A Good Enough Parent Is a Better Parent
This morning’s news included a story about a restaurant in Pennsylvania that is closing its doors to children under six. This decision was the result of too frequent unchecked, bad manners and disturbances created by the pre-K set. In this situation, the parents are largely to blame for their children’s disruptive behavior. An upscale restaurant is a challenging setting for a child under five. Parents sometimes can become too focused upon their child. For them, their child is the center of the universe. But not so for the rest of us. Parents often lose sight of the consequences for children raised under the gaze of such adoring eyes when they fail to get that same reaction from the rest of the world.
As a result of my many years of clinical practice with children and adolescents I’ve come to the conclusion that it is better to aim at being a good enough parent than to be a great parent.
“Great” parents in today’s affluent middle class culture want to create a perfect world for their children. They want them to be happy above all else. They desire emotional expressiveness and a close emotional tie to their children. As a result they give them a distorted view of reality and of themselves. Many parents give their kids too much attention, too much “positive reinforcement,” too much stuff and too few responsibilities and challenges. They fail to prepare them for the reality that both the world and they themselves are not perfect.
Have you ever sat through a little league game? Parents are falling all over themselves to distract their kids from noticing that they didn’t perform well. Do they really think little Harry didn’t notice that he struck out? The parents’ denial sends the message to the kid that poor performance is so awful that you have to pretend that it didn’t happen.
Is this good preparation for life? Many supervisors of the twenty-somethings who were raised in the self esteem era find it very difficult to deliver any kind of constructive feedback. These young adults are just not prepared to hear that their performance could use improvement. They have a lot to learn and they did not know it all by the age of 14 nor by the end of their college education. They will continue to make lots of mistakes in life and not everyone will love them. None of these facts should be a surprise or an indicator that there is something wrong with their life.
In large part I blame my own profession of psychology for spreading the idea that above all else, our children should be happy. We mental health professionals mistakenly instructed parents to bathe their children in a continual solution of positivity. But such attempts to shield children from the adversity of life do not lead to a healthier person. Instead, they lead to kids who believe that there is a reality that doesn’t include pain and suffering. Eventually this catches up to them when they begin to notice for themselves that they aren’t always happy. The inevitable life bumps can feel so overwhelming that they can’t recover from them.
In a related vein, I don’t think it is good for kids to constantly be the center of attention. Parents who spend all their time watching their kids perform academically, athletically, artistically without expecting them to contribute in kind are in danger of raising little narcissists. There is more to life than our own quest for personal achievement.
Clearly, I am not talking about all parents. There are parents at the other end of the spectrum who are cruel, neglectful, uncaring and even abusive. These parents would also do well to strive to be good enough!
5 Ways to be a good enough parent:
- Be warmly involved with your children.
- Have high (but realistic) expectations for their good behavior.
- Let your children experience desire for something.
- Raise your expectations about your kid’s ability to fend for themselves.
- Let them experience their own power to contribute to the well-being of the family.
Delight in discovering who they are. This is different than obsessively trying to shape them into your model of who they should be. Be curious and interested in their personalities and interests.
They will usually rise to the opportunity to prove you right. If your style is to point to all the negative things that could happen, you could very likely heighten the anxiety of sensitive kids or raise the rebelliousness of those who are independent. Neither of these is a positive outcome. Good mentoring will help them to have a realistic vision that fits with their personalities and gifts.
Then let them work for it. I’ve known too many kids who have never really wanted anything very badly because everything was given to them before they even knew how much they wanted it: cell phones before adolescence, brand new cars at sixteen, trips to Europe. Nothing they could give themselves was ever going to compete with what they had already been given. Trying to find motivation to shape a life is extremely difficult under such circumstances.
They can fight their own fights, do their own homework, make their own sandwich. Even let them fail sometimes and experience the consequences.
What do they do that makes life better for someone else? Do they think about anything but their own achievements? By the time they reach the age of independence (e.g. going off to college) they ought to be proficient at managing money, housekeeping, child care, car maintenance, laundry, and the social graces. Begin teaching them in pre-school. If you take care of everything for them and then suddenly change your expectations at puberty, you and they will be very frustrated by the results.
Imperfectly parenting my imperfect children has been one of the great joys of my life. I am often thrown by parents who talk about falling out with their children as if it is inevitable. It just isn’t true. But if we lead our children to believe that they are privileged to a life of enchantment, or that it is possible to live our days in a state of perfection without mistakes, failure, or suffering, they would be right to come back at us for betraying them.
Our current cultural standards for parenting are very demanding. There is a lot of pressure on parents today to be “great.” The result can be that our parenting becomes contaminated by perfectionism. Setting yourself the goal of being a good enough parent may be a healthy way out for both parents and children.
What are your thoughts on this? Please comment below.
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