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Parenting with Love, Language, and Limits

There’s no shortage of books about parenting, and the do’s and don’ts of childrearing can be overwhelming and confusing. Dr. Robin Berman’s book, Permission to Parent, is the balance you’ve been needing on your bookshelf. We talk to Dr. Berman on finding the sweet spot between love and limits, and how parents can learn to be their best selves for themselves and their children.
Rip & Tan: You write that “children used to be seen and not heard, but now they are the center of their parents’ universe.” How do these two extremes influence the way children grow into adults?
Dr. Robin Berman: Historically children used to be seen and not heard (not a good thing), but then the pendulum swung too far in the other direction to children are the center of the universe. Parents today think that part of their job description is to tap dance faster and faster to please their children (ugh, not a good thing either).  We have turned into a parent concierge service: “Oh, you don’t like chicken for dinner – I will make you pasta.” We are a generation of parent pleasers, but the problem with this is that our job is not to please our kids, our job is to parent them. Often our task is to let our kids be frustrated that they are having chicken for dinner and work through the arc of their feelings. If we give in and make them pasta, we quickly solve our short-term problem (avoiding a melt-down or temporary unhappiness), but in the long run we are doing our kids a disservice.

I saw a lovely mom taking her daughter to the toy store to buy the girl’s friend a birthday present. The child begged for a doll. The mom lovingly explained that it was not her birthday and she was not getting a present. The child’s tantrum escalated, and the mom caved and left the store with two presents, one for the birthday girl and the other to stop her daughter’s distress. But the real present would have been saying “No”. Look at the long-term message: the world does not revolve around you, when you are upset it is ok and we can get to the other side by feeling our distress versus throwing a gift at it. Teaching your kids how to navigate disappointment is a giant life-long present – far greater than the doll this girl left with.
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Rip & Tan: Parenting is a topic oversaturated with opinions and facts, and it’s not always easy to distinguish one from the other. It can be overwhelming to be inundated with constant and (sometimes conflicting) ways we should be parenting. What advice would you give to those struggling with finding “the right way” to parent?
Dr. Robin Berman: We are inundated by parental information today, which can be helpful – but often adds to parental anxiety with information overload.  It seems today as if there is so much fear-based parenting that if you don’t do such and such, your kid won’t bond to you or won’t thrive; there is more fear today than faith. The truth is there is no ”Right way to parent.” Every parent stumbles their way through, often without a road map. Listening to your own north star as a parent is important, as you know your child best. I loved the expression I learned when I rotated through pediatrics in medical school and residency, ”Listen to the parents, they will tell you the diagnosis.” Taking information from books, educators, friends, grandparents etc. is great – if it is helpful and resonates with you; but if it does not, gently let it go and go back to your mommy gut instinct. We have lost our tolerance for the normal foibles of childhood – child development is not a straight line. Sometimes mistakes and trial and error learning are our best teachers.
Rip & Tan: What roles should parents play, both as a united front as well as individually, in the family hierarchy?
Dr. Robin Berman: Parents should be benevolent leaders at the helm; you are captain of the ship – we really don’t want a three-year-old captain, or you will have mutiny on the bounty. Having parents in charge with clear rules creates safety for a child. Ideally parents should be a united front – again this creates safety. What I often see is the dynamic of good cop/bad cop, but both parents should be aligned. If one parent is too lenient, the other parent often overcorrects by being too strict/rigid. I love when both parents can give love and limits. They are comfortable holding the feeling AND holding the line: “I so get that you want candy right now, but we don’t have candy before dinner.”  You honor the feeling and hold the line.  When one parent is too strict, the other parent goes the other way on the teeter totter and tends to be too permissive. Both parents should inch towards the center, as it creates far more peace for the kids, as well as the parents.
Rip & Tan: What does it mean for parents to be “emotional grown-ups”?
Dr. Robin Berman: The dynamic at home between parents and children informs a great deal. Home is the school of love. We learn so much about our self-worth by the way we were treated as children. Children have bionic eyes and ears and they observe so much. How you treat your child matters. Yelling, shaming/hitting etc. creates fear and builds defenses around our children’s hearts. But that does not mean we are always our best selves as parents – we are tired and often inpatient.  If we do yell or say something we are not proud of, go back in and repair. When there is rupture, follow it with repair.  Keep that parenting mantra in the back of your mind. We are human and parenting has a high degree of human error, go easy on yourself.  Our mistakes are wonderful opportunities for real closeness if we own them. Medicate your mistake with an apology and take a mommy do-over: “I am sorry, what I said was right but my volume was too high.” Owning your mistakes as parents is quite healing, and models for kids to do the same.
Rip & Tan: How does the dynamic between parents influence the way a child grows to view relationships outside of the family?
Dr. Robin Berman: How you treat you partner with love and respect or with contempt and disdain does penetrate a child’s psyche. Do you model the kind of love you want your kids to emulate one day?  We have to be the lesson before we teach the lesson. If you want honest children, you have to model honesty and ditch the white lies.  If we want polite/respectful kids, saying thank you to your partner when they bring you a glass of water models gratitude. Small daily acts of grace fuel a good partnership. Treat your partner and your children for what they are – the most important people in your lives.
Rip & Tan: Parents with a history of unhealthy or complicated family ties might struggle to be the role model they never had. How can we unlearn our built-up defenses and heal our childhood scars?
Dr. Robin Berman: Parenting is rich in opportunities for self-healing. Many of us didn’t have a great parenting template. We have to mourn the loss of that when we become parents. We have to learn to mother ourselves, and maybe even for the first time have self–compassion for ourselves. Separate from a potential critical maternal voice that still echoes in our heads. Learn to speak to ourselves in a loving way so we don’t project critical thoughts onto our own children.

