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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Don't set yourself up for guilt!

There have been a lot of posts and articles coming up in my feed lately about the myth of perfect parenting. 'Mummy guilt', in particular, seems to consume enough of us to warrant special attention in the world of online parenting.

We need to work, so we put our child in care. 

Our child still hits us, despite our gentle parenting. 

We couldn't breastfeed, 

or our child will only eat white bread and peanut butter, 

or we didn't parent our first child as well as this, because we just didn't know...

Those articles and blog posts will tell you this is normal. They'll tell you there's no reason to feel guilty. They'll tell you we all fail sometimes.

But reading an article which tells us not to feel guilty really isn't enough, is it? Failing, and feeling bad about it, does seem to be part of the parenting journey for all of us (and if you're telling me that either you've never failed or you've never felt bad about it, then you're lying to both of us). But getting past that sinking feeling when we mess up is something else entirely.

So this morning, I started to ask myself if there's any way I can help parents to avoid setting themselves up for failure and guilt, and I came to an 'aha' moment. It won't fix every bad feeling. But it can fix rather a lot of them.

This much life has taught me:

When things go wrong, we have probably contributed to that ourselves somehow. But the answer isn't guilt- the answer is reflection. 

The answer is thinking about what happened, and why, so we can avoid walking the same path next time.

Guilt is destructive.

Reflection is constructive.

How much time do we spend reflecting on where we came from- on our own experience of being parented- and on how our expectations about parenting have been hard-wired by our environment, before we have children ourselves?

Probably very little, unless we've been in therapy. Mostly, we walk blind into parenthood with some fantasy of being the perfect Earth Mother who does it all the natural way, or being the mother with perfect, well-behaved, bright children who never put a foot wrong, or the working mother who has it all because we chose the right childcare provider and school before the kids were even born...

Life has a way of making fun of our plans, doesn't it?

How about I give you an example of a hard-wired parenting mistake that stems from the parent's own childhood? Examples always bring philosophical ideas to life.

The failure

Let me tell you about a little two-year-old I know who refused to eat. He would take forever over his meals. His mother was trying everything! She was offering him everything, in the hope that he'd eat something. The table was full of child-friendly food, and he was having none of it- both literally and figuratively.

Did she feel like she was failing? My word she did, even though she was trying her heart out.

Did she feel guilty? Absolutely!

The reflection

When I talked to the mother about her childhood, it was clear that she'd been parented by an anxious and fairly rigid mother. She'd never been given choices at all as a child. Everything to do with eating, in particular, had been both contradictory and dictatorial. "You need to go on a diet!" might well be followed by "You need more food than that!"

This mum was determined to do better! Her child would have choices about food. Then he would eat what he wanted and needed, rather than learning the problems she herself had experienced all her life with food and body weight.

But it wasn't working. It should be working! What was she doing wrong? She was so worried!

The solution

Sometimes when you make a parenting decision which is a reaction against the way you were parented, your judgment can be clouded by the emotions involved. Some of her instincts were perfect- it's wonderful that she was trusting her child to know what he wanted to eat, and to make the choices for himself.

But her first problem issue was that her son was only two- and, forgetting or maybe not understanding that a two-year-old is very easily overwhelmed, she was unconsciously giving him too much choice. In fact, she'd transferred to him almost the same level of choice she would give to herself as an adult. Half the pantry was out on that table.

When I suggested that she offer a maximum of two choices to her son, the transformation was instantaneous- he would reach out to the one he wanted with little or no hesitation.

The other factor at play was that, like her own mother before her, this mum had learned to be anxious about anything to do with eating. And just like her, her son was a very sensitive child to emotions (most young children are, in fact). I suggested she step back, having given him that initial choice, and busy herself with something else. No hovering!

Again, the result was magical. Mealtimes became quicker, easier and guilt-free. When you take the emotion out of mealtimes, children can find their own body sensations of emptiness/fullness and respond to them without worrying about what will please or upset their parent and reacting to that.

