The Art of Good Enough Parenting
“Hay is for horses, not people.” So says Mrs. Lambchop in every volume of the children’s chapter series, Flat Stanley. My kids think this is funny and have started repeating it whenever I start a sentence with “Hey,” as in, “Hey, did you remember your library books?” The kids immediately holler, “Hay is for horses!” which leads me to wonder: Aren’t I the one who is supposed to be imparting such pithy lessons?
My own mother was big on correcting me about the uses of “I” and “me”—she still does, should I mess up in her presence. But it seems like some of her generations’ strict rules and regulations have been lost on my own. While my daughter’s sixty-something violin teacher makes her spit out her gum before a lesson, I fail to even notice that she’s chomping away. Once, my son’s daycare teacher made him apologize to me after being rude. I was so tired and eager to get him home that I hadn’t even registered what a jerk he’d been—a very small jerk, but a jerk nonetheless.
So am I failure? It would be easy to berate myself and during my kids’ first few years of life, I did so plenty. But I’ve figured out that being a good enough parent is just fine. Perfection does not create perfect kids—maybe messed up kids and stressed out parents, yes, but not perfect. Because if the 1950s taught us anything, there is no such thing as perfect.
Changing Ideals, Loosening Rules
Today, as a single mother, I lean toward the casual end of the parenting scale. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain lines my kids do not cross. To wit—books are hallowed; sugar is not to be eaten without asking first; seatbelts are always buckled; television is a rarity and something to be earned; pets should be respected, not lugged around or dressed up like playthings; and most important of all, we are kind to each other, no matter how tired we are or how momentarily wronged we may feel. Everything else is fair game.
My friends all have different rules, which mean that it takes kids time to adjust to the culture of friends’ homes. Gone is the shorthand, semi-official set of no-nos from earlier generations that included not chewing with your mouth full, no elbows on the table, and no jumping on the furniture. (Notice how everything started with a “no”?) Where or how the rule list of yore got passed down is a bit of a mystery, but it’s disappeared as the traditional notion of “family” as a four-person, white picket fence, conforming unit burst apart. We’ve had to develop new rules and roles for all family members—including children. Just as many of us have developed religion and spirituality on our own terms, family rules are also tailored to fit.
Imperfect Is Alright
In books like Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting and I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood, psychologists and parenting experts admonish us against perfection. Establish standards that you can live with—that’s the repeating theme of these cheeky yet sanity-based advice books.
I checked in with a few moms from around the country to see where they’d decided to cut themselves some slack. Often these were areas in which they’d thought they would never budge. But that was before having kids.
“We’ve said no to guns in the house,” says Julia Kuskin, a photographer in Seattle. “But I just bought my four-year-old a micro-dart gun, and I have to admit that it’s pretty cool.” Guns and boys is an area where many moms, especially of the liberal variety, have thrown up their hands. Princess dresses and all things pink and fluffy also often prove to be something not worth fighting. A woman on a plane recently told me how hard she was resisting her daughter’s princess phase. “We went through that and survived,” I told her, recalling my daughter’s relatively short-lived obsession with the Disney coterie of girlie girls. Now, at seven, she could care less and is much more impressed by female athletes or scientists.
Keep Them Clean … Enough
“Hygiene—face washing, teeth brushing, changing clothes,” says Hayden Nichols, a journalism professor in Edmonds, WA. “By the time they’re thirteen, they’ll start to care, and before that nothing really bad is going to happen.” She’s countered the worst possible scenario by threatening her eleven-year-old daughter with payment on dental bills should she get cavities. I try to keep my kids bathed on an every-other-day basis and the clothes do get laundered pretty regularly, but when I see girls in my daughter’s class who have clearly had multiple hair brushings in the morning, as opposed to her quick sweep of the comb, not to mention possible hot irons, I just roll my internal eyes. And though it pains my mother, I also gave up caring what my kids wear a long time ago. Stripes with plaid—you go girl!
Eating Sweets Won’t Kill ’Em
“Being a candy-free zone went the wayside when my first child was a toddler,” Rhonda Miller, a choir director and mother of three in Iowa City, IA, says. Miller runs a pretty tight household (as her neighbor, I can attest to this), but she, too, has given up on guns and diverting her daughter from pink. Food is interesting though, because it’s such a personal thing and has become so politicized in recent years with the rise of organics and local, not to mention our rising awareness of ingredients like trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, which are so prevalent in many popular kids’ foods. Some families throw out the Halloween candy on November 1. One friend packs her daughter’s kindergarten snacks to avoid some of the questionable items that other families contribute to the classroom. Whatever your rules are—and mine tend toward the extreme of the crunch scale—it’s important to remember that no one ever died from eating too much ice cream with sprinkles at grandma’s house.
Miller also provided me with one of the most important reminders about parenting, a situation that earlier generations might have met with a slap, but that many in our generation don’t even anticipate. “I never thought a child of mine would yell in my face,” she bravely admitted. But they do. Hers have. Mine have. Yours will. If you can love them and yourself through the experience and then figure out how to react next time around, you’ll be more than a good enough parent.