Dimensional Parenting by Suzi Tucker
“Dimensional parenting” refers to an image of going beyond the limits of habitual thinking in order to meet our children in their fullness. From the moment of birth, a child is moving toward more and more life; thus, throughout the parenting journey, the task of care giving has a dual focus -- to guide and to let go. In keeping, being an effective parent requires a mixture of boundaries and flexibility. The fluid interrelationship of the two requires a deep level of security: in the first instance, to uphold (boundaries), and in the second instance, to allow (flexibility). In this sense, boundaries are not walls; they are membranes. Ideally, they help to anchor a child in a feeling of internal well-being even as the world moves in unpredictable ways. And flexibility, in this sense, is prudent, thoughtful, in tune with boundaries. The two work together, though often one waits for the other.
How does a mom or dad establish security enough to have access to attunement on this level? The parent must find a way to be at peace with his and/or her own backdrop, Mother and Father, and the larger contexts they reflect. For many of us, this is a dramatic adjustment in stance, as we are often more used to focusing on what we did not get rather than what we did. The complaining child-adult becomes the angry or needy parent. It will be familiar to most of us: unfulfilled expectations of those behind me translate into either no expectations (to defend myself) or inappropriate expectations (still trying to fill the hole) of close people in current life. It is an unworkable formula, and when the close people are our children, it creates an unfair, out-of-balance dynamic for which everyone pays a high price.
Beyond giving our children life, there is showing them life. The first accomplishment is extraordinary. Even with our advanced technology and medical knowledge, the process of giving birth is an awesome and dangerous thing.
So imagine that we look back at our own parents with this same sense. First and forever, they were successful in giving us life. We, the next best chance, imagine that we are grateful for that and compassionate toward everything they went through before conceiving us. We look back behind our complaints and step into our gratitude, even just a glimmer, for everything and everyone who did what they did in such a way that eventually we were born. Circumstances and events, relationships and reactions, all crashing and tumbling and blossoming and falling apart and finding grace, all of it to move life forward, and we so fortunate to be included in its flow. Gratitude on this essential level expands our heart and mind, giving us greater latitude and mobility as we look ahead at our children and even into future generations beyond our physical sight.
The only relationship in which there is no way to repay what was given is between parents and children – we as children of our parents and then as parents to our children. The only way to balance the giving and taking is to live, and the more gratitude the greater living. Often this exchange is clouded by that crashing and tumbling of circumstances, so finding one’s way to the core understanding is a profound discovery; it is where “best self” sees and accepts “best self” so that the way is clear for love to circulate freely. If we can do that, we can draw continuously from all the energy and richness behind us. Our children need to feel that they are in connection to our connectedness, secure in our security, a part of a great love rather than the object of all love or the recipient of none.
If we feel we did not get enough, from what do we draw in order to give? We may think, well, I didn’t get anything or I got so little or what I got was bad, but still I am going to give my son, my daughter, everything I have, everything I didn’t receive. Put this way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. An empty glass doesn’t quench your thirst. But it does make sense on another level. The instinct to give what we didn’t receive is rooted in a parallel but subliminal knowledge: actually, we got enough; in receiving life, we got it all. To bring it to the surface, to let it shine, is the thing.
It is not a new idea that children’s behavior can often be a signal of something going on outside of the particular context where the behavior is taking place. We wonder if a tantrum at the doors of the school is related to being away from us or if perhaps it is actually about something happening in the school that the child cannot articulate. Both are viable questions. There’s a broader view though from which to wonder: What if the child’s tantrum is associated with a fear of being away from us but not because he or she misses us; rather, what if he or she senses that his or her job includes holding us up, holding us present.
A child’s behavior is a response either to something local or more distant. If a child is calm and joyful, we might suspect that the parents are at peace. Parents may be together or separated by divorce or death, and still they can be at peace with one another. “At peace” doesn’t tell us the details, it describes a state.
A woman, for instance, is bringing a son up alone because the father was “no good.” Unless this mother evaluates the situation according to a different understanding, the boy is in an impossible dilemma. The boy’s love for his father -- and for his father in himself -- will be manifested by him somehow, perhaps in very difficult ways. The mother can change that by looking deeper into the heart of her son. What is needed? Father is needed. “No good” with regard to the father’s behavior can be shifted to “very good” as she looks at their son. Beyond her own disappointment is a richer image that the son is the manifestation of something indeed very good. Seeing the marriage as having failed can be gently nudged beyond the parameters of that final judgment, a judgment that will live inside the child as a message about being a product of failure if left unchecked.
The gift of life, merely a platitude when not taken seriously, can be the difference between effective parenting and ineffective parenting. It is where the road begins. When seen in its profundity, it right-sizes all of the tasks involved. The boundaries and flexibility that belong to the larger context of guidance and allowance become clearer when measured against the gift of life – our children’s and ours.
This bigger landscape of understanding encompasses myriad variations, but the basic idea is that the issues identified by parents (or teachers, etc.) as belonging to the child’s sphere may have roots in places outside of the narrow scope of what is directly seen. The underpinnings of the current family may be compromised by past occurrences that threaten the security of children, causing anxiety as they attempt to move into their own life. An honest scan of personal and familial history can provide information that will help us to become steadier, more confident guides to our children. Whether a couple is currently having difficulty with a child or is preparing for parenthood, seeing themselves within the full dimension of the larger family – and even extended community -- is an essential layer. To be able to draw from the wellspring of the ancestry and to take responsibility for our own sometimes skewed ways of negotiating that history puts us in a good position to make determinations about what lies before us, especially how best to parent.
Leaning on our children to address our pain or blame is the first misstep on a long road of missteps that can fold out from that. It clouds our vision. Many of us are children of clouded vision. And yet, here we are. By accepting the privilege of being able to step out of that cloud, the next best chance, we can care for our children with new clarity and strength. Gratitude for the life we have -- and awareness that the only way to repay the gift is to live well -- can free us from the past, and at the same time allow us to stay connected with it. The dimensional parenting perspective isn’t strategy-oriented; rather, it invites people to imagine the streams flowing beneath the surface that may be shaping our children’s behavior, as they did our own. The active dovetailing of guidance and letting go more naturally flows from a state of serenity.