We have to learn as we go. But when we care for our children in a different way than we were cared for, there is great potential for our own healing. Parenting is directly proportional to your own self-awareness. Parenting is a wonderful opportunity to parent yourself so that you can parent your child. Our kids end up being our greatest teachers. For example, a father really wants his son and daughter to play soccer. Is it because both kids love soccer, or because he always wanted to play as a child and never had the opportunity?  Often times it is the latter, and then you are not really seeing your own child. When a dad recognizes and sees his kids for who they are – “what activity do you enjoy sweetheart, what are you passionate about?” – he is a cycle breaker as maybe his own father did not really see his needs. To be seen/felt/loved and appreciated for who you truly are is love. When we give to our child something we never got, it can be very reparative. If you were yelled at as a child and then speak to your own child in a gentle tone, you are a legacy buster and a cycle breaker, and congratulations as this is the heart of great parenting: to be mindful, conscious and self–aware.
Rip & Tan: How does the dynamic between parents influence the way a child grows to view relationships outside of the family?
Dr. Robin Berman: Becoming a parent requires raising ourselves so we can raise our kids. Being an emotional grown-up means trying to shield our kids from our own emotional baggage. Don’t tell your ten-year-old that your ex is irresponsible, infuriating etc. (either with words or eye-rolling disdain). Share your anger with your therapist or your friends, but shield your child from that painful place of having to be in the middle and pick a side.  This is a tall order and very tough in a charged marriage or divorce, but take the high road for the sake of your children. They need to admire and depend on both of you. This takes an enormous amount of self-restraint. One time a teenage boy told me about how tough it was for him to have his parents constantly fighting. He told me that if he were a parent he would ask ”What would love do, how would love act?” Children often shine a light on our own underdeveloped pieces and therein lies the profound opportunity to grow into better versions of ourselves.
Rip & Tan: How do you envision this next generation learning and unlearning from their families as they grow into parents themselves?
Dr. Robin Berman: Your own parents’ flaws can be rocket fuel for your own development. Looking back on your childhood wounds can be very painful. But when you can see clearly what you missed as a child, you can mourn the loss and then realize you have the power to re-parent yourself. Replace a harsh internal voice with a more loving one. “What do I wish I would have heard as a child? How do I wish I would have been loved”? Give yourself that unconditional love that you always craved from your parents. Love yourself enough to let go of the toxic comments your parents made that you know deep in your heart don’t apply to you. Be the kind of parent that you always wanted – first to yourself, and then to your kids.
Rip & Tan: How does our verbal and nonverbal language affect a child’s sense of self and the world?
Dr. Robin Berman: I devoted a whole chapter in Permission to Parent to tone and language, as both are often overlooked as powerful parenting tools. Think of the teacher that screams to get the class’s attention, versus the adored teacher who is mindful of tone and words. Statements like ”You should be ashamed of yourself” are archaic and can pop out of our mouths reflexively because of the way we were parented. But here is the gold of transformation: you can replace “Shame on you” to “Hmm, not studying for that test was a bust – what would you do differently next time?” One is constructive and invites problem solving. The language in your home – whether directed at your partner, your kids, or yourself – becomes the soundtrack in your child’s head. As one parent warns: ”Every time I sang as a child, my mom told me I had a terrible voice and should never sing loudly. Would you believe I am 42 and still mouth Happy Birthday?”  So think about how you can still hear the voice of your parents in your own head today – that should give us all pause. How we talk to ourselves in our own head influences how we feel. Talk to yourself with compassion and teach your kids to do the same.

As a mom I admire instructs: ”Our children are our guests for 18 years. We have to treat our guests with the utmost respect.”
Photos by Martina Tolot