So- do you see how this mum had accidentally set herself up for failure and guilt? Overreaction to your own childhood experiences can cause you to make less-than-ideal parenting decisions.

There are many, many things from our own childhoods that we might react against. A parent who comes from a home where there was constant yelling and violence, for example, may determine to become a 'peaceful parent' (please do!!), and then wonder why their child is acting out and making them want to fall back on their own parents' methods. They might start to spank, and plead online for help before they become their own parents all over again, despite their best efforts.

I've seen that time and time again.

Often the answer is that this parent has been giving boundaries without firmness in their tone, or making directions into questions, or giving an explanation of the reason for the direction without giving a clear direction at all. Perhaps they've been saying, in a tentative tone, "Pick up your toys now, okay?" and "It hurts when you hit mummy", instead of saying firmly (but quietly and politely) "Please pick up your toys now so we can go to the park" (and not going to the park if it doesn't happen) and "I won't let you hit" (and physically stopping the child from doing so).

It is hard for the now-grown, once-cowed child to learn and use a firm tone of voice as a parent, and to ask or state their requirements very firmly and directly. Don't think I'm telling you that reflection immediately fixes everything! I'm not! New habits must sometimes be learned, and that is always difficult.

But learning a new habit is much more constructive than sitting there feeling guilty because you failed, yes?

Overreaction isn't the only faulty response to our own parenting, either. Sometimes our respect and love for our parents blinds us to the fact that they, too, made mistakes. Of course they did. If there's no such thing as the perfect parent, then we didn't have one either.

That is a very hard pill for some of us to swallow.

I believed for a very long time that my mother was the perfect mother- till long after she'd died, in fact. She was always respectful to me, she always explained things, she supported my interests and I always felt loved.

It wasn't until my son was quite grown up that I realised that I'd copied one of her failures to the letter.

You see, I was never expected to do chores or clean up after myself. I was expected to do my homework, practise the piano, be polite to others and fastidious in my personal care, and entertain myself most of the time- all of which I duly did. (With the possible exception of the piano practice- but that's another story.) I copied those ground rules to the letter with my son.

What did I get for that? For myself, I got peculiar looks from my girlfriends' parents when I was invited to dinner and never offered to help wash up. I nearly got thrown out of my first share house for never washing my own dishes. I learned about chores the hard way, and it was NOT fun.

I never connected the dots about that before I had my own child. I just copied what my mother had done. And needless to say, my son has had 'tidiness issues' too. I won't go into too many details, but let's just say that I've had cause to regret not making daily chores part of the learning experience when he was young.

It never occurred to me that my own parent might have been wrong. If you'd dared to say so, I would have challenged you with great anger.

I see this same anger when I try to help parents who, for example, can't understand why their adolescent has become a stranger and won't  obey them. Their child is too big to spank now- what can they do? They've escalated punishments till there's nowhere to go.

It's nothing to do with the spankings, they say crossly. I was spanked myself as a child, and it never did me any harm!

Of course, it's too late to tell them how flawed their thinking is by then. Challenge the idea of spanking, and you challenge their respect for their own parents.

And of course, if you try to warn a spanking parent of what the consequences will be before their child hits adolescence... they won't believe you. They probably won't reflect on how they themselves felt as adolescents, how they rebelled, how little they told their parents about their lives as they 'broke away' and became independent for fear of being punished.

So copying your own parenting can be as fraught with danger as overreacting to it. It takes a lot of reflection to find that middle line between making the same mistakes and making the opposite mistakes!

And here I'm going to draw in another thread that's turned up in my Facebook feed lately: the cult of busy-ness. If you're too busy to spend quiet time reflecting on how you were parented, and what the pitfalls might be, then maybe it's time you dropped something.

Reflection is important. Of course it's more important than a new car, or a pair of shoes, or even than a house in a posh suburb- yet some parents get obsessed with income at the expense of their children, and then suffer the pangs of parent-guilt when something goes badly wrong.

