Parenting is challenging. The decision to bring a new life into your world, accepting that you and your immediate family will be responsible for guiding and forming the environment and inputs to dictate a human being’s experience and identity is a huge task. Add to that the expectations we put on ourselves, and those we perceive being placed on us by society, and the pressure to be perfect makes parenting that much more difficult. Few of us would say that we came from ideal backgrounds ourselves. And while most parents envision raising their children differently than they were raised, some patterns tend to repeat over generations. So how can we rise to the challenge of being good parents? What does being a nurturing parent even mean? 

Perfect vs. Nurturing

Setting out to be “perfect” parents is setting ourselves up for failure. Perfect does not exist, and as anyone who’s raised a child will tell you, perfect parenting plans are generally abandoned as quickly as they’re made, since children are nothing if not unpredictable. A better goal? Strive to be a nurturing parent instead of a perfect parent. 

The Goal: Being a Nurturing Parent

Comparing ourselves to other parents, even to our own parents, is a fruitless endeavor. Each of us is guided by a varied and convoluted set of experiences and ideas when we approach raising a child. No two parents will be alike, just as no two children will be alike. That’s why programs like Reach Out’s Nurturing Families Program encourage parents to strive for something else: to be nurturing parents. 

“We are really about empowering parents,” notes Alejandra Arias, Program Manager, Community & Family Wellness. “It’s not about the guilt of comparison or the way we look at other parents and believe they have it all together. It’s about taking what we already have and applying our experiences to make us better. Not perfect. Better.” 

The Tools are Available to Us All

Each of us comes to parenting with a unique set of tools to apply to the task, and many of us don’t recognize the utility of our equipment. That’s why programs that capitalize on existing experiences and outlooks are so useful. They empower us to build from where we begin, calling on our strengths and unique abilities to become the best parents we can be. Not perfect parents. Nurturing parents.  

What is a Nurturing Parent? 

Karen Nutt, Director, Community & Family Wellness, explains, “A nurturing parent is a parent who provides emotional support to their children, who creates a safe environment for them to be able to learn and grow. The key thing nurturing parents bring to their children is empathy.” 

Every Child is Different

Nurturing will look different in every parent/child relationship, because no two children require exactly the same thing. But for all nurturing relationships, the key element of empathy will be obvious in all parent/child interactions. It is easy for us to forget as adults in a world built for adults that being small can be frustrating, and that learning new things every day can be tiring. If parents maintain their awareness for these realities and acknowledge that kids are constantly challenged and therefore deserve respect for their accomplishments, the seeds for a nurturing relationship are sown. 

Lifelong Impacts Occur from Ages Zero to Five

According to the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University, 90% of a child’s brain development happens before the age of 5. Additionally, an article on the First5California site explains, “The relationships children experience within the first five years of life shape their expectations of how others should treat them and how they will interact with others. Relationships are powerful and a critical part of your child’s development.”

Some parents worry that providing children with too much attention will spoil them, but as Karen points out, “You don’t spoil children by attending to their basic needs. For children, needs are expressed in different ways, through crying, maybe retreating. And our job is to extend some understanding and help them understand their own needs, so that eventually they can soothe themselves when that need comes up again.” 

During these critical years, Karen explains, parenting is about meeting basic needs, but also about giving children the opportunity to live and grow in an environment where they know that if they make mistakes, someone will be there to help, forgive, and guide them to do things better next time. The first five years are all about exploration, and parents are there to chaperone that exploration, keeping kids safe and helping them understand their own emotions and reactions to the world. 

Learning to Nurture Can be Healing for Parents Too

Nurturing children is closely related to breaking destructive and toxic cycles that occur within families. As parents strive to provide the emotional support and empathy their children need to develop healthy relationships with others and with themselves, we often see the absences of this type of nurturing in our backgrounds. For some families, neglect and abandonment come into play, for others, abuse and substance misuse might be issues. Acknowledging and consciously breaking these cycles can be healing not only for future generations, but also for the parents who were once children themselves. 

