Good Parenting by Default
Until my kids came along, I’d been sort of an “intellectual lemming” marching lockstep to a place of perceived greatness, driven by what I now recognize as sheer Narcissism. (Obviously, I’ve still got a trace of it, since this article is about me.) In my youth, introspection, and reflection about topics broader than my day to day “rise” to success, disinterested me. Fortunately however, even then, my sentimental core and friendliness saved me from being an utter bore.
When it came time for kids, the next step after the fine house in the right suburb was acquired; I dressed them in luscious, natural fabrics. Enrichment was my mission. From the first pregnancy test, I read every book on pregnancy and child development. I had the “best” doctors, gave birth at the “best” hospital in NYC. I bought every stimulating toy I could find from the first “black and white” mobile (a trend in the ’80s) that hung over their cribs.
Then, after years of academic and professional perfectionism, I “got it.” This parenting gig was “all about them”, not me. Each one of them was wired differently and not one was like me! They had opinions, and style that was different from my husband and mine’s; not mini-me’s. “It” was about who they actually were, not whom I imagined they would be. This motherhood thing was a work in progress, my oldest, now twenty-four, had the worst mother of the three of them, but over time, I learned to follow their personalities, to “read’ them, as I led them through childhood.
If we watch and listen to children—they let us know through their behavior, who they are, and what they need, and sometimes it’s very different from what we have in mind. Often accused of being “overly protective”, especially by the oldest, I learned to protect them from a slight distance, as they grew in whatever direction that their wiring had determined.
The oldest was reserved, shy, the scholar, the artist; the middle, my jokester; and the third was my huba- huba, team- spirit, spokesman for the planet, the girl who belched louder than her brother but looked like a demure doll. Three- totally different personalities- with different emotional needs and different dreams. Two wanted to talk to me for hours about every little aspect of their lives. The third was a private child, who would have experienced such chumminess as intrusive and weird. “First kiss?” forget it, don’t even go there with that one, but the others were so forthcoming I had to stop them before getting too much information!
My children have grown into three interesting and compassionate young adults and I am close to each of them. So I’m guessing that overall I was a pretty good mother, but much of it was by default because while I was raising them, I actually knew very little about being a “good mother”. For example, they each acquired rich imaginations and the ability to entertain themselves for hours, because I couldn’t bear to constantly entertain them! Through my deficit, emerged their growth. They also have great “frustration tolerance.” My kids can calmly wait their turn forever, because I had neither the energy nor the inclination to hop up in anticipation of their every need. Definitely, by default.
So how’d I do it, this genius parenting born of ignorance and lack of energy? I did the best I could, the best I knew how, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Oddly, after I gave up law to get my doctorate in clinical psychology, I came to realize that many things I’d done well by pure accident or because I couldn’t stand parenting any other way, were nicely grounded in sound psychological theory. So now, I like to view myself as somewhat of a parenting expert even if it was by default, because we all know the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
My undergraduate degree had been in Political Science, I’d steered away from all that Social Science stuff, so the jargon- filled Psychology texts confounded me, those experts took twelve pages and way too many syllables to say what could be said in a couple of sentences. So here’s the “bottom line” on raising kids whom you can stand.
1.) Maintain a “Self”
You had a life before you became a slave to your children. Inasmuch as having kids may be the most fulfilling part of your world, being a parent is not all that you are. Kids will benefit from having a parent who is in- touch with negative emotions such as guilt and resentment, and any sense of loss of a former life that involve more than play dates and nursing lore. This is especially true for women who love their work or those who actually leave their jobs to be at home. It’s normal to feel disoriented acquiring education and experience only to find yourself wiping urine off the wallpaper or counting cows on the highway. Many a woman has felt that she no longer had much to say other than about the kids, when her husband came home, not a great feeling for modern women. Better that our children see us as models of healthy, thoughtful, multidimensional women who make, and sometimes rethink choices and who are in- touch with all the nuances and consequences of our decisions.