Believe it or not, it's also more important than being with your small children every second of every day. You MUST have quiet time to think if you're going to try to avoid that sense of guilt and failure, and you can't think and reflect with a toddler pulling at your jeans and a baby crying.

To avoid parent-guilt, you need to prioritise some time-outs for YOU, where you can either be alone to mull over the past, chat with friends who are in a similar boat or even see a therapist if your childhood was a traumatic one.

Understanding why is the first step to healing failure and guilt. And you will never understand why if you don't give yourself the time to reflect. Please, take that important first step!


  1. Someone finally did more than just say - it's ok to feel guilty, everyone does - thank you! Mothers guilt is quite accepted as the norm, it's so great to read something that explains it and give constructive advice on how to put it away rather than just saying "oh yeah, it's normal". Can't thank you enough. Bronwyn Bay

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! :)

  2. I have a 4.5 year old boy, and if I'm to be honest, I will admit to having spanked him a handful of times and I have yelled just about as many. It's certainly not a frequent occurrence. I am firm in my requests and I do not leave them as questions, but he still has no inclination to mind or offer assistance in things. I know that I can't "force" him, and if I try, it will only cause him to dig in his heals forever and ever (amen), so what DO I do? It is a problem in itself, but now his 2 year old sister is starting to copy him.
    I have not incorporated daily chores, though I know that I should have started this by now, but I'm not even sure how to do it since he rarely will do something I ask of him. Today his 11 month old sister spit up and I asked him to get a wash rag- he sat on the floor and told me, "I'm not going to do that!" I don't act this way to him. If I am not in the middle of something, I will help him when he has a request, and if I can't, I will tell him why.
    If I ask him to pick up so that we can leave, he would rather not go. So then what? I can't make him sit in a chair or in his room until he does pick up.... I can't not feed him so that he picks up.... do I just let us stay in the house for 2 weeks until he decides to pick up?
    If he hits me or his sister, which he is currently doing ALL of the time, I do hold his hands and tell him that I will not allow him to hit. He struggles and tries to break free (which I don't allow) while grinning under his whines for me to "Stop! You're hurting me!" and then when he calms down and I let go, he does it lightly again to see if I will grab him, which I do. It's like a big game. One that I don't want to play.
    Food- we make meals and always put one item that they like on their plates. They eat that one item (2 slices of apple, or the like) and then nothing else. Meal, after meal, after meal. I don't care much if they starve because food is there and ready, but they constantly ask for food 20 minutes after breakfast/lunch/dinner. We tell them that we ate already, and will eat again at the next mealtime. They don't really get snacks and we don't have packaged convenience foods in the house. So, what's your guess on why this is? I will ask him to please clear the drawings from the table and set glasses out - refusal. The only thing we can think of is that we can't eat until the table is cleared, but he doesn't want to eat, so it doesn't matter to him.
    I've read all the books, worked on language, tried not to be angry or stubborn back to him, but none of it seems to work. I don't feel it is healthy for him to be able to sit around while everyone else works, but I'm all our of ideas. How can I let him learn that when we help each other, everyone wins?

  3. I do think that he is sensitive, and I am sure the past swats have affected him, but I can't take those back. I need to find a way to get him cooperating with the family unit. We are all imprisoned by his behavior for the past year and it is continually getting worse.
    (the hitting/pushing- he will shove his 2 year old sister into the coffee table, instigated and unannounced. I will go over to him and say that I won't allow him to push her and grab his hands. I will ask her if she is ok and sometimes say "I see you're hurt. You got pushed. Let me know if I can help you." He struggles to get free. I hold him. He screams that I'm hurting him. I hold him. He yells that I'm "Stupid." I say that I can see he is angry that I am holding him and that is why he is name calling. Eventually he settles down. I let go of him. He swats at me and the cycle resumes. This stuff happens ALL day, nearly every day from the time he gets up until they go to bed. He was a very happy/active baby and toddler. This is not the boy I knew. And he doesn't seem to do this at preschool (2.5 hours/2 days a week). His reactions are always angry too. My friend the other day asked him a question, something benign like "are you going to get your hair cut soon?" and he fired back in an angry voice "No!"
    My SIL, after a recent 4 day trip with them, said she has never seen a child his age so angry and reactive. I don't think it is anything mental, or a developmental problem because at rare times he is happy and cooperative. It's some sort of cycle he has gotten into and I don't know the cause, or how to break it. It's seriously crazy. Any ideas?

