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The Real Gift of Parenting

By Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., 2006

As you brave the holiday shopping crowds -- trying to decide whether to give Barbie or Big Bird, Legos or (good grief) an iPod -- or hassle with returns and sales in January, it's easy to feel a little overwhelmed, and distracted from the real gifts that are at the heart of parenting.

But happily, when you relax a bit and come back to yourself, the true gifts of parenting come back to mind, the ones that go deeper than giving our kids toys and games -- or even a college education.

Over and over again, a hundred times each day, we freely offer a hug, a smile, a touch, a scolding, a sandwich, a paycheck earned, a story read, a bed tucked in, a goodnight kiss. So many things, so rapidly readily given that we hardly notice them -- but they are the fabric of family, new threads added many times each hour, warm and cozy and nurturing, the blanket of love in which we wrap our precious vulnerable beloved children.

We offer our lap when our back hurts, we offer our heart when it feels empty. We let our children enter our thoughts when our minds seem stuffed with grown-up concerns and plans.

Our offerings are not just material or actions. We also offer restraint, wise not-doing. We let small things slide. We take into account a no-nap, hungry day . . . or a tough strike-out in Little League . . . or a major fight between our daughter and her best friend. We give the gift of self-control, of not swatting or yelling or overreacting - even when, yes, it would be a relief.

We let our children have us when we feel all too "had" by others. We give even when others haven't given enough to us: our coworkers, our boss, our spouse, our own parents.

We give even when a part of ourselves may not want to; often the most meaningful giving to our children is offered when our personal preference would be to do something else.

We find more water when the wellspring seems to have run dry.

Most fundamentally, we give ourselves. We open the door wide; we give our children access to the vulnerable places in our heart; we let them enter our souls; we let them crawl oh so deeply under our skin.

Our children give us so much to be sure. The act of parenting has its own rewards. And we need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue to have something to give to our children.

But parents don't give to get. And in the moment of giving to a child we often don't get back much at all. Fundamentally, parenting is not an exchange; we are not playing let's-make-a-deal with our children.

Parenting is an ongoing process of healthy sacrifice; the sacrifice of attention, time, energy, money, personal agendas, and all the activities we would prefer to do if we were not parenting.

Of course, we sacrifice not as martyrs but with our eyes open, freely, with strength, with all the ordinary little heroic acts that make up the daily life of a parent.

We sacrifice our individual selves into relationship with our children. We release for a moment the sense of contraction as an isolated self into the joining of love, a love that may feel for some as if it partakes of something that's ultimately Divine.

Sacrifice means "sacred act." During this seasonal time, of plunging into the dark to be renewed for the swelling of the light, a period that's sacred in many cultures around the world - it's a lovely, self-nurturing thing to reflect a bit on what may be for you the sacred essence of parenting.


(Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 16 and 19. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and second authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can visit their website at or email them with questions or comments at (unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.)



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