Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How to be an Imperfect Parent

I am not a perfect parent nor will I ever be. Whew, that's a load off! I'm not sure exactly when I got dubbed supermom by family and friends, but it's a lot of pressure, especially when I'm so aware of my failings. Part of my problem is that my ideology doesn't always meet my reality. I lose my temper. I leave the t.v. on too long.  I've given candy as bribes. You get the picture. I want to be a good parent and I work toward my ideals. Every morning is an opportunity to evolve as a parent, but that doesn't mean I'm always right.

I know I'll never be a perfect parent, but by surrounding myself with like-minded mamas, actively soliciting parenting wisdom and constantly evaluating my parenting methods, I'm mostly proud of my parenting. One of the greatest things about having found an awesome local attachment parenting community is getting a chance to watch other moms and dads parent. I've learned so much from these amazing folks.

So rather than getting caught up in being a perfect parent, 'cause June Cleaver is so last century, I thought I would focus on how to be an imperfect one. If you are perfect, there's no room for growth. Besides kids need to see mom and dad aren't perfect. They need to watch us navigate complex emotions and difficult situations to understand how to deal with their own emotions.  So here's to our flaws and all the possibilities that come with them!

Rethink Discipline
Discipline is a problem area for most parents.  We struggle with setting boundaries, conveying consequences, and cultivating behavior.  I think most disciplinary struggles come from our own struggles with these areas.  Where do we step in?  Where is our parental boundary?  How do we parent our children with love and gentleness?  And where does discipline fit into this?  The concept of discipline is problematic in and of itself.  It literally means to gain control through obedience or by prescribing certain behavior. It is not our purpose as parents to control our children.  Our job is to guide them through modeled behavior and conference.  We need to instill in them a healthy sense of danger and respect but not through making them fearful or shaming them.  Discipline instead of being applied to our children should be practiced by us as parents.  Screaming, spanking, and shaming seek to encourage obedience through fear.  Instead as parents we should discipline our reactions to frustrating or infuriating situations.  Gentle parenting is not about letting kids get away with whatever, it is about showing children how to cope when strong emotions arise.  We do this by modeling the behavior we expect.

The other day Connected Son woke me up with the proclamation that he had built a house.  He'd ninja'ed himself out of bed next to me and as my eyes, and nose, adjusted I noticed the tinge of Louvre this Pink nail polish on his upper body and in the air,  I immediately shrieked, "What did you do?"  Five hundred horrible scenarios passed  through my mind.  I repeated this question a couple times as I grabbed my glasses and crawled away from Connected Daughter in bed.  Connected Son knew he'd done wrong.  Rushing around room to room, I discovered the bathroom sink painted the lovely pink.  He was sheepishly at my heels.  I sighed in frustration, muttered his name incredulously, and then I sat down on the toilet and explained that this wasn't what nail polish was for, to wake mommy up when he was ready to get up, and that we needed to clean up.  As I scrubbed, my frustration grew, but it was important for me to show Connected Son that messes could be cleaned up and that it wasn't worth losing my cool over.  Putting him in the corner only would have served to get him out of my way and to take my frustration out on him.  He wouldn't learn why it was a bad idea to apply a fresh top coat to the sink, he would learn to hide mistakes from me.

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop suggests that a more proactive approach to time out is to put yourself in it.   Harrop believes that sticking children in time out does little to teach them what was wrong with their behavior.  I know in my house, it only serves to elicit a bigger tantrum.  Instead, she suggests parents tell their child that mom or dad is going to have a time out so they can calm down.  This teaches the child value coping and calming skills through modeled behavior.  It shows her that she has control over her emotions and actions not her parents. 2

Get on the Same Page
It's imperative that parents discuss parenting with one another.  It's a sweet idea that two people could just always be on the same page about parenting issues, but it's unrealistic. Connected Dad and I finish each other's thoughts and often say the same thing at the same time.  That doesn't mean that he understands every parenting principle I put into action.  Likewise, time and again his insight into a particular situation has shown me a different perspective regarding the issue.   That said being on the same page is not the same thing as being on the same word.  Think of a page as containing similar ideas, stories, and thoughts.  You don't have to be at the same place in regards to parenting or agree entirely, but you need to have a good sense of your and your partner's parenting ideals.  Actively communicating with your parenting partner allows children to see the importance of communication.

