Raising little kids is hard. After a grueling day it’s mommy this and daddy that. And I don’t like macaroni and cheese any more. And why can’t I jump on the couch?! Then it’s scream, scream and tears because my tummy hurts. Besides I don’t want to go to bed tonight. And by the way, I need a costume for the class play tomorrow. Can’t we go to Target to get one (at midnight)? Grandma, let’s us jump on the couch! Oh, the endless joys of raising little ones! If they weren’t so cute we’d kill them!
Yet having kids is an opportunity of a lifetime. It helps us learn to love. It makes us grow up. We shape lifetimes. We become bigger people as we look at life in a whole new light. While our single friends are out there having the time of their lives, or so it seems, we’re learning to appreciate what our moms and dads tried so imperfectly to teach us. We’re learning that life no longer revolves around us and that sacrificing for our loved ones brings us joy and meaning we’ve never experienced before. We’ve entered a new dimension of life. It’s called being a parent.
Unfortunately, too many of today’s parents take their jobs way too seriously and lose the fun and meaning in being parents. Thanks to media pressure that sets up parents to compete with each other and professional experts with their endless list of child maladies, contemporary parents run haplessly on a treadmill of fear. As a market strategy, our culture bombards caregivers with scare tactics and shaming messages, invalidating parents’ natural gut instincts with their children and prompting many parents to doubt whether they will ever be good enough caregivers. In my clinical experiences, many times I see devoted moms and dads overdoing it with their kids and not seeing how they are already good enough. Their standing joke among moms and dads is “Forget about saving for their college. Our kids will need all our money to pay a shrink to recover from having us for parents.”
Sure, some adults aren’t good parents. They may be incompetent or see their kids as bothers. However, for the most part, parents are reasonably competent and really do care about their kids. Even in families with fixable problems, the bright smiling faces of the children continually remind me that their parents are already way good enough.
Myths of today’s parents
Myths are partial truths that mislead us into insane behaviors. Often we learn such misinformation from trying to be like other parents whom we feel are “in the know.” Unfortunately such learning is like the blind leading the blind and the information we get is less than helpful. It’s always best to reflect on what you’re learning as a parent and trust your gut instincts as to what feels right for you. Your self-reflection as a parent in knowing your particular children is routinely wiser than all the expert advise you’ll ever receive. Here are some common contemporary myths many parents believe today.
- My child’s self-esteem will be crushed if he or she cannot dress or have what his or her peers have or is different from others. Conformity to peers builds status, not self-esteem. It’s reasonable to live within your means as a parent and do your best to help your kids conform to social norms and dress codes. However, children are never going to be completely like their peers and they need to cope with how to handle being different from others. They need to be taught skills like living within your means, being proud of your identity no matter what you look like, that conformity may not be an asset and that doing with less even when you can afford more may strengthen your character. When your children complain, “But all our friend’s parents are buying this for them,” they are really testing whether you are strong enough to stand up for your own beliefs as their parents. Typically, they want to be told “No” when they appear to be asking you to say “Yes.”
- It’s primarily my job to pay for my children’s college education and get my child into the best college. It never ceases to amaze me how much pressure parents unnecessarily put on themselves from day one simply because they will feel like bad parents if their kids don’t get into some prestigious college. How do they know if their kids will even want to go to college? What if their kids aren’t mature enough to handle going to college? Who says that going to an expensive prestigious school is better for their kids than their going to a more affordable but less well-known college? Why is it all the parents’ responsibility to put their kids through college? What ever happened to personal responsibility on the part of their children? Unfortunately, when parents spend all their energy prepping their kids for an Ivy League school they lose all the joy of the process of raising their children to maturity. They lose what is precious in being in the present moment with their children. By the way, research says that kids going to famous universities earn more initially after graduation than kids from lesser known schools, however, over their lifetime kids from smaller colleges earn just as much as kids from famous colleges, they have considerably less debt and they report a greater degree of happiness. Some of these findings may be due to the fact that kids from famous universities work ungodly long hours in corporate settings that take them away from their families, the main source for human happiness.
