Tag Archives: parenting advice

Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Parenting

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.

1. Envyenvy

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.poison-envy-POSTER-SM

2. Perfectionism

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 Perfectionist's Guide to Results (Lo)

3. Sloth

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 passiveparentsyour 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.

4. Joylessness

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.

5. Self-blame

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.

6. Rigidity

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”.

Keep calm and ignore Gina fordOne size doesn’t fit all when it comes to raising children. Effective parents are able to assess the needs of each individual child and try to respond appropriately.

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.

7. Denial

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.

Who needs a tiger for a mom?

tiger_momThe book was published on January 11th 2011. And within three weeks its ideas have spread across the world and colonised the debate about how to be a good parent. I can’t remember any other book generating so much polarised and vigorous debate about parenting, so quickly, as has Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A combination of clever marketing, slow news days and the power of the internet has fuelled the controversy ignited by the release of her entertaining, repetitive and sometimes horrifying memoir.

To give you an idea, here are some extracts from the book: “… an A-minus is a bad grade … you must never compliment your child in public …… the only activities your child should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal … and that medal must be gold.” 

Further rhetorical flourishes include Chua dragging her “screaming demon” of a 3-year old child into the freezing cold, calling her children “pathetic” and “garbage” and “fat” and threatening her child that if she doesn’t play the piano perfectly, “I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”

If you do a search on Amy Chua’s name, you will get more than 4 and a half million hits. Her book is a bestseller on Amazon already. Chua has pushed people’s buttons across the world, arousing insecurities and torrents of anger. She has entered the collective Google consciousness. Somewhere in the world right now, you will probably hear a parent somewhere saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll get Amy Chua to adopt you.”

I have just read the book and a great deal of the commentary, admiring, bemused or out- and-out hostile. The book clearly strikes a chord, positive and negative, with readers, but on close reading I was struck by how shallow Chua’s rationalisations for her behaviour are. Her arguments are not based on any coherent, scientific theory of healthy child development.  The psychologist in me diagnosed her as a brittle narcissist with unresolved performance anxiety. She clearly has a high IQ, but scores really poorly on any measure of emotional intelligence. The parent in me secretly worried I was really a yappy, growly small terrier mom, or even worse, a spineless jellyfish mommy. And the small child in me wanted to run screaming away from Amy Chua and her relentlessly Machiavellian mothering. For her the end (acceptance into an Ivy League University) justifies her extreme, mean, means.

Chua insists that her book is not a parenting guide but a memoir. Nevertheless there is plenty of advice and commentary on parenting styles. She distinguishes between the ‘Chinese’ parent’ and the ‘Western’ parent: the first believes that her child must be denied play dates, sleepovers, acting in school plays or watching TV, and no grade less that an A must be tolerated; in the second model children are coddled into mediocrity, protected from hurt feelings and praised for trying hard when they get a D for Maths. Where Western parents are pleased if their child practises the piano for an hour, Chua reckons that a Chinese mother thinks the first hour is easy, two and three being the tough ones. Much emphasis is placed on drilling and repetition until ‘perfection’ is achieved.

Many commentators have noted that her book plays into Western fears of the Asian giant and that billions of children raised by Tiger moms are going to overwhelm poorly disciplined, semi-skilled American offspring. Taking excerpts from the book at face value makes fairly alarming reading for anyone who is sensitive to the issue of emotional and psychological abuse of children.

Chua does acknowledge that her ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ parenting models are just generalisations for the purpose of argument. She also admits her own parenting difficulties, framing her conflict with her daughters (raised in America and with a Jewish father) as a “bitter clash of cultures”. She also admits to feeling “humbled by a 13-year old”.

As interesting as her ideas are, so are many readers’ and commentators’ responses. One called her a “stuffed animal arsonist”, while others point out the horrible pressures of perfectionism and the high suicide rates of Chinese American teens compared to other groups. A mother I know, who has a high achieving 18-year old daughter (9 A’s for Matric, captain of the netball team and all round good kid) and a 4-year old autistic son, commented to me that she wondered what the Tiger Mother would do with a disabled cub. Eat it?

