So, I woke up one night and started madly writing about, what I think is, my biggest parenting mistake. I was very unsure after reading it, about how my thoughts and perspectives would be viewed by others if I made this writing public, so it was left, sitting as a note on my phone for quite a length of time. But, every now and again, the words would whisper to me. I would find myself thinking about it, reflecting and then adding to this small middle-of-the-night idea. Fed by my thoughts and day to day experiences, it grew. This long and bumpy road, called the parenting journey, has my mind constantly considering, judging and reasoning. My writing morphed from a simple idea into a big complex web. But, still it stayed within the confines of my digital notebook. As time went on, it grew louder and louder, until the words were screaming at me, and it finally became a blog post. I am still unsure about some of it, as our memories and perspectives can become skewed by time, but then I decided, this is how I feel right now, at this very point in my life. I may look back on it one day and see that I now have a whole new outlook, but that is the wonderful thing about writing. It is a snapshot of who we are at a particular moment in our lives, and we have the fortune to look back upon it in later years. Our beliefs and ideas may have changed, but this can be a good thing, as we can see how far we’ve progressed.
I have decided to call this piece ‘Parenting Reflections (and one of my biggest parenting mistakes)’, which is what it now is, and I have tried to break it up into sections, although much of it is linked, intertwined and complex, just like our lives. This is not a parenting advice article, it is my ideas, thoughts and reflections about my own personal parenting journey, although some of it is advice, but mainly to myself. My family currently includes a loving and supportive husband, plus three daughters, who are currently aged 18, 10 and 4 – big gaps. The positive outcome of this very long and spaced out journey is that I am able to reflect. I have learned a great deal through each childhood stage, in particular, during the teenage years. I have witnessed our first born live out her entire childhood. I have been through every stage and emotion, good and bad, made decisions, and seen how much (or little) my actions have impacted upon her life so far. And I am repeating it again and then again. My second daughter is now half way through her childhood, and second time round, I have learned even more – most importantly, that each child and experience is very different. Although, there are definitely particular underlying developmental stages, as well as external factors, which have impacted them in similar ways. We are now also going through it for a third time, which has reinforced certain beliefs, as well as, it has brought on many more new ideas and challenges. I have also seen how being a single child family (being one for eight years) is very different to being a larger family – dynamics and viewpoints drastically changing.
When I look back along this road, I think my core self has not changed, but as my experiences have mounted, I have gained more knowledge and insight about who I am, as both a person and a mother. I have realised, what I previously thought were weaknesses, have become my strengths, and some of my original ideas, values and opinions have stayed consistent, but many have altered substantially. I have had to eat my words many a time over the years, as I have gone from a young, inexperienced single mum of one, to a two parent family of three. I have been a young mother, as well as an older mother. I have lived in a stage of low income and instability, while now living quite a life of comfort. In saying all this, there is much that I have not experienced, as my life is the only life I have lived, and I am still learning every day. Anyway, this is my blog.
My biggest parenting mistake
After I gave birth to my first child, I fell in love like never before. The love I felt for this tiny little creation was infinite, and my mothering instincts kicked in like a fierce lioness protecting her cub. So fierce were they, that some of my over-protective actions led to one of my biggest parenting mistakes.
My first-born girl came into the world a little bundle of utter perfection, and with her came a rush of emotion that completely cast me under a spell of blind love. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. I couldn’t put her down, not even into the clear bassinet next to the hospital bed. I held her or lay her on the bed next to me (much to the annoyance of the nurses), so I could still see every inch of her. Finally, after 36 hours without sleep, I was instructed to put her down and get some rest. I slept with my hand resting gently on her blanket.
I vowed to be the perfect parent and to give her the best life possible. I didn’t want my daughter to miss out on any of the things that I had growing up, or face any of the challenges that I had faced in life so far. I chose not to seek too much guidance from my own parents, as, at the time, I felt I knew more than them and I partly blamed my upbringing for any imperfections which I believed had been a cause of detriment in my life so far – not that I thought they were bad parents, they had done their best with the knowledge and resources they had at the time, but I would learn from their mistakes and do better (which I think is a valid way of thinking, but I now see that many of what I thought were “mistakes”, were just uncomfortable times in my life, and not necessarily a detriment at all). Besides all that, my parents had only raised three children. They had only life experience to go by. I wanted the most “expert” opinions and advice, as is what seems to be the trend now days.