All of my children know that being their mom is the richest thing I’ve ever experienced, but every one of them also knows that I hate playing Barbie, board games or doing crafts. They know too that I’d much prefer being in a board room, than standing in the Customer Service line at Costco waiting to explain how the chicken smelled rotten.
2.) Listen to Your Gut and Teach Your Children to Listen to Theirs
We can “think” things to death and can reason ourselves out of reacting appropriately. Modern man is so oriented toward being socially appropriate, not offending and being reasonable, that we often tune- out instinctive reactions that provide a nice foundation for survival skills. Not that one wants to raise kids that justify prejudices thinly veiled as instincts, but gut reactions can be a nice barometer for both parents and kids that something is “off”, doesn’t feel right.
My oldest has found this gut thing particularly helpful in detecting people with poor boundaries, dates with anger issues, odd directors, neighbor’s funny uncles, etc. If you don’t like an expert’s advice or the kid isn’t warming up to the babysitter, get out, then examine what about the situation was provoking those feelings.
3.) Never Make Excuses for Their Bad Behavior
Others, especially their teachers will hate them if they view you as bailing them out when they are out of line. Also, they will grow up always feeling like they can dodge the bullet which isn’t a great way to make friends and impress others. This is not to say always let them fight their own battles. Mostly, they do need to fight their own battles because only in this way do they acquire a true sense of competence that makes them feel that they can cope , but sometimes events do require adult intervention because the kid has no real power and the cards are stacked, (e.g. a young child whom a teacher just doesn’t like or an out of control bully situation.)
4.) Fight in Front of Them
Seething adults are anxiety-producing to children, they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you and your partner disagree about non-private and non-Earth-shattering type issues, it is much better to argue fairly in front of the kids so they learn that people can disagree and it doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. My children always had a sense that neither my husband nor myself would meekly tolerate annoying spousal behavior without some good backtalk I think it made for their own healthier relationships where issues are discussed not avoided or denied.
5. Don’t Succumb To Peer Pressure Yourself
It can be embarrassing feeling “overly protective” when everybody else seems to be cool about something, like kids playing in the road. Older parents can make you feel like you are being silly and parents your own age can make you feel like you are being irrational or that you are stifling your child’s spirit. Remember, it’s easier to say “yes” and some of those parents are just copping out. Also, it’s even more tempting to give- in to the little suckers when they are older because they learn how to be more annoying and argumentative with the development of abstract reasoning, which is followed by a period where they flat out hate you and don’t hesitate to tell you. Just because the other parents let them sneak beer into the house party or drive with 8 passengers without seat belts doesn’t mean you have to be a wimp. Stick to your guns.
6.) Chill on the Education Thing
As one who had an account at a “teaching supply store”, had every educational toy known to man, and who used down time at the mall going over children’s art books that explained the Masters at a Pre-K level, I can say “chill”. If you listen to your friends and neighbors they will have you thinking your child is academically behind if he’s not facile with a mouse in utero. No feeling is worse than the sense that one may not be giving one’s child every advantage to make it, in this increasingly competitive world. But you can easily get nuts about this, you stop being fun mommy and end up being a profferer of data. “Not another fun Mensa puzzle mom!”
Learning can become like receiving school clothes for Christmas.
Know your developmental milestones and observe whether or not the kid is meeting them within a normal range. If something strikes you as funky, bone- up- on- it so you can ask intelligent questions. Get on top of it right away, but don’t make yourself crazy because “normal” involves a broad range, and early intervention is key if some of the wiring is immature. Lastly, if there is a problem get help but don’t let the experts pathologize your kid. Let the child define him or herself through all the positives about him or herself, while he or she works on the bumpy stuff.
7. The Biggy—Frustration Tolerance
Moms are often so attuned to our children that we anticipate their needs before our kids even get in touch with them. Every adult knows that real life involves a need to wait your turn, postpone gratification or simply to not get our way. A child who learns this in the crib is less likely to feel overwhelmed with anxiety when, as an older child or adult, they are faced with the above. I am not advocating sitting there watching your child bawling for five minutes because he’s hungry. However, allowing him to first experience the need, then learn to tolerate a few seconds of frustration before having the need met goes a long way.