Chua’s thesis, as you can probably see, renders the complex task of parenting into a completely false dichotomy. It’s sensible to dispense with unhelpful stereotypes like ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ and refer instead to the continuum of parenting styles from authoritarian to permissive.  Both extremes are high risk strategies – they may work for some children, but when they go wrong, the results can be disastrous.

The problem with adopting an extreme parenting style is that you have a limited repertoire of responses. You are not necessarily able to respond to a particular child, in a specific context in an appropriate manner. Psychologists emphasise the importance of being empathically attuned to children from infancy onwards. Understanding what your child needs emotionally, being able to separate out your own issues from those of your child and being able to see things from your child’s perspective, are all components of mature parenting. As are setting boundaries, saying no, making difficult decisions on behalf of your children and being prepared to be hated sometimes.

In her book on maternal ambivalence, Torn in Two, British psychotherapist Rozsika Parker definestorn in two ambivalence in relationships as having co-existing contradictory feelings about the same person. Powerful loving and hating feelings that parents feel towards their children are an intense manifestation of this phenomenon. This ambivalence is normal and inevitable. The loving feelings are easy to accept as they are the ones we are “supposed” to have towards our children, but the angry, resentful feelings, while just as common, are much more difficult to face up to. 

When parents have a predominance of negative feelings this is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But when we have those negative feelings in the context of love, the ambivalence we feel is manageable and bearable. The ability to acknowledge, think about and deal with our negative feelings and impulses is an important skill that minimizes the chance that we will act out these feelings in a destructive way. Parents also need to tolerate their children’s ambivalent feelings towards them. Very few parents I know have not heard their children say some variant of “you’re so unfair, I hate you, you’re the worst parent in the whole world”. Especially when you’ve made them finish their homework or grounded them or not bought them something they’ve nagged for.

You won’t see much evidence of ambivalence in Amy Chua’s book, nor in some of her respondent’s views. In the cover article about Chua in Time magazine this week, Annie Murphy Paul comments that “more than anything, it’s Chua’s maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words.” It is this absolute lack of ambivalence that I think is a problem, for in fact tolerating mixed feelings is not weakness or indecision; it is the ability to acknowledge difference, to allow for flexibility and change, and to consider alternatives. It is the denial of ambivalence that is the problem.

Authoritarian parents like Amy Chua are afraid of losing control, terrified that their children might descend into mediocrity. To prevent this, they expect their children to adapt to them. On the other hand, permissive parents adapt themselves completely to the child. They are so afraid of evoking negative emotions that they give control over the child’s whims, always meeting their child’s wants rather than their child’s needs.

Finally, this book made me think about what these debates mean for parents in South Africa. In our context I believe that Chua’s ideas are deeply problematic. Our history of militarism, apartheid, forced removals and the deliberate erosion of family and community bonds, is the worst foundation for a harsh, unempathic and emotionally abusive style of parenting. Similarly, to raise children in a permissive, laissez faire way, in a country that flirts with lawlessness and violence, exacerbated by communities with poor attachment and absent adult figures, is like throwing a giant firecracker into a dynamite factory.

South Africa needs another model of parenting. The great psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, spoke of this balanced approach when he coined the term the ‘good-enough’ parent. Good-enough parents accept the many benefits of ‘Chinese’ parenting, such as persistence and repetition, whether it be practising mathematical equations or grooving a backhand stroke in tennis. But they also see the many cognitive and emotional benefits of releasing their child into the world of sleepovers, play dates and occasional academic failure. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that complex childhood tasks such as balancing your needs with those of a group of friends, or learning to read the feelings of others, are crucial to success as an adult.

Above all, good-enough parents are able to tolerate mistakes, learn from them and understand that there are many ways to be a parent. Good-enough South African parents and ordinary South African children can breathe a sigh of relief that tigers are not really at home here.

