Sometimes we need to throw away the rule books and follow our instincts.
These days, it seems that trying to be the perfect parent is pushing people to their limits — to the extent that some parents are seriously discouraged from having a second child. They struggle with the seemingly infinite sleepless nights, finding not a moment’s peace; it just feels like too much, especially on top of all their work commitments.
The situation doesn’t get any better if the spouses don’t share the same feelings, or disagree on parenting styles. Where one parent might want to scold their child, the other might find that difficult, saying they “love their child too much” to reprimand them.
There are endless discussions on parenting forums involving moms and dads desperate for help and advice — parents who are really at the end of their rope, and verging on depression. Business is booming for psychologists specializing in children and families.
Where are you, Maria Montessori? In the past century, you helped us discover the value of recognizing the personality and interests of babies and young children, but today it seems they’ve become tyrants, and parents their bewildered, consenting subjects.
Perhaps the fault lies with the likes of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who proposed an idealized view of children as totally innocent, pure creatures, whose development shouldn’t be hindered, tainted, or restrained by unnatural limits and institutions. He taught that from infancy they should be allowed to follow their natural inclinations in their education, while their parents should mainly protect them from bad external influences.
Interestingly, Rousseau abandoned all five of his children to the state, never raising them, shortly after each was born. Perhaps he wasn’t such an expert after all.
Last January, the famous chocolate manufacturer, Kinder sponsored a study on parent-child relationships and the amount of time they spend together. The results confirmed what social networks and conversations with parents have been telling us for a while now: 93 percent of parents questioned believe that there is no greater success in life than being a good parent, but nearly half feel stressed, and 54 percent feel guilty for not being patient enough with their children. While the first statistic is good, the others show how difficult parenting can be. What does it mean, exactly, to be a good parent, and how far do we need to go to succeed?
Enough is enough
With the myriad of pedagogical manuals lining the shelves, is it any surprise that parents are beginning to doubt their own intuition? From books offering advice on boosting your child’s confidence, to effective ways of punishing your child, parents are caught up in all the reading and are forgetting to be spontaneous, and to trust in their instincts; often the books end up inspiring more anxiety than success. Many psychotherapists and child psychologists focus on positive parenting, geared towards eliminating anything that scares or shames a child. That sounds like a worthy ideal, but we need to take all these things with a grain of salt.
One mother of three elementary school children, Lola, had enough of the dictates of “positive education.” She’d really tried to do everything properly, but unrealistic expectations inspired in the method brought her to a breaking point. One day, the pressure of holding back from scolding her child at the table was too much and she surprised herself by throwing a glass of water in her son’s face, and then collapsing in tears. Today, she looks back on this event as lifesaving: “I was no longer myself; I wanted to conform to a model. Today I trust my instincts more, and although I may have gone back to shouting sometimes, I also spend more time having fun moments with my kids.”
Being affirming, but not lax
Despite our desire to do things properly and take all the expert advice, our best efforts can still sometimes end in unexpected and undesired ways, especially when advice is taken to an extreme or is misinterpreted. Encouraging children to explore should not be taken as an invitation to let your child run amok.
When Maria Montessori designed her method, she didn’t advocate leaving children to experiment with anything they wanted. She developed a specific framework for learning, in which children are accompanied by an adult who doesn’t simply leave them to their own devices to discover things by themselves. Rather, the method teaches children to carry out actions that have been carefully thought out, down to the smallest detail, for the child’s physical and intellectual development. Clear rules and boundaries give children a sense of security, just like traffic codes for automobile users.
It’s important to remember that, while we need to have a healthy respect for children’s interests and self-determination, they need guidance and discipline. It’s true that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of authoritarianism at times, but we need to avoid it swinging too far in the opposite direction, too. Sometimes, the “cutting edge” of psychology is overzealous in pruning aspects of traditional child-raising methods.
Any kind of parenting requires confidence on the part of the mother and father. Remember: you are the adult. You are the one in charge, not your child. Listen to the experts, get advice as needed, respect your child, learn from your mistakes (and from those of your own parents), but don’t be afraid to make decisions, and to be yourself, with your own parenting style. Imposing certain rules — such as table manners and reasonable bedtimes — provides the necessary framework for your children to be happy, healthy, and prepared to live in society.
You will make mistakes — every parent does! — but it’s not the end of the world. We need to remember that perfectionism is the enemy of progress. Your parents made mistakes, and you lived to tell the story, right?
Take care of yourself
The paradox of being a parent is that when you don’t have enough time for yourself, that’s actually when you most need it. Being a dedicated parent doesn’t mean giving up everything else you enjoy. Coordinate childcare duties with your spouse to give each other time to relax and do things you love, like participating in a choir, going to the gym, going to the movies, or having a women’s- or guys’-night-out. If you don’t have a life because you’re spending all your time ferrying your kids from one activity to another, don’t forget you can try to coordinate with other moms or dads, or responsible driving-age teens, to carpool and to give each other time to breathe. You can’t take care of your family if your over-stressed body falls ill.
Also, don’t think you always have to do everything for everybody. While it’s good for the family to have a meal together each day, that doesn’t mean the mother or father always has to be Julia Child; leftovers and microwave ovens exist for a reason. Your house doesn’t need to look like something from Better Homes and Gardens 24/7, either. If you can manage that, great! But don’t forget that saying about perfectionism.
So, if you feel at the end of your tether as a parent, exhausted by emotional fatigue, worn down by the crying of your baby, or overwhelmed by the growing mess and constant noise, remember: you are allowed to be imperfect. Don’t hesitate to set limits, to delegate, to ask for help, to find time for yourself, and to be yourself.