  4. I should add that he doesn't talk about anything. If I ask him how he felt about certain something, or if he had a favorite part of the day, or if something made him sad, all he ever says is "I don't know." Because of this, I feel like we are stuck I can't talk to him, he won't talk to me, it's horrible.

  5. It sounds like you really are trying to do all the right things. How frustrating for you!

    There are a few ideas that occur to me, and some of them are a little confronting.

    The first is, is there a balancing amount of fun and happy playtime happening along with the requests for chores to be done? Are you spending time interacting happily with him on his terms? Ideally children of this age should spend most of their time playing, with limited chores which relate directly to their own world, and parents need to be consciously spending small but uninterrupted blocks of positive quality time with them. More love may be part of the answer.

    The second is, make sure the consequences of his disobedience have a NATURAL impact on your child. So you can give choices like, "You can pick up your toys and put them back in your room, or I can pick up your toys and put them away in a place I choose. Which do you want?" And then choose a place out of his reach, with the calm explanation "I didn't play with them, so it's not fair that I have to pick them up any more." With the food, which is more about power I think than disobedience, try not to react at all or give any emotional significance to his choices- keep to your line of 'this is what there is until next mealtime' and what he doesn't eat, wrap and put in the fridge. His hunger is the consequence, and when he complains of it, produce his lunch plate again.

    The third: this is all a power play. Your child isn't feeling powerful in day to day life. Has there been some disruption, like a family quarrel or a change of location? Are you always in a hurry? How can you give him more choices without it making your own life harder? Can you slow down and drop some activities?

    The fourth: maybe he is not well. Maybe there is a food allergy or sensitivity happening- that also ties in with the food refusal. It could be worth a trip to your local doctor.

    The fifth: perhaps he is developing signs of an oppositional syndrome like ODD. Again, a trip to the doctor might be called for. It is rare, but there are some very angry children who actually have a disorder.

    The last: make very sure that your child is not being abused in some way without your knowledge. Extreme anger and acting out can be a warning sign.

    I hope that some of these ideas give you a new path to explore. Hang in there! My son had the 'power play' thing going for some years, and it was EXTREMELY trying (I was a single mum and had to work, plus he disliked school... not things I could control, unfortunately).

  6. Fabulous, thank you!!! Having come to mamhood much later than my younger sisters I have had the chance to do much such reflection. However, I have never been able to sufficiently articulate why I thought it was so important and how it now influences my parenting (which is quite different from theirs). You've encapsulated it all so beautifully. I will be sharing this post far & wide.
    Perth WA

    1. Thanks, Cinnamon! I appreciate your support.

  7. Thank you for this! I needed the inspiration right now! We are having eating issues with my 2 year old right now and I see myself getting so frustrated with her and angry. I told my husband there must be something in my childhood why this triggers such a reaction. Reading this I will talk with my mom about it and see if I can't sort this out! Thanks for the insight and supportive writing

  8. Can I just add seeking professional counselling can be extremely beneficial for all, not just those with a traumatic past. But thanks for the posts, its a great reminder.

    1. I couldn't agree more, Tabitha. Counselling has provided me with many of the tools I use to survive everyday life!

  9. You've written a great article there Annie. There's no shame in feeling guilty, parenting isn't something that is taught so it's only natural to worry if you're doing the right things.

    Best wishes, Alex

  10. I still feel myself guilty not helping my kids with their home assignments when I have to work long hours. Thus, I frequently take use of homework help online services.

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  14. I totally agree with you aunt Ann. It is true that failing, and feeling bad about it, does seem to be part of the parenting journey for all of us. Thanks for sharing this. Writing a Statement of Purpose

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