All parents make mistakes – lots of mistakes, and making mistakes is part of the necessary cycle of rupture and repair that enables our children (and us) to learn from and grow through these mistakes. But here I’m writing about something a little different…
I’m not talking about the actions of psychopaths and paedophiles, or sadists and scientologists, but those of we ordinary, well-intentioned parents who sometimes just get it wrong.
There’s lots of advice about how to parent effectively, but it’s necessary to confront what makes us ineffective or, worse still, damaging to our children. You should have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins and you may know of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Well, here’s my small contribution – this one’s for the list lovers.
Exceeding simple jealousy, envy is the desire to ‘outdo and undo’. All parents feel it at one time or another. Comparisons are made around an infant’s milestones and behaviours (many of which have very little to do with your parenting). Your friend’s child sails through school, or through the tape, while yours labours in the rear. Your child is still not able to swim while their same-age cousin has just completed their first Midmar Mile.
Parents often feel competitive with each other – there is societal and family pressure to be the best parent and raise the best child. But envy is a destructive and spoiling emotion, detracting from our capacity to enjoy our children for who they are, not simply for their achievements. Parents who are most susceptible to envy are those who are concerned about how others may judge them, those who struggle to value themselves and those who measure success in concrete and short-term ways.
If there are any regular readers of this column, they will know that I’m no fan of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a curse and has it’s roots in a yearning for a fantasy of control, success and affirmation. One could argue for a scale of perfectionism and that on one end is a desire for excellence in one’s child, but the other end is a tortured place for children to be. A neurotic drive for your child to achieve excellence in all areas can lead a compliant child to a life of misery, with everything tainted by imperfection, while a child with a stronger personality is bound to resort to fighting or fleeing you.
The sloth or laziness I’m focusing on is not about slumping in front of the TV after work or serving hot dogs for supper (again) instead of a wholesome home-cooked meal. I completely understand how utterly exhausting life and parenting are. And I am a strong proponent of frequent naps, holidays and periods of indolence.
The type of sloth I am worried about is emotional apathy, a refusal to be actively engaged in your child’s life. In particular I think about parents who are highly successful and driven individuals, with high expectations of but low engagement with their children’s lives. To thrive, children need engaged and interested adults around them.
Early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle saw humour as a statement of superiority over others’ flaws, but current research draws attention to the correlation between humour and resilience. It seems that a child who grows up in a home filled with pleasure and play is better equipped to face the serious issues of the world. Humour also oils the wheels of verbal intercourse and allows you to address difficult issues in manageable ways. Laughter reduces stress hormones and encourages healthy feelings of connection amongs family members.
When we blame others we wrap ourselves in a cloak and insulate ourselves from being responsible. But self-blame is also a huge problem. We are both cause and effect – a poisonous state of being from which there appears to be no escape. “It’s all my fault!”; “I’ll never learn Maths – I’m too stupid!” we might hear our child say. Perhaps your child is prone to this or perhaps he’s developed these thought processes in the home.
Excessive parental guilt about all the shoulda-woulda-couldas simply paralyses parents and renders us ineffective.
The parents I find most challenging to work with are those who have a rigid insistence on how it should be done, because “That’s always how it has been done”, or “That’s what I believe to be right, no matter what other evidence there is to the contrary”.
Setting up of predictable routines and rules, while useful in the everyday structuring of a family’s life, can become problematic when these are rigidly adhered to with no room for deviation. Life involves growth, change and managing unpredictability. As parents we have to be able to go with the flow when necessary. By being adaptable, we model to our children a thoughtful approach to the way we live our lives.
A little denial is undoubtably a good thing – we need to be able to put aside some of the horrors and worries of human existence just to get through some days. But when denial extends to not acknowledging or dealing with a persistent truth, it is damaging. Whether it’s a parent’s denial of the extent of their own problematic behaviour (addicts in particular have a special gift for denial), or denial of the extent of a child’s problems, a refusal to look difficulties head-on and tackle them leads to long-term distress and damage.