If anyone tells you their parents were perfect in every way, they are either terribly mistaken, lying, or their parents were angels in disguise. No parent is perfect. I’m not. You are not. The parents of our various cultural heroes weren’t either. Sometimes even the experts on parenting make a mess of things with their own kids.
Being imperfect comes with the job — especially if you are brand new at it. The first time you have a child of any age, you and your child are both figuring it out. The child is figuring out how to be whatever age she is. You are figuring out how to be a mother or father of a child that age. You really are stuck figuring it out together.
If your own parents weren’t particularly good role models for parenting, the primary lessons you will draw from them are in the category of what not to do. Hopefully, if you look for it, you’ll also find some strengths in even those flawed people. Maybe not. But do allow for the possibility that as an adult you will see some plusses in their parenting that you didn’t understand as a child or teen.
Even adults who had really, really good parents are flying by the seat of their pants. Parents these days are dealing with technologies, a political environment, cultural and environmental challenges, and social pressures that their parents didn’t need to manage. The world has always had dangers, but social media and the rapid news cycle now bring the potential for violence into every home and school. Your parents had no way to model what you should do in such a state of things.
Bottom line? Most parents, most of the time, are doing their best to keep their children healthy, happy, and safe. All of us are making it up as we go along.
So let’s let go of myths about parenting that can make parents miserable.
1. I have to raise perfect children.
Give that one up right away. If that’s your standard for your parenting, you will definitely fail. The first step to giving yourself a break (and to taking tension out of your household) is to admit that it is impossible. Your kids are complicated people who will, yes, respond to your parenting, but who will also respond to their peers, the social context, and whatever life throws at them. Since they are human, they will be imperfect.
2. Someone is doing a better job than I am.
It’s probably true but it doesn’t matter — as long as you are making a good effort at it. It’s more likely that people are parenting differently than you are, not that they are “better”. Parents have different priorities, different values, different cultural expectations, and different resources.
3. Someone out there knows how it “should” be done.
Although there is good data about what is harmful to kids (like spanking, for example), researchers haven’t yet found the ideal way to raise kids. Why? Because raising kids is one of the most complicated things you will ever do. It can’t be reduced to a “cookbook” recipe. The only hard and fast rule for parenting well is to love your kids and keep them safe. After that, the details depend on our priorities, values, cultural expectations and resources (see #2).
4. I will do better than my parents
If a parent was abusive, addicted, mentally ill and untreated, or clueless, you will do your best to be a better parent. Certainly you will try hard to not make the same mistakes. But chances are you will make some mistakes of your own. I assure you, your children will be happy to tell you about it when they are young adults.
5. Children are scarred for life by the mistakes of their parents
It depends on the mistake. Kids who grow up with abusive or abandoning parents often have serious issues to sort through in order to become the adults they want to be. But if we’re talking about garden variety, well-intended parents, the kids will be all right. Losing your temper or spoiling them once in a while won’t damage them irrevocably when it’s in the context of love and generally good judgment. Not letting them do something they really, really want to do won’t either. Let’s face it: Your parents probably bungled it a number of times along the way and you’re doing okay.
6. It’s my job to teach them everything they need to know to be good adults.
It’s impossible. Chances are your kids are going to need skills we haven’t even heard of yet. As long as you nurture them and help them develop self-confidence in their ability to deal with problems, life will do the rest. Consider yourself: I guarantee you learned as much or more from your experiences in life as you learned from your parents.
7. I have to be good, right and perfect all the time to be a good enough parent.
No you don’t. Besides loving them, the most important thing is to be humble about being human. Do the best you can. Model the willingness to admit mistakes and/or change your mind when you get new information. Be willing to discard damaging ideas you learned as a kid and to adopt better ways of doing things from people you admire. You and your kids will muddle through their childhoods together.