I wanted the perfect life for this child of mine, and I put her needs above all else – part of my mistake. I praised her every effort and did everything in my power to clear her path of any obstacles, even if it may have just been a dirty dish needing to be put on the sink. And as I mentioned above, this overprotective parenting style made me fierce. For example, as a toddler, if a toy was snatched from her hands by another child, I would be by her side in an instant, protective and ready to attack the potential threat, which in this case was the other toddler or the parents of this other monster child. I would wonder how any parent could let their child behave in such a way. The only thing I could see in this situation was that my daughter needed my help. Or, when she was older, if she came home from school upset by an incident between her and a friend, my protective instincts would again surface, resulting in anger that someone had caused my daughter distress. It would take all my willpower not to march over to her friend’s house and give them, and the bad parents, a talking to. Any problem that arose in my daughter’s life, big or small, I was there to help her – that’s what a dedicated and perfect parent did.
On the flip side, if it was my child who was the one snatching toys or saying something mean, I justified it – she’s tired, she’s not feeling her best today, it’s not her fault. Plus, I thought every occurrence was a complete reflection of my parenting, rather than being partly due to her personality and/or just plain normal behaviour. My over-justification also stemmed from guilt. I felt guilt along with the responsibility to protect her from an imperfect world. I felt guilt that I was a single mother, guilt that we didn’t have much money, and guilt if I wasn’t with her every second of the day. I over compensated for any downfalls. If I didn’t do everything right, I would be a failure. These reactions, while meant with love and good intentions, I realise now, were slowly fueling something. They were contributing to the new-age characteristic we call ‘entitlement’. This sense of higher value stemmed simply from me putting my child’s needs, feelings and wants over others. All this protection and justification taught her that her needs were more important than anyone else’s, which is the opposite of teaching empathy.
A little side thought:
On reflection, this way of thinking, I believe, was partly due to what has become part of our western culture. I have come across many a mother, young and old, who also seem to have this sense of perfectionism, protectiveness and ultimate responsibility. There seems to be this simplified notion that if we follow a particular set of rules, it will achieve a certain outcome, even when dealing with a human being. As an example, if I followed the routine of “feed play sleep” over a four hour period (which would often mean my newborn baby should be sleeping solidly for 3 hours), everything would run smoothly. This advice, while well meaning, and in many cases quite helpful, can be taken by a vulnerable new mother (who is also trying to prove to the world that she is a perfect parent) quite literally. And when a mother does this, the negative outcome is that if this little human is not performing to a perfect standard and rule set, there is something wrong with her parenting, instead of it just being a suggestion which may or may not be of benefit to this individual baby. As well as this, our competitive society drives mothers to never admit in public how messy parenting can be, as this will be a reflection of their own ability as a parent, as if we are completely responsible for each and every behaviour. We tend to define our parenting success by uncontrollable factors, such as how long a baby sleeps for (even though it is a vital instinct for them to wake frequently), or how often they need the normal human requirement of being held (studies have found that a baby’s breathing, heart beat and warmth are hugely dependent on laying on or next to their mother). I hear mothers all the time say – my baby is such a good baby; he sleeps so well. While I feel that it is great this mother is doing well, there can be a downfall to such an innocent comment when it is put within a competitive context, rather than a supportive one. Does this mean that a baby who is not sleeping for long stretches or is unsettled and needs to be picked up or rocked is a bad baby? And does this mean that the mother of the baby who wakes every hour is doing something wrong? Because, when we talk about our successes we often take pride like it is the outcome of our own efforts. Which, in part, it is, but it is not the only factor. It is hard, because we should feel good about our accomplishments, that is what drives us, but we also need to acknowledge that it is not an even playing field and many factors are out of our control. I’m not entirely sure what has led to this way of thinking, I am not a psychologist, but I am certain it is a complex issue that one day requires another blog post.
Back on track to my parenting mistake –
When I look back and reflect upon my reactions, there are a couple of things I have learned. Firstly, I now see that had I looked at each situation more objectively (and slightly more calmly!), I might have instead seen each of them, not as injustices which I needed to protect her from, but as opportunities for learning empathy. For example, if a toy was snatched, instead of swooping in straight away, I could have waited (fighting every instinctive urge) to see how the situation panned out – kids can surprise you. Then, if it wasn’t quite working out, I could step in and talk to her about how it made her feel, what the other child could have done instead and what we could do to fix the situation eg. kindly ask for it back or find something else to play with. Or, I may have ended up just having to hold her while she cries, because some situations cannot easily be fixed – which she will find throughout her life. Also, then if my child was ever the snatcher, I could have used the negative situation as a learning tool – an example of how it made her feel when she had a toy snatched from her (fyi: the empathetic discussion would be kept very short and simple at this age, and toddler emotions may have definitely interfered with these well-intentioned plans. But, I believe that as long as I was looking at the situation in a more balanced, educative way, it is still worth it. Plus, there will most likely be a next time to try again).
