, parental conversation with yourself about another critical aspect of your life.

Step Six: Practice, practice, practice. Post that clear example you have just written out for yourself in an accessible place and refer to it as you work to learn to speak to yourself as a good parental consultant.

Repeatedly review and revise your customized parental unit for specific issues in your life. This is a process that will need to continue for the rest of your life. Each decade will bring you fresh challenges and your ability to parent yourself must continue to grow in order to meet those challenges.


The Karl Jaspers quote at the head of this article is one of my favorites. When we take ourselves seriously, hold ourselves accountable, find both our personhood and our ongoing efforts delightful, work on tackling the big issues of life and surround ourselves with a supportive community, we get back so much more than we can imagine. And we have a much more pleasant journey along the way because we have replaced an unskilled parental attitude within us with one that wants us to achieve the mastery we were born to actualize.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.