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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!