As AHLondon and Angela said the other day, it can be so hard to have an open-minded, open-hearted conversation with other parents about How To Be A Parent. There is so much sensitivity and defensiveness in each of us it seems, that we can hear criticism where there isn’t any and be tempted to deny any shortcomings of our chosen mode of parenting.
But as Angela also pointed out, most of our schools did nothing to help us figure out how to parent. Too busy with the periodic table (handy only for quiz nights in my case) and French verbs (undeniably useful, but not as helpful or important as parenting skills for most of us).
We have to put our own patchwork parenting quilt together, with some bits salvaged from our childhood family memories, a few squares traded over the internet, some bought in a bookshop and lots supplied by close friends whose own patchwork parenting we admire.
Quilting has traditionally been a communal activity, done in a circle, all of us working together to make something beautiful and warm and useful. And more than the sum of our parts.
For those of us who value conversation and the exchange of ideas, let’s clear the decks so we can quilt together happily, trading ideas about how to raise thriving kids in thriving households.
For starters, why is it so hard to talk helpfully with each other about this stuff?
Most of us have ditched a culturally traditional model of parenting and family life. In the West the industrial revolution changed things for many, and feminism took care of the remaining relics. None of us is raising a family like our great-great-great-grandparents did. They would find our households utterly unrecognisable.
But we have no new consensus to replace old traditions, and hardly any robust research to fill the knowledge gaps.
What’s the most effective way to deal with a toddler’s tantrums or a teenager’s risky behaviour? Our ancestors could probably have agreed, but science is not (yet?) able to tell us one big answer we can all adopt.
For each of those fairly basic parenting questions, a dozen different experts will give a dozen different, carefully reasoned answers, all of which have their merits and their champions.
And that’s the thing. In a society that has become diverse to the point of fragmentation, what works for my family simply cannot be assumed to work for my neighbours, even if it’s wise, sensible and as well-supported by evidence as anything can be in this field.
What works for me might work for you. Or it might not. Heck, what works for your eldest might not work for your youngest. And that’s ok.
That’s pretty hard to believe and internalise, though, in the face of all we know about abuse, neglect, the effects of disrupted attachment and the alarming rate at which kids seem to find themselves in danger of one sort or another.
In this media environment, parents are hyper-aware of the effects of bad parenting. We live in a swiftly-changing world where some of the challenges and risks our kids will face in ten years’ time are unknown to us now. The stakes are high and we can feel ill-equipped.
So when someone at playgroup or school or church tells us how important it is to discipline children or breastfeed or read bedtime stories in German or feed the kids salmon or turn off the tv, it’s only natural we should go into fight or flight mode.
How dare she criticise my parenting?
He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!
I’d hate to be their children.
Have I completely stuffed my kids up?
Parenting is (awesome and) flipping hard work. It’s non-stop and exhausting and we invest so very much in it. Being wrong about any of it hardly bears thinking about.
But here’s what I think.
- There’s very little* that is demonstrably right or wrong in the realm of parenting. What there is is what works for us.
[*But not nothing, of course. Research clearly shows that some things are reliably harmful to children: smoking around kids, regularly feeding children lots of sugary drinks, living with violence that kids experience or witness, for example. I’m not suggesting that anything we feel like doing is ok for our kids.]
- Most parenting choices are trade-offs. If we devote more energy to extra-curricular activities, there’ll be less time for free play. We can pour our energy into no-tv parenting (even in the witching hour while trying to cook tea, eek!) or we can give ourselves regular sanity breaks with Spongebob Squarepants: both choices have costs and benefits.
We can’t do everything, so there’s plenty of room for feeling bad about basically all of our choices. Or we could choose to celebrate the great parts of each one instead and toss the downsides over our shoulders without a backward glance.
- Learning a new parenting skill, a new phrase to use, a new way of looking at our children doesn’t mean that we’ve had it wrong up till now. The child creates the parent; as the child grows and changes, so must the parent.
We need new skills for new seasons.
And if you’ve got time to waste on regretting you weren’t already a perfect parent in the maternity ward, you need to take up bento box lunches or start learning the sousaphone.
- We’re all doing our best. Some days. Most days we’re doing what we can manage. Which is actually ok, as long as we’re in the range of normal parenting that isn’t teetering into neglect or abuse.
Listen up: Never before in history have children been raised by perfect parents with plentiful resources and infinite wisdom. There’s no reason to expect our kids will be the first. We’re doing what we can, and that will almost certainly be quite enough.
I talk about my own parenting on this blog, and ask you about yours, because this is how I learn how to be a better parent. Or how I survive. Depending on the day.
I rely on us. So here’s the invitation: If you are interested in sweeping away the criticism, defensiveness and anxiety that so often characterises gatherings of parents, read on.
We’re going to clear the decks by affirming what we like in our parenting, voicing our questions and acknowledging our successes and idiosyncrasies.
We’re going to share our best ideas, explicitly rejecting any hint of superiority, inferiority, true or false modesty, apology, excuse, defensiveness or despair. You hear me? I’ll be watching like a hawk! We are Brilliant and Amazing, and we can each offer good things.
I know I’ve said this already, but I think it’s the key: What works for me and my family may or may not work for yours. It might help you think through why you do what you do, and why that’s actually better for you. It might get you thinking about something new.
Enough of the rant. Below is the template. If you’re up for it, copy and paste these eight sentence openings and complete them. Write as much as you like – I’m really looking forward to reading them. I’m keen to hear people’s stories in enough detail to be inspired to ask you more or steal an idea or keep thinking about what you share.
I’ll start, but in a comment, rather than here, to get the ball rolling. Looking forward to reading your confessions.
A Patchwork Parenting Confession
- I am a Brilliant and Amazing mother/father/grandparent/stepdad/auntie and I am doing what I can.
- What works for me/us is…
- Some important things for us/me are…
- I’m learning…
- I’d love to learn…
- Some resources I’ve found helpful include…
- What I really enjoy about parenthood is…
- The weirdest things about my parenting are… and They Work For Us.