Frustration tolerance is how a child learns that the world won’t end because they don’t get what they want now. This is even more critical today when children are connected to some device 24/7. They have, to a great extent lost their ability to just quietly sit in their own skins without outside stimulation. Being able to tolerate frustration is critical to healthy adult functioning because so much anxiety is caused by feeling like one can’t stand it. The goal is to be able to feel peaceful when constant stimulation is not forthcoming. If it’s well- developed they don’t fall apart when things are starting to go South, and they are not filled with anxiety or frustration when they need to wait. It’s a great coping mechanism.
8. Don’t Entertain Them Constantly Because They Won’t Learn To Entertain Themselves.
Again, my parental deficits led to this discovery. All three of my children have an amazing capacity to entertain themselves creatively for hours on end. They enjoy their own company and no one is ever bored. My mantra was “entertain yourselves because I’m so not going to entertain you.” I’d make dinner and they’d go get the crafts basket or books and play at the kitchen table. When my oldest was seven she had a schoolmate over who kept following me around the house expecting me to entertain her. The house was a virtual Montessori, plenty to do. It wasn’t that the child was lonely, it was that she was used to the provision of constant stimulation from outside (I did not realize that at the time, she just annoyed me because I didn’t entertain my own kids so I wasn’t about to cater to her demands to go to the ice cream store, go buy more supplies at the craft store, go get videos, etc.
So it was about me not wanting to have to sit on the edge of the couch worrying while she was out till 2 a.m. with some hotshot driving a fast car, or me who did not want to sweat it while she went to Madison Square Garden at sixteen to watch a show that “everybody was allowed” to do. Bottom line, I was an embarrassment, “nobody else” has to do that, I was “overly protective”. Whatever, the tail did not wag the dog. She went into NYC for dance and vocal lessons at sixteen because I assessed it as being more low- risk than doing the town with a mob of exhilarated suburban teens. I am not sure how rational my thinking was, I didn’t care, I was the parent. I knew I was smarter and more experienced than kids who were not dry behind the ears. Once an adult living in NYC, she actually admitted to me that she was glad I had been the way I was, she was more cautious. I’m sure she never gets home till 2 a.m. these days but it’s her business now. Kids need structure and to have limits set for them because youth often cancels out judgment.
10. The Power of No
You:”Did you tell the kids to go to bed, it’s 10?” Your Partner:“Yeah, but they didn’t go. I told them ten minutes ago to put the lights out.” You: “We gotta make them, you go.” Your Partner “No you go, I’m tired.” One would think after all these years of rules that bedtime would take. Hell no, it’s a constant battle. You need to win it, no cell phones in bed. Parental “No’s” must always be a victory for the parent. Equivocation will send the message that there is room for negotiation which is to be achieved by whining, ignoring you, or worse.
“James put the kitty down,” can’t be followed by “James, you need to put the kitty down because that hurts her and you wouldn’t want somebody holding you up by the leg now would you?” or “If you don’t put that cat down we are not going to the movies.” It needs to be “a look” followed by a sharp tone that lets James know that if he doesn’t put the cat down right now he’s going to be sorry.
When I left work to raise my young children after a ten-year stimulating career, I felt as comfortable in the suburbs as a Bushman in Downtown Tokyo. It was hard, sometimes very boring, sometimes very lonely. I did the best I could which was often not good enough and I’m close enough to my kids as adults that they are permitted to remind me of this! “I’m obsessed with my weight because in fifth grade you made me get on the scale every Sunday.” “You’re the reason I’m afraid of things, did you need to tell us the details about kidnapped kids?” Well in retrospect sounds awful, but back then it was my way of trying to protect you. Expression of disbelief on their faces. The only guarantee in parenting is that we will make mistakes. Hopefully my mistakes and lessons learned can help you avoid some of the pitfalls. The parenting journey is one of the richest of life’s experiences and it helps to have some guidelines to help us navigate.