When issues arose between friends, I could have asked for more information, listened to her side of the story, then discussed possibilities for why her friend may have acted in that way and what she can do about it (and it may possibly come out that my child’s actions led to the incident in the first place!). I could have talked to her about her friend and what she knows about their life and how out of character the behaviour was. It may have simply been that she was having a bad day, which happens to EVERYBODY, but if it happens again, we could look into it further. This kind of perspective is not justifying negative behaviour, or does it mean that she would be letting people treat her unfairly, but understanding the reason behind actions can help you deal with a situation in a more positive way. I think so anyway. Also, arguments happen, particularly between people we are close to, and understanding that sometimes we disagree on things is not a bad thing to learn in life. And, hopefully when a new day arrives, they would sort it out calmly. The situation could again, also, be a learning tool – an example of how it made her feel to have her feelings hurt and not to treat others in the same way.
Over the years, as I began a loving relationship, gave birth to 2 more girls, learned more about child development, the importance of empathy and developed more of a long-term outlook on parenting, I realised the importance of balance. I’ve always believed in treating others as equals and understanding others’ perspectives, which I was not modeling in those situations. In saying that, I do believe that I naturally did this in many other ways, so it didn’t end up all bad, thank goodness. Plus, it’s never too late to change. I have also learned, through my own life experience, that it was through overcoming challenges, with support and guidance from loved ones, that these were the times where I grew most as a person. Had I been protected and/or avoided all the bad times and mistakes in my life, I would not have the knowledge that I do today. My overprotective instincts blind sighted me, and I was, in fact, robbing my daughter of important life experiences and opportunities for learning life skills. When I look back, I am (kind of) thankful for the pitfalls in her life. I am also glad that we have come across people from all walks of life, which is also good for encouraging empathy. Due to her still being in a loving and supportive environment, these experiences actually helped her grow into a mature and empathetic human being, but also with some sense of entitlement – which after learning my mistake, I have worked hard to rectify. But, in saying that, when I look back to my teenage years, entitlement is not such a new idea – I had a much more self-centred outlook on life, but then eventually grew out of it. I think a little bit during these years is a normal part of development, which we can easily forget, as is risk-taking and other very-hard-to-deal-with-as-a-parent qualities (which is another blog post).
A new perspective
Overcoming challenges is an essential part of learning and growing. If we look right back to our evolutionary ancestors, we were constantly needing to solve problems and overcome challenges to survive. If we were hungry, we needed to find food. If we were cold, we needed to find somewhere warm. Parents protected their children, taught them what they knew about the world, but I am sure once they were old enough, they spent much of the time exploring without adult supervision. I imagine that, up until quite recently in fact, if a child or group of children (of varied ages) came across some fruit high up in the trees, the child or group of children would need to work out a way to get it down if they wanted to eat it. If you put this same scenario into today’s western world, firstly, they probably wouldn’t be outside or they could just go to the cupboard at home, but if they did find themselves in this situation, a parent would probably be present. The parent may choose to show, through role modelling or guidance, how to get the fruit. In this way, the child or children still learn, and they may overcome some challenges with the support of the parent, which is still a very fundamental way for children to learn how to do things, but another option, which is probably the most likely today, is that the parent will just do it for them. No thought needed by the child or children. And if this is a regular occurrence, the child or children would start to see this problem in a different light. Instead of seeing this scenario as a challenge to overcome, they would see it as a problem they need help with – the fruit is too high for them to reach so they need help to get it down. This analogy is not to say that we should stop helping our kids and leave them to fend for themselves, as there are also many other factors which contribute to the development of independence e.g. a loving and supportive environment, and role modelling, as mentioned above. But I feel this may be one factor which is responsible for this new generation in (supposedly) possessing less problem solving skills and resilience, relying more heavily on adults for help, as well as having an over developed sense of entitlement. I started to notice that, whenever my daughter was faced with a problem, whether it be as simple as forgetting her homework, she would come to me first and ask for help. And I see it all the time, even in adults. When we are faced with a problem, we should be trying to sort it out ourselves and then ask for help when there are no other options, not the other way around!
Plus, how good does it feel when you accomplish something or are able to figure something out for yourself which you’ve found particularly hard! This is what builds self esteem – another CRUCIAL element in a happy healthy life. Self esteem is built through overcoming challenges and solving problems. I remember reading an article about the difference between self confidence and self esteem – self confidence is how you feel about your ability to do something, which is important, but self esteem is how you feel about yourself as a person overall. It is your self worth. Praise can be good for developing self confidence and is an important contributor to a healthy self esteem, but if praise is all you receive, and you are not also given the opportunity to master difficult challenges and problems, you will start to rely on others’ to give you a temporary boost, instead of using your own confidence and self esteem to motivate you in life.
