Monthly Archives: October 2012

Fail?

If you’re a parent I have some bad news for you: Success for your child is not inevitable. In fact, he’s going to be a loser. He’ll be trampled over on the soccer field by bigger, faster boys, and some smart girl at school will consign him to ‘first loser’s position’ in Maths.

A demotivational poster from despair.com

Of course, I’m mimicking the language of a particular approach to life and parenting that believes we are all destined for success. With the right amount of positive thinking and avoidance of negative thoughts, our children can achieve greatness. This philosophy reached its absurd climax in Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret, which appears to advise people to turn their gaze away from people who have failed.

In this approach, ‘success’ for children is defined as winning awards, making the A team, being perky and positive at all times, and one day making lots and lots of money. Failure to achieve some of these goals in childhood, which is inevitable for most kids, is experienced by parents as a blow to their ego.

Which begs the question, when children ‘fail’ whose disappointment is it really, yours or theirs?  Parents who live vicariously through their children are attempting to make up for their own experiences of failure through their children’s success. The child becomes a narcissistic extension of the parent, placing huge pressure on the child to perform. This view of success requires not just that your child triumphs, but that others must fail.

It’s human to admit that when your child is outperformed by other children, it stings a little. You want your child to be the one scoring goals for the team or being chosen for Science Olympiad, and you experience an uncomfortable moment when you discover your best friend’s child has been chosen for extension work and yours hasn’t.

Don’t pretend to yourself you don’t have these feelings, as some writers of self help motivational texts might advise. There comes a powerful and calming release from accepting that you are as susceptible to the same 7 deadly parental sins as anyone else, especially pride and envy.

Put your child’s ‘failure’ in perspective. He’s on a long journey in which the prize of success, as defined in a constructive way, goes to the one who endures, not the one who wins the first sprint. Children develop in spurts at different times. Some surge ahead now while others surpass them later. Some kids thrive at school while others find their niche only after that. Some children never lead the pack in measurable ways but succeed in being their best self.

Part of keeping things in perspective is revisiting your definition of success. Children are aware of the material ways society defines success, so it’s your job to stand tall for them. Remind them that a successful child is one who overcomes fear, takes necessary risks and keeps trying.  A timid child’s belated victory over the high slide in the playground is a victory to be acknowledged, not an embarrassment because his peers are already riding bikes. A girl who trips in 60m dash, keeps running and comes last, is a person whose courage should be celebrated.

It’s these moments that define you as a parent and lay a solid foundation for your child’s success. Steps to consider when your child stumbles:

  • Read your child’s emotions because some situations don’t need the topic of disappointment to be raised, as some events don’t need to be rehashed;
  • If you do say something, reassure your child how much respect you have that he tried his best;
  • Then redirect him towards the memory of past successes or things he is good at;
  • Finally, don’t blame others or promise to change what has happened (eg, phone his school to demand that he be given the Best Footballer trophy that was rightly his).

It’s a mistake to treat your child’s failure as contaminating and as a threat to your ego and your family’s legacy of success. If you do that, you run the serious risk or raising children who become fearful and overly-dependent, selfish, or very materialistic.

Bill Gates is said to have quipped that, ‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces people into thinking they can’t lose.’Our children do lose. If we, as parents, understand the inevitability of these necessary defeats, then we are helping our children to become the best versions of them selves over time.

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The Good-Enough Parent

An approach to parenting that is pragmatic and principled

I worry that there are already too many experts on parenting. Books crowd the shelves, websites mushroom insistently, earnest articles advise us about the best way to manage what is an extremely difficult task.

Parents often say that children should be born with a user’s manual. The experts make up for this oversight by writing books that tell you how to be the best parent from conception onwards. On the other hand, parents are also advised to follow their own instincts, to trust their intuition and go with their gut. I worry that these conflicting opinions often end up making parents feel confused, guilty and inadequate rather than inspired and hopeful.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many parents I have worked with have been raised in urban, nuclear family settings and have had little exposure to parenting other than that of their own parents.

We cannot simply replicate the way we were parented. The world has changed.

Parents today face different realities. Few families have the choice of one parent staying home to parent full or part-time. Single parent and divorced family situations add to the complexity. Children also have access to information, technologies and the easy temptations of substances that allow for immediate gratification. Yet at the end of the teenage journey our children have to be independent and self-disciplined.

Old models of submission no longer fit. Some dictated that women submit to men as head of the family, that men submit unquestioningly to their bosses at work and that children always submit to adults. But these are no longer viable. Our constitution guarantees the rights and equality of workers, women and children. An authoritarian, ‘Do as I say’ parenting style is not helpful or possible. Children raised to always comply with adults are not equipped to ever say NO when it is necessary.

On the other hand, other models of parenting are permissive, with an anything-goes approach. Parents who are unable to set some limits for their children raise individuals who are unable to be empathic, tolerate frustration or delay gratification.

We need to explore the middle ground between authoritarian and permissive parenting. A style of parenting that is respectful of children, but that acknowledges the importance of parental authority. An approach that nourishes children without depleting parents, encourages courage and self-belief while insisting on compassion for others and the taking of responsibility.

An expert worth learning from is Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who described the middle path in parenting. He argued that a parent needs simply to be good-enough, not perfect or even good. Just good enough.

Neglectful or abusive parenting that may be characterised by hurting, shaming and humiliation of children is not good enough. But well-intentioned, too-good parenting is not desirable either – in their desire to get it right and have perfect children, these parents end up raising children unable to manage failure. By overprotecting their children from failure or ‘damage’ to their self-esteem, they raise children who cannot deal with disappointment and are out of touch with their own feelings.

In practice what does this mean? My bit of “expertise” and experience highlights the value of the following:

As parents we need to:

  • Think about the way we were parented and question whether this is what we want for our children
  • Be responsive to our children’s needs
  • Act flexibly and practically in our approaches to motivating, communicating with and disciplining our children
  • Be realistic about what is in our power to control, and what is not
  • Remember that mistakes in parenting are inevitable, and necessary, and it’s how we repair the mistakes that is essential
  • Model respect and compassion to our children
  • Find out what is creative and joyful in our families
  • Maintain perspective and a sense of humour

Bill Cosby really understands the realities of being a parent – “in spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no-one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck – and of course, courage.” Bill Cosby, Fatherhood 1986