“Parenting is structure in the context of relationship.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself repeating often is this: “Parenting is structure in the context of relationship.” This phrase tries to strike a balance with childrearing that has started to lean one way or the other. In my experience, parents tend to settle too much on the relationship-side or on the structure-side; it can be difficult to strike a balance with your child or adolescent.

So how do we balance being in caring relationship with our children while providing needed structure?

Assess your own need or distaste for structure.

Trying not to be too reductionistic, personality types tend to eschew structure or crave it. Personality tests such as the Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, or Five Factor Model, seem to get at this element of “openness/agreeableness” vs. “conscientiousness” or perhaps it is the “strong intuitive” that looks at the big picture and abhors the details that the “sensing” type enjoys. Or maybe it is the “reformer” vs. the “enthusiast”.

No matter how it is assessed, your parenting will reflect your preference.

Perhaps you are the parent who says “I’m going to take away screens for the afternoon,” but then finds that it bothers you that your child is upset with you. If this is the case, you may put relationship over discipline.

Or you may be the parent who schedules every moment of your child’s day, leaving little time for simply sitting, talking, and playing. If this is typical for you, it is possible that the structure may be limiting your ability to relate to your child.

Our children need both structure and relationship.

Without a safe, consistent structure around them, our children can feel that life is unpredictable. That unpredictability can manifest as an angry, volatile parent, which is most certainly anxiety-producing. But I often see anxiety in children whose parents are poorly structured; this child is unsure what time they will get to school or activities, sometimes even worrying about when they will eat or go to bed. The lack of structure on a parent’s part can lead to worry in the child.

But the answer is not to over-structure. Children need relationship!

To give that other side its due, too much relationship can also leave a child feeling emotionally entangled with their parent. Children often feel responsible for what is happening around them; if a child is too involved with their parent, then this leads to over-worrying about a parent’s emotional life.

Too much relationship leads to children who are treated as friends at a time when they need the guidance of a parent.

The best parenting is structure in the context of relationship.

To be honest, I am choosing a side: the side of relationship. That choice comes with a lot of healthy, consistent structure within it, wrapped in a caring relationship. I also know that for myself as a parent, I have a tendency to over-structure. There has been a while that parenting culture has pressured more activities, more educational opportunities, more art, more music … until our child have calendars that resemble the overworking parent!

Knowing that, it makes sense for me in this time and space to lean toward relationship. For parents that already spend a lot of time in relationship with their children, those parents may need to lean toward structure.

And yes, there are times when one parent is leaning one direction while another parent may lean the opposite direction. This is not actually balanced; it represents a conflict. That may be another story for another day however…

So, if you find yourself as a parent who tends to focus on relationship but has difficulty with consistency and discipline, lean into that other direction a bit. Remember to “start with small consequences first to give yourself somewhere to go”. Large, severe consequences don’t work that well; you’ll have a harder time sticking to it.

If you tend toward structure, lean into some free time with your child, to play, to relax and learn who they are, not only who you want them to be. Your child will trust the structure more if they continually feel that you are loving them, listening to them, and providing them with what they need. This helps the structure be flexible too!

What they need is both: relationship and structure. To overemphasize either will imbalance the parent-child relationship.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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