Feeling Guilty?

There is so much for us to feel guilty about. 

I feel guilty that I had a glass of champagne on that New Year’s Eve before I knew I was pregnant. I feel guilty that I got impatient (really ugly-impatient, not just mildly irritable, more along the spectrum to dementedly pre-murderous) with my infant child when he wouldn’t sleep or feed according to whichever baby expert’s scheduling system I had just read or been told about.

I feel guilty that I couldn’t simply be that relaxed, serene mother you see in adverts, with her child calm and chilling in an ergodynamically designed body sling

At least I am not alone.

Mothers I see in my practice tell me they feel guilty about about what they ate during pregnancy, how they fed their baby with bottle or breast, where their baby slept or not, whether they did sleep training or not, which discipline strategies or lack of strategies they used, or how they delivered their baby – a Caesarean section that medically speaking may not have been strictly necessary, or not. 

Recently I bumped into an old friend and we chatted about sun block and how hard it is to get your children to put it on every day, not to mention trusting they will reapply it later in the day for sport when you’re not there. 

She said what I had been feeling, but it felt too heretical to say: “I feel relieved that the recent fuss in our press showed how inaccurately sunblocks are labelled and how some of them don’t really make much difference. It cured some of my guilt about being a sloppy mother straight away.”

 I regret I’ve been a grumpy mom, a tired mom, an intrusive mom, a clingy, anxious mom. I even feel guilty about feeling guilty because, as I tell my clients, guilt that is undeserved can be self-indulgent and even destructive.

 But there is at least a place guilty people can go to pretend they’re being productive while actually just maintaining a proud personal tradition of work avoidance and procrastination. I’m sure you’ve been there many times yourself – the internet.

And it was there that I came across a short blog on the Huffington Post website by a man called Dr Kris Jamsa, titled Learning and Development Starts at Age Zero.

 “From the moment of conception,” he says, “a child’s wellbeing and development is dependent upon the mother’s actions and behaviors.” No pressure, then.

He goes on to say that between birth and the first year of formal schooling a child’s future success largely depends on the mother’s ability to inculcate 400 child-development skills in the child.

Now Dr Jamsa has written “over 110 books on computing and education“ and I am still struggling to get my first book written. He has an impressive six college degrees,  I on the other hand only need one or two to have decided that this kind of advice should be strongly resisted. Parenthood is hard enough without experts (and yes, I’m one of them) turning parenting into mission impossible. 

Dr Jamsa emphasises the importance of teaching mothers to improve their child’s early learning development, and of course I agree with him. Parents need to engage with and interact with their babies, hold their babies, talk with them and play with them and yes, also give them space just to be. And certainly this is vital in developing countries and is something that parents should take extremely seriously.

But what I take issue with is his all-or-nothing tone in sweeping statements like “Every action a mother takes (or fails to take) with respect to developing her child’s learning skills, directly affect the child’s ability to succeed in the future.”

It’s this kind of prescriptive comment, with it’s erroneous implication that there is no room at all for mistakes or lapses by mothers in particular (he interestingly makes no mention at all of fathers in his short piece) which is monumentally unhelpful to us mothers (and fathers.)

As an aside it also reads to me like an unconscious extension of the mother blaming of the past – remember the “schizophrenogenic mothers who where thought to have induce schizophrenia in their children, or the “refrigerator mothers” who were blamed for making their children autistic? Both guilt-inducing theories that have been thoroughly disproved and discredited.

My thinking is that you need not be concerned about the single wasted learning opportunity that may make the difference between your daughter being a high school drop-out or Nobel prize winning economist.

Child development and learning, like parenting, is a process that necessarily and inevitably involves making mistakes, getting it wrong and failing. Ordinary, good-enough parents help their children deal with these mistakes and failures and through these experiences we all learn that we can learn, that we are adaptable, resilient and can tolerate frustration and delay gratification.

While we should feel less guilt, we really do still need to keep on applying that sunblock.