Find Role Models
Often we get caught up in providing good role models for our kids and forget to provide them for ourselves.  The people around us influence our thoughts, actions, and emotions.  If we surround ourselves by negative, abusive, or careless parents, we are in danger of falling victim to similar patterns of behavior.  If we want to be more patient, thoughtful parents, it behooves us to seek parents who practice similar parenting styles.  We can learn a lot from them.  I mentioned above that joining a like-minded parenting group has really helped me.  Spending time with other AP moms and dads gives me the opportunity to discuss parenting dilemmas, get positive feedback, and observe other parents in action.  Don't have a parenting group in your community?  Start one! 

Walk in Their Shoes
It can be pretty easy to get frustrated with toddlers and small children (or teens for that matter!).  Connected Son can be equal parts kind, insane, unreasonable, and precocious.  There are days when I just want to run screaming to the grocery store for a break.  When I take a step back and rethink his actions, it's easier to give him the benefit of the doubt.  He's not asking me a zillion questions or repeating himself as part of a diabolical psychological experiment into maternal madness, he's exploring his world.  If we take time to see the curiosity and joy in our children's inquisitiveness rather than ignoring them, we get to participate in this discovery of the world!

We can apply similar practices to tantrums.  How do we feel when we are tired or hungry or bored?  Do we like being drug to a store full of things we don't use in our own lives?  Tantrums are a natural aspect of development as children learn to cope with frustrating emotions.  If we respond with anger, this merely increases frustration on both ends.  If we respond with empathy, we provide the comfort and security the child needs to develop emotionally and to move past the tantrum.

Say You're Sorry
Have you ever worked for someone that could never admit when he was wrong?  Didn't you resent that?  Parents are not above reproach!  We make mistakes and when we do it's important to admit that and apologize sincerely.  If we want our children to exhibit genuine, self-compelled remorse, we must model that behavior.   We don't respect authority figures who act above reproach, we resent them. Admitting your own faults maintains communication and trust between parent and child.

Get Down on Their Level
It's pretty easy as parents to talk down to our kids.  After all, they're a couple feet shorter than us.  So it's no surprise that if I'm admonishing Connected Son to stop something at the store or home, he doesn't pay much attention to me talking way up there.  Or he instantly jumps to getting his feelings hurt.  The reason is pretty simple, we aren't connecting.  Without face-to-face, eye level communication, it's much easier to ignore a request.  It's also easy for the attentive child to feel preached to even if it's not our intention.  Literally talking down at someone creates a power dynamic between the parties.  It places the standing or taller party over the other, establishing control.  

Instead of speaking to your child from above, try to get down and meet them eye-to-eye.  This promotes trust and respect.  It sends the message that you respect the child and what they have to say.

None of these methods will make you a perfect parent.  None of them will work 100% of the time.  They will open up the lines of communication and trust between yourself, your spouse, and your children.  We have a lot to learn as parents from each other and our children, but they are lessons well worth it.

1.  "Discipline."  Merriam-Webster Online. 22 March 2010.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline
2.  Harrop, Elizabeth Willmott.  Time Up for Time Out.  Motherhood Denied.  22 March 2010.  http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=385767094360&id=312495051421&ref=mf


Katie said... [Reply to comment]

Great post Jennifer - thanks!

Stephanie @ Confessions of a Trophy Wife said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful, thought-provoking, and informative post. I really enjoyed reading this! We are alittle ways off from discipline (my son is not quite 4 months old), but you hsve definitely given me some food for thought. Thanks!

shae said... [Reply to comment]

Loved this!

Jess said... [Reply to comment]

I love this, too. Thanks for those great reminders!

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