- It’s my job as a parent to protect my child from adversity. Moderate adversity is a good thing for children. Losing a crucial basketball game, having to mow lawns to save for extras, and not being asked to a desirable party are all potential character building opportunities for our kids. Surely none of us wishes our kids heartache. However, heartache is part of life. Learning how to lose, developing a work ethic, delaying gratification and dealing with rejection are all normal parts of life that our children need to learn how to cope with. Who better to teach them than us? Parents ought to protect kids from life-threatening dangers but they should also teach them how to competently suffer. Too often we lack skills in this area ourselves, and we freak out when our kids scrape their knees or get a C on a test. It’s a parents’s job to calmly teach their children how to cope with adversity and not spare them from normal suffering. In a national survey, children were asked “What’s one thing you would most like to change about your parents?” The children overwhelmingly answered, “For my parents to relax and not get bent out of shape over all the bad things that happen to me.” Let’s not be the adversity in our children’s lives that they so competently handle without us.
- My children need access to any form of electronica as we live in an electronic age. It’s true that kids are savvy when it comes to electronica and they do need good technical skills to succeed in our cyber age. However giving children carte blanche to electronica with no limits is a big mistake. The American Medical Association says that TV’s need to be out of bedrooms for children under the age of three. Research shows that the brains of toddlers get damaged by being raised by TV’s. Such kids are prone to hyperactivity, have poorer impulse control and are at higher risk for Attention Deficit Disorders. Research also shows that too much TV watching makes even elementary age kids less smart since TV’s wire kids’ brains to passive learning and not thinking for themselves. Electronica in moderation is not a crime against kids. However, over-the-top electronica use is hazardous. Video game playing can become addictive, the amount of pornography and adult material on the internet is too much for kids to handle, excessive texting can create social phobias in children and children left to their own devices are easy prey for internet predators and sex texting. Unmonitored electronica use is the leading cause of children losing their childhood. It’s best if parents limit overall time children spend on electronic use (such as one hour per day), monitor how their children use electronica, state their values on how electronic devices are to be used, teach their children how to avoid dangers on the internet and model for their children how electronica can be responsibly used in moderation. Cell phones have no place when families sit down to eat together.
Words of wisdom
Today’s parents too often worry about all the wrong things. They obsess about their children’s grades, they see child predators around every corner, and they can’t stand for their children to be bored. I wished parents worried more about what kind of human being their children are becoming. Are they generous to others? Are they generally honest? Are they giving their best efforts to their own goals? Can they accept their own limitations and failures? Are they open to people who are different from themselves? I wished parents worried more about the character of their children and less about their accomplishments. Research tells us that children will naturally excel if they care about how they affect others. Children also need lots of unstructured play time to be children, often with other children. That’s how children develop a sense of self and an ability to relate to others. Too many children lose their childhood when adults over structure their activities so that their play actually becomes work. In fact our neighborhoods now are safer than they were 30 years ago. I wish parents worried more about taking away their children’s childhood and freedom to explore and take necessary risks. Finally, having put their children in front of electronic devices for years, it’s no wonder that parents freak out when kids cry out, “I’m bored.” essentially they’ve taught their children to be externally entertained and passive participants in life. These qualities show up in young college students today who are plagued with social phobias, identity diffusion, over conformity and depression. Believe it or not, our children have something called imagination and a keen curiosity about real life. Boredom is a cry for help, not an illness. Let’s give our children options for real life involvement and trust they will find their own way out of boredom. Let us be scared of that part of us that wants to take away our children’s boredom.
Parents also work way too hard with their children when they don’t really need to. They overindulge their kids with material things. They worry about their children not liking them and become their children’s friends. They can’t imagine missing one of their children’s extracurricular activities or sports events. They frantically micromanage their children’s lives to give them an ideal childhood. Parents become non-persons and heaven forbid never expect their children to recognize that they themselves have needs too. Oddly enough, with all that energy being spent on silly things, parents lose their oomph for things that really do matter. In candid surveys of children, kids frequently say that they know their parents really love them but they don’t feel their parents really know them and they’re reluctant to show who they really are to their parents. When we pretend to be non-persons in our super parent role we prevent our children from being real persons with us. How else can children learn to love if we deny them the opportunity to take our needs into consideration? The emotional bond with our children is what really matters. Let’s forget being our children’s friend. Let’s embrace our own human limitations and teach our children how to accommodate us. Above all else, let’s stop worrying whether we are enough for our children. We’re all they’ve got and we’re more than enough!
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.