While it is the parent’s job to show her child love and teach her child values, Janis Clark Johnston maintains, “When our child experiences a crisis, we can lose our bearings. Our own internal crises jiggle loose. Just when our child needs us, we are needy ourselves.” It’s this fascinating concept that’s at the center of Johnston’s book, It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent. The premise is that “our child ends up guiding us by connecting us to an earlier time in our life when we encountered distress.”
One of my favorite parts of Johnston’s book is how she uses the phrase parent in training. I think it captures the phenomenon perfectly of how just when I seem to figure out a system that works for my family someone goes and grows up, changing the whole dynamic again and forcing me back to the drawing board. Since most of us lack training in parenting, Johnston explains we learn from our parents and peers as well as through trial and error. But many of us forget, we’re also learning from the children we’re charged with raising.
I found it interesting when Johnston noted how “we always want our child to listen to us, but frequently we lack the effort to listen well to our child.” If we are to truly listen to our children, then Johnston claims we must engage in the moment so we can embrace our child’s perspective. Otherwise, listening becomes as perfunctory act when we yes our children while we distractedly think of all the things we have to do.
Part of the reason It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent appealed to me so much is because storytelling is at its heart. “Traveling story to story, the parenting trip provides parallel opportunities for adult and child growth,” Johnston says. In fact, she argues that some of the best lessons we learn in life involve children. Ultimately, Johnston explains, by addressing your own unresolved issues, you will develop your own parenting philosophy, which will meet both your needs and your child’s.
According to Johnston, parents and children share five basic needs: energy, discipline, creativity, belonging, and ability. However, she explains, “While we all have the same needs, we travel different paths to meet our needs.” Essentially, It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent argues the need to consciously map out your personality so that you can gain a greater awareness of your growing pains. This way you’ll have fewer days when you don’t recognize yourself and more moments happily engaged with your child.
The difficulty lies in the fact that your needs are constantly interacting with those of your child. “Some of our days reflect in-sync family escalator movement through needs,” maintains Johnston; whereas “on other days we collide while attempting to meet needs, facing breakdown and heartache.” What it boils down to is that if we are incapable of modeling how to meet our own needs, how will our children ever learn?
Let’s face it. We’re just as inconsistent as our child. The sooner we accept this “chameleon” element to our personalities the easier it will be for us to move forward in our parenting. One of the best parts of It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent is how it offers tips for the child and then a tip for the parent so that each can ultimately grow up. But Johnston never loses sight of the fact that no matter how old we get, “we can feel five, or ten, or fifteen all over again when our child reaches five, ten, or fifteen years of age and their experience draws forth one of our stories and its meaning.” It’s this mindset that allows us to not only steer our children along their journey, but embrace ours as well.
Read my other blog Befriending Forty.