Parents, We're Learning Too!

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Writing a post about how helpful it’s been to see my children’s social learning as an experimental process led me to think about my own social and emotional development. It turns out, kids are not the only ones building skills in this domain. Stanley Greenspan’s work, which has opened my eyes to better understand children’s social growth, also applies to us as adults. Greenspan conceives of development as a series of stages through which humans gain greater capacity. These stages do not end with, but rather extend through adulthood.

For those of us who are parenting young children, we are likely in the throes of Greenspan’s fourteenth stage, "Building a Family." At this stage, we are building the capacity to empathize with our children without either identifying too much with their experience or withdrawing from them. In other words, we are trying to find the balance between those two extremes—too involved and neglectful—the balance that will allow us to both support kids and give them independence, all while we establish a new sense of self. 

If you are like me, it’s hard to find time to step back and reflect on yourself as a learner. Taking the chance to really think about this stage and reflect on our experiences, though, can surface some pretty liberating ideas and may make a real impact on how we see ourselves and other parents.

Parents and kids have more in common than it seems: Just like our young children, we too are working on establishing a new sense of self—one that can balance the incredibly powerful relationship with our children with our own lives as both partners and individuals. Kids are trying to figure out how to be a self in relation to us, and we are doing the same in relation to them. Considering that, it should be no surprise that our needs and theirs do not always line up. This is deeply personal and messy work for all involved. Pats on the back all around!

We get to make mistakes too: Although we have learned how to get what we need without grabbing toys in the sandbox, adults are, for the most part, stumbling in the dark as parents. As soon as we feel like we’ve figured out our child, she changes, and we are left to learn again. We deserve, even need, the chance to try and fail, just as our kids do. A wise mentor once coached me as a new teacher, “It’s not the weather, but the climate that counts.” That couldn’t be more applicable to parenting.


It’s no surprise that we hover: As committed as I am to learning to step back and let go, it’s actually part of my own emotional development to struggle with doing it. Kids are constantly changing and, every time they change, we are presented anew with new opportunities to either pull away or over-engage—to strike that balance. The tension between the two options essentially defines this time in life. Just knowing that makes me more compassionate for the helicopter in all of us.

The right metaphor makes all the difference: Given how natural the pull to helicopter is, I am so grateful for a better metaphor—the hummingbird. I first encountered the brilliant term on the Children and Nature Network blog, but it came from blogger, Michele Whitaker. The hummingbird parent quietly observes and remains connected, ready to support if truly needed. But, the hummingbird does not interfere with a child’s experience. This metaphor, more than any other, has helped me understand how to support my girls in a way that preserves their need for independence and sense of self while also managing my own need and desire to be involved. 

Find community: When I was a new parent, I found a great deal of relief in being with moms, dads and caregivers who didn’t judge others, and I still do. Over time, I’ve found that being among curious parents who trust children as learners and see themselves as learners has helped me not only to feel comfortable but to grow. If you can find such communities, nurture them and, in turn, the learner in you.