Parenting Imperfectly

I recently met Tim Gill my play guru from the UK at the C & K Conference in Brisbane.

I have been a passionate play advocate for as long as I can remember — real play, not screen time play. Real play outside, even better than inside and Tim affirmed again that there is a hunger in our children to stretch themselves, to be adventurers and to do this without a parent hovering over their shoulder. He used the term ‘benign neglect’ which I love. It captures the loosening of our well-intentioned grip on our children so they can have the freedom to grow in confidence and courage. Tim explored an innovative and different way of assessing outside activities where educators do a benefit analysis before they do the risk analysis. This allows educators to really consider what benefits a child may gain from an activity that has some risks. Heck, getting out of bed each morning is risky! Our children learn best from real experiences and many of today’s children are being denied the freedom to do so.

We had a panel discussion on children’s right to a childhood at the conference where Lenore Skanezy was Skyped in from the US. She is the New York mother who created a real stir when she allowed her 9-year old to travel on the subway alone. I so loved her approach and her cheeky sense of humour. I wrote an opinion piece in The Courier-Mail at the same time on some of these issues. There is a real movement afoot to see some shifts in this area and it’s great to see that organisations such as the Heart Foundation are getting on board with this thinking.

Parenting imperfectly

In one of the books I’m working on at the moment I am exploring the concept of perfection-driven parenting where parents are overly worried about appearing to not protect their child enough. Research shows that you can raise a well-adjusted happy child by being a good enough parent, particularly a good enough mother. This means you will have bugger up moments – a very Australian term for making mistakes.

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment anything less than pleasant, as he puts it with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (“Oh, I tripped”), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: “That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it.” In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.

From How to land your kid in therapy by Lori Gottlieb

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Parenting is a unique journey where we nurture and guide our children to become competent and capable at managing this strange beast called life. At times there is great joy and delight and at other times deep disappointment and sadness. In a way happiness is sweeter because we have known the reverse. Children grow more resilient through what they actually experience rather than what you might tell them about.

Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard University, warns against what he calls our discomfort with discomfort in his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, they won’t develop psychological immunity.

It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops, he explained. You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle.

Lori Gottlieb describes meeting ‘teacups,’ who are young adults who have had perfect childhoods and who adore their families and yet struggle because they no longer feel special and very happy. Adversity is not all bad, and can be a great teacher — no matter what age we are. I explore the growth of resilience in children in my Real Kids in an Unreal World book, if you are interested in learning how to build this capacity in your children.

Parenting for ourselves

Another message is about over parenting — when we lose ourselves in our children’s lives. Many family therapists are sharing stories of family angst as the helicopter parent struggles with letting go as adolescence appears for their child — the transition to adulthood. Dr Kindlon believes that many of us today don’t really want our kids to leave, because we rely on them in various ways to fill the emotional holes in our own lives (ouch!). Kindlon is concerned that we devote inordinate amounts of time, energy and resources to our children, but for whose benefit?

Despite the spate of articles in recent years exploring why so many people in their 20s seem reluctant to grow up and leave home and live independently, the problem may be less that kids are refusing to separate and individuate than that their parents are resisting them doing so.

Parenting is about preparing our children to become independent, capable, resilient adults and yes letting go is hard, however for the health and wellbeing of our precious children letting go is what is best.

Common sense supports this ancient view of the unique dance called parenting and each child is a unique one-of-a-kind miracle that is both a student and a teacher to us. It is not just a one-way journey.

Good enough is good enough

Feel ok that you are a good enough parent and relax when things go wrong it is a valuable teachable moment. I made many mistakes and struggled with guilt at times that I could have done more, been more and wish I could have taken away my son’s pain at dark moments in their lives, however they have grown to be independent, capable and resilient. That is what they value and yes they enjoy reminding me of my many moments when my mothering was flawed!

Hoping this gives some food for thought. If your child hurts themselves, ask them: “Are you Ok? Do you need my help?” If they say no, smile and know your child is building resilient capacity that will help them throughout life. Maybe punch the air, give someone a high five — celebrate!