Editor’s Note: In this month of celebrating Mother’s Day and graduations, many of us are reflecting on our ever-changing role as parents. In this week’s blog, KP Lactation Consultant Mary shares with us what she has learned, both as a parent of three as her youngest leaves for college and as a professional guiding the parents of our youngest patients through some of their earliest challenges.
Being a parent is the hardest, most rewarding job I’ve ever held. Now that my children are mostly grown, I look back and realize some things I wish I had known from the start. But like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, if someone had told me then, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. I had to learn it for myself. And you will too.
Most parents fret about how they should discipline, worrying that if they don’t do it right, their child will be ruined forever. But children are forgiving and resilient. Yes, it’s important to learn positive parenting skills and techniques. Just go easy on yourself. A parent who focuses on being a loving, ethical, respectful person is more likely to produce loving, ethical, respectful children than one who constantly tries to discipline morals into them.
Focus on connection
Babies demonstrate many attachment seeking behaviors – they cry to be picked up, they snuggle into your shoulder, they engage you with smiles and laughter. Yet as your child grows older, it often becomes more difficult to stay connected. Your toddler throws a tantrum, your school age child disappears into video games, your teen is off with friends. As time goes on, you get busy with work, driving your kids to activities, social media and all the many distractions in life. But your child still needs you, no matter how independent they may seem. Remember to hug, to rustle their hair, to stop what you are doing and really listen. Rather than just praising them for doing things “right,” express your delight and joy in them just because. Even though they are now young adults, I still tell my kids they are adorable and that I’m so happy that they are in my life. Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s book, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, talks about this in detail.
Parenting is confusing
There are so many books and blogs about parenting; it can get overwhelming. Yet nothing can truly prepare you for a toddler who continues to say no or a teen who stays out past curfew. You’ll ask yourself, “Now what did this or that author say about how to handle that?” Remember that unless your child is darting into traffic or grabbing a knife, you don’t have to do anything right that instant. It’s ok to say “there will be a consequence for that behavior – I need to think about it.” Even, “I’m so frustrated right now – we will talk about this later.” Giving yourself time helps avoid the “you are grounded for a month!” or “no dessert for a week!” trap that is easy to yell in the moment but isn’t realistic or effective – and often gets in the way of connection.
No parent is perfect – and that’s ok. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection talks about how perfectionism is crippling: nothing you do is ever good enough. Showing your child the importance of learning from mistakes is one of the best gifts you can give them. Say out loud: “Oops, I made a mistake trying to carry too much and spilled the Cheerios – guess I need to get the dustpan and clean it up” or “I’m sorry I yelled – can we start over?”
One thing I found helpful when my children were young was to post little notes around my house with basic takeaways from parenting books: “get down on their level and look in their eyes,” “give choices,” “make it a game,” etc. Another idea is to write little lists of these tips in the note section of your phone, then look at it occasionally. Eventually, these things will naturally become part of your parenting style.
There are no guarantees
Some children are more difficult to parent than others. Whether it’s special needs, emotional issues or just an intense personality, your child may test the limits of your endurance farther than other parents. Take care of yourself. Forgive yourself. Breathe deeply and try again. Parents who seem to do everything “right” might just have easier kids.
When my son was little, he never stopped moving and he hit other children so much that we had to stop going to playgrounds for several years. Nothing my husband and I did seemed to make any difference. I felt disconnected and angry. But when I closed my eyes and breathed, the same words always came to me: “just love him.” Today, he is a loving, kind, responsible (but still intense!) young man. Some kids might continue to struggle through their twenties and thirties, but always remember that connection to you will make their journey easier.
You are enough
Many parents shoulder the terrible burden of thinking that they are totally responsible for how their children turn out. Yet as Jon Kabat-Zinn discusses in Everyday Blessings: the Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, children are individual souls with their own paths to walk. This may seem obvious, but we often lose sight of this basic truth. You are your child’s anchor, their guide, their support – but you are not them. Though it might feel like it at times, their actions do not define you. You can help support and shape your children, but ultimately they will become who they are meant to be. Practice compassion and acceptance for this little being who is under your care – and for yourself. You are in relationship with another human being, one who might test you, challenge you – but who also truly loves you. Today’s parenting mistakes do not define you. You are, and always will be, enough.