First-time parents often start out believing a fairy tale: They think raising their children is a one-way endeavor. Think again. For every rule of life you teach your children, they seem to teach you two in return. "There's lots of evidence that indicates that the needs of children push parents to develop particular skills, some of which are hard to learn. But those hard things make us grow," says Phyllis Sonnenschein, a parent-education consultant and faculty member at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts.
Is it any wonder, then, that in order to help your children advance, you have new things to learn about yourself too? To address this parental growth, Ellen Galinsky wrote the book The Six Stages of Parenthood (Perseus Press, 1987) more than a decade ago. In it she laid out the development parents go through to match their children's. Her theory is still used by parenting educators today.
According to New York-based parent educator Ellen Galinsky, these are the six stages all parents go through, along with the typical timing.
Kathy Lang, a parent educator in Williston Park, New York, says the major theme of these stages are important because they help us to see that parenting is not so complex, but rather something we can understand-and that we're not the only ones going through this.
Since parenting stages are the flip side of child development, Lang says the best way to ready yourself is to understand the development of your child. "For example, if you understand that the major task of adolescence is to individuate and be independent from you, then your challenge is to learn to deal with that issue," she says.
It's also beneficial to learn to read your child's cues. "Your ongoing ability to do so begins when they're infants. Some children are better than others at giving their parents messages about what they need. If you don't accept the cues, you can't change your response," says Sonnenschein. "You want to understand your child's needs so you can help her."
Lang says parents grow by aligning expectations with reality. "Parents feel that while their child is young you can still mold them into who you want them to be. But by adolescence, you have to give up those illusions," she says. "Maybe they're not going to be a football star or go to Harvard. One of the ways to prepare yourself for that is to understand what you do and don't have control over. We grew up with the mind-set that our children's futures are in our hands, but modern research doesn't support that. Many traits are inborn. But you do have the ability to support their good qualities and to teach your values. At some point, you just have to accept who your child is."
Diane Wagenhals, program director of the Parenting Resource of Lakeside Educational Network in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, says that while she uses the stages in her training courses, the tasks of single parenting, blended families, and boomerang kids don't perfectly fit the mold.
For instance, in the nurturing stage, the single parent has to do both parents' roles. "If she chooses to be single, she has the least cumbersome situation in terms of relationships. But people thrust into it by widowhood, for instance, have to deal with grief and guilt, all of which adds stress to your child's life. You have to address the parenting task for yourself and then facilitate healing for your child," she says.
Further, Wagenhals says no parents have more image reconciliation tasks than do those in blended families. "They have the adjustment of a new marriage being tested by children who may want to sabotage the relationship. In addition, they face all the other stages of parenting, depending upon the ages of the children."
And parents in the departure stage can be knocked off balance by kids who return home. Says Wagenhals, "These parents have the challenge of negotiating new rules and determining what their new roles are."