I do get it. As a parent, it is one of the hardest things in the world not to want to give your child everything, give in to their whinging for some peace and quiet, and to not want to step in and get rid of any obstacle that comes along in their life. And you would never intentionally put your child through any hardship. It also doesn’t mean you need to start playing the hard-arse, so that if they come to you with a problem, you tell them to fix it themselves and leave them to it. There is, once again, a balance. You would never dismiss their problems; they are real to them. Just listen, support and maybe help them change their perspective, which will not necessarily happen straight away. It often takes years and sometimes nearly a whole life time to learn some important life lessons – and it is often only when we look back upon these times that we learn. And, hardest of all, sometimes these problems do not easily resolve in a happy ending, and the only thing you can do at the time is comfort their sadness. But, as hard as it is, this is also a very important life experience. As I mentioned above, the situation can be used to learn from later on. It can teach them they are able to get through hard times and still be okay (and sometimes even better off), which is called resilience – another very much needed life skill. Obviously, if the problems are extreme, such as situations of bullying and abuse, they need to be dealt with in a much more direct manner.
Fighting my daughter’s battles and fixing her problems was also not helping to foster independence – a VERY essential life skill. And this can be as simple as doing too much for them at home (which I also am very guilty of). We see that our children have had a big day, or more often than not, it is easier just to do it ourselves, which is fine sometimes, but this short-term outlook is not really teaching them anything. And it is again fuelling entitlement. Each family member needs to play a part in the running of the family and all support each other. Days are tough sometimes – life continues no matter what we are going through. I believe that it’s my job as a mother to help with things they are not yet capable of doing themselves, and to help them learn to do those things for themselves in the future. And to love them. Unconditionally. Which means being there when they make a mistake or come across a problem, but not fixing it for them, or tidying up all the mess they make in the house.
Another little side note –
It does seem, when compared to traditional societies, we, as a modern western society, do some things a little backwards. For example, on one hand, we try to build independence by encouraging our newborn babies to sleep by themselves or leave them with other people, but then when they get older, they are protected by their parents who do everything for them. In fact, many other cultures think the way we do things is quite weird (it’s actually a concept. Just Google “WEIRD – standing for Western Educated Industralised Rich Democratic – societies parenting”).
We can’t control everything
In a way, I think, these days we try to control way more than we are capable of. In the last 100 or so years, and particularly within the last 30, science has revolutionised what we know about humans and child development. And right now, we have access to so much information, it is mind blowing. We are constantly bombarded with information about how to be a perfect parent, which is great, but the downside is that it is often the parents who are already doing a good enough job that are the ones who take this information and think they are not doing enough. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable families, who this information is aimed at, don’t get access to it. Anyway, that’s another blog post. Yes, environmental factors play an enormous part in the well-being and development of a child, but it is not the only factor; there are many more complexities in the growing of a human. Our children are not robots, there is DNA involved – anyone with more than one child knows this. Bananas are extremely healthy. They are full of fibre, potassium, carbohydrates, vitamin B6, C and folate – all essential nutrients for a healthy body. But, if I ate nothing but bananas all day everyday, I would start to miss out on other nutrients that my body needs to function properly. Our bodies are very complex and require a variety of elements, just like what we require to grow into well adjusted adults. There needs to be a balance. If we focus only on environmental influences, there will be many other factors missing, and whether we like it or not, these other factors are out of our control.
I still do too much for my children and sometimes feel I’m putting too much pressure on myself to be a perfect parent, and that too many of my actions will directly impact on my children’s wellbeing and development and their future. If I look back on my childhood, many of my parent’s values and beliefs rubbed off on me and I know my upbringing played a big part in who I am as a person now. But also, I was my own person having my own life experiences and learning about the world in my own way. Yes, my parents provided food, shelter, boundaries and love, but the rest was on me. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I didn’t want them fighting my battles or solving my problems. It is not up to our parents to help us find our way in the world, and as mentioned above, it actually hinders the development of important life experiences and skills, which, now having raised one of my children to adulthood, I understand how essential they are. When I was a teenager, and sometimes they had to get a bit strict on me, I really don’t think there is much they could have done to stop me doing the things I did or making the mistakes I made, and that didn’t make them bad parents – I needed to learn about the world myself, but they just did as much as they could to set up the foundations to help me do that. So, I suppose where all this is going is: give yourself a break and try to back off if you find you are being overprotective and/or interfering (I still have to tell myself this on a daily basis). We all want the best for our kids, but it’s not all up to us. And we are only human, dealing with a range of struggles on a daily basis, all stumbling through this thing called life and parenting.