A study published in 1994 and quoted in a parenting article published by Arizona State University explains, “Children who experience a nurturing home environment are more likely to develop into healthy, capable, fully functioning adults. Parents who are nurturing are warm, affectionate, good at listening, respectful, and attend to the basic care and well-being of their children (Smith, et al., 1994).”

How to Practice Nurturing Parenting

The evidence is clear, but that doesn’t mean that being a nurturing parent is something that comes naturally to most people. Quite the contrary, there are specific skills that come into play, and while most parents have the tools to be successful, it still takes practice and instruction, which is why Reach Out offers the Nurturing Families program. 

For anyone looking for tactical tips to employ immediately, Alejandra and Karen have many to offer: 

  1. Reading: Reading teaches literacy, definitely. But beyond that, sharing favorite books with children creates feelings of intimacy and well-being in children (and adults) and the perception of an adult spending time and sharing love and attention encourages positive social growth and development.
  2. Emotional Affirmation / Expressing Empathy: Karen suggests looking for deeper meaning in your child’s behavior, especially “bad” behavior. Could a tantrum really be a sign that your child feels separated from you because you’ve been at work all day? Maybe the screaming and crying is a way of expressing this need, of saying, “I missed you. I need some attention from you.” It’s hard in the context of daily life, but practicing empathy and trying to understand rather than condemn unwanted behaviors is a great way to nurture children.
  3. Practicing Praise: For some parents, praising our children for being and for doing does not come naturally. Start with small things, and work on expressing your praise vocally for what you love and appreciate about your children. Tell them when you’re proud of them, tell them they’re good people, they’re smart, they’re kind. We all need affirmation, and parents are in a unique position to offer this to their children regularly.
  4. Honoring Differences: Sometimes adults lump kids together. They’re children. But in reality, each child is a unique individual, and they deserve to have their uniqueness accepted and honored. So rather than pushing children to conform, parents can nurture them by embracing the various ways they express who they are. 

Nurturing is Important for Parents Too

It’s easy to see that children need to be cared for and loved, but parents are human beings too. While you are working to be the best parent you can be for your children, don’t forget to take care of yourself. If our wells are empty, we have nothing to give to others. 

Take time when you need it. It’s not always easy, not when work and family commitments take up the bulk of your time. Do your best to: 

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Move a little each day. A walk outdoors has benefits far beyond the physical. 
  • Spend some time free from screens and distractions, allowing your mind to quiet. 

And remember that for many families, the primary caregiver does not have to work alone. If you have someone to share the childcare responsibilities, allow yourself to ask for help. Empower your partner by asking if they can handle the bath tonight, or if they can read a story. You don’t have to do everything by yourself, and getting a partner or helper involved has benefits for you and for your children. 

Our Nurturing Families Program

Reach Out’s Nurturing Families program is for mothers, fathers, grandparents, and any other interested and involved family members who will share in the responsibilities of raising children. 

What to Expect from the Nurturing Families Program

This course is about learning critical skills to help be a more nurturing parent, but it’s also about you. Alejandra says, “So much of this course is about reflecting on you. How were your parenting skills built? And what is it that you want to change or do differently? It’s about our kids, but really, it’s about us because we’re the first models they’ll see.” 

The course is a hands-on experience where caregivers learn skills they can employ immediately. If needed, they’ll be connected to other services and resources to help along the way. For example if a child is experiencing a developmental delay and a family isn’t sure where to turn. Nurturing families can help with that. 

The Curriculum and Format

Nurturing Families is a 16-week course that takes place in San Bernardino. 

The course covers routines, discipline, self-identity, family values, and morals. Each week the course covers a different topic, and each family receives personally tailored instruction based around their specific needs. This case management means we’ll develop goals and outcomes that are unique to each family situation. In the past, we have assisted with housing assistance, utilities, and other basic needs that help families build solid foundations for nurturing relationships. 

Learn More by visiting our Nurturing Families page and filling out an interest form!