(without losing your heart)

It’s Complicated

With everything I write or say about parenting or psychology, I feel that I must insert this phrase: “But it’s complicated.” We (“experts” and anyone who thinks they know something) can make the task of raising children sound easy. I caught myself doing this with a student recently who was observing a class of disabled students (the focus being on education rather than parenting at the time): I listed off a range of strategies that can help a person with ADHD, such as finding socially acceptable  ways for them to fidget rather than trying to force them to be still, striving for routine exercise and breaks, and redirecting the person to the task with simple, non-judgmental prompts. The student responded that they were doing all that in the class she was observing. I took a breath and smiled.

The problem is that it takes time and consistency and then the strategies you picked might not work. Ideally, you involve the student in picking the strategies because what helps one person might not help the next and choice can be empowering. I’d like to believe that if a sensitive and intelligent person takes the time to get to know the child and involves them in the process, they will always find a way to help eventually, but sometimes we don’t. And I wish I had said all that and more in class, but I was too caught up in recognizing my own glibness. (I don’t remember exactly what I answered at that point.) The fact is that all the best strategies ever devised fail as often as they help. And when it is your child, the stakes are higher and your ability to think through things clearly are typically impaired because you care so much and you need to fix things.

The hardest part of parenting for myself has been accepting that I can’t fix everything. I can’t make my children’s father into the kind of father they deserve, I can’t find better schools, I can’t make my children overcome bad habits and personal struggles, and I can’t make their lives easier or happier. One of my children is struggling enormously, and I’ve had to let go. I haven’t given up, but I can only offer my help and wait until my children want it when it comes to the important things.

Particularly as our children approach adulthood, we cannot control them. In fact, we can never control them and should not try. I don’t like the word control. There is a lot I like about Bandura’s self-efficacy theory, but self-efficacy is frequently equated with control beliefs. This focus on control is, I think, a Western form of madness. Not only do efforts to control create enemies and rebelliousness, but it makes us obsessive and frustrated. Breath, I tell myself. This is something I can’t control.

It is on this issue of control that the effects of our power as parents can become dangerous. Our job as parents is to do everything in our power to help our children while loving them–being amazed by and in awe of them–no matter whom they become. The research on parenting doesn’t exactly lead to that phrasing, but the idea of unconditional love has long been a successful tool in therapeutic situations. I would argue that reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have our children helps us deal with the frustrations. It is, after all, amazing that they came into our lives!

There are many different philosophies about parenting. Some say that our children have a great responsibility to us while others argue that it is only the parents who have a responsibility to the children. Some believe we should push them to be independent while others encourage interdependence and sometimes dependence. Some drive their kids to success while others support their children’s decisions. Examples of every approach working and failing can be found, and these differences are about values really and beyond the scope of “science,” but logic dictates that only parents who feel they are owed something and feel the need to control their children will be disappointed. It is the selfish aspects of parenting that create disappointment because we were relying on our children to satisfy our pride, make us feel wanted, or even to provide us with material supports as we age. Control is about getting what we want, not what our children want. We are disappointed when we wanted something. Worry, anxiety, love, and empathy are about our children, but disappointment, anger, grief, and embarrassment are about us. This is not to suggest that we must be perfectly selfless as parents–I know very well that acts of “selflessness” frequently include feeling better about myself–but when we feel that disappointment, we can remind ourselves that it comes from what we want rather than what is necessarily the best thing for our children. We can never know what is the best thing.

My goal in writing this blog is to begin a conversation by sharing my reflections on theory and research, so please respond so we can make this a dialog. I hope we can collectively create a way of thinking about parenting that is neither guilt inducing nor paralyzing. But thinking it all through does not immediately or reliably change our children or the world we live in. It might allow us to have the kind of influence we want.

The research on attachment makes it clear that sensitivity to the child’s needs is connected to more confident and well-adjusted children. The research on parenting styles similarly suggests that responsiveness (and also demandingness) are best. But as with everything, oversimplifications can lead to problems: being so opposed to the way our parents did something, for instance, that we go to the other extreme, causing new problems. In overcoming one problem, it seems inevitable sometimes that we create a new one. What does it mean to be sensitive and responsive? I will work on some specific examples, but I think it is about constantly asking, what are these children experiencing? And making space for the children to communicate what they want, even if you have to say no.

How we hear/read advice can easily change the impact, which is why the “complicated” rule is important. Research, for instance, has found that “yelling” can damage children as much as spanking, such as is described here: http://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/yelling-at-kids/. I can’t speak to the quality of this specific research, but the accumulation of research about brain development, the role of cortisol, and the effects of emotional abuse and neglect strongly suggests that there is an accumulative effect that influences how our brains develop. Is yelling serious? Yes. Just keep in mind, that it’s complicated, and striving for improvement is infinitely better than condemning yourself or being overcome by guilt.

I strongly believe that children are far better off staying with even the most abusive parent if that parent commits to change and seeks help in making it happen. It’s an opportunity for the children to truly feel loved and to learn about commitment when a parent faces their darkest parts and become better for their children. It becomes an opportunity to see that we can make a choice to change–to rid ourselves of bad habits, carelessness, and cruelty.

Everyone loses their temper, and believing that it is a problem is not the same as arguing that if parents aren’t perfect, their children are doomed. The reaction of many parents to the research was as interesting to me as the research: Some felt that the demands and guilt being thrust on parents was absurd, but are parents so threatened by the possibility that they are imperfect that their behavior cannot  be explored? I made the choice to apologize to my children when I lost my temper (or made bad parenting decisions) and to soothe their distress because I wanted them to believe that the lack of sensitivity we all show at such times is not a good thing–that we should always strive for better, take responsibility when we fall below our standards, and work to make amends when we’ve injured someone. A world where that happens routinely is the world I want to live in.

Ultimately, it comes back to the question of what we do with the power we have as parents and whether or not we use it to truly pursue what is best for our children rather than what’s best for us. We must take care of ourselves if we are to be there for our children (something I’m finally taking seriously), and finding the balance between that and what is best for our children is the ultimate balancing act. In the end, we must put our children first. The problem is in deciding what’s in their best interest.

I really need to start getting more specific. Next time!

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