By Dr. Noel Swanson
We all know what a bad parent looks like: intolerant, constantly critical, more interested in their own affairs (in both senses of the word) than in the needs of their children. But what does it take to be a good parent? What does it take to give your children the very best start to life that you possibly can?In the 1960′s John Bowlby did a lot of work looking into the effects of parenting on children. In those days he coined the term “good-enough parenting”. His thesis was that provided you avoided the sins of “bad” parenting, you were doing okay, and your children, with their own natural resilience, would also do okay.
So is that all there is to it? Or are there things that you, as a parent, can do to be more than just a “good enough” parent. Can you, indeed, be a “super parent”, even the “ultimate” parent? Or is that just a myth of the feminist movement?
Well, let’s get one thing straight once and for all: No one is perfect. Try as you might, you will never be a “perfect” parent. You will never get it right every moment of every day for every year of your children’s growing lives. Nor do you need to. In that sense, Bowlby’s concept of “good enough” is very true. You do not need to be perfect. Your kids WILL survive. “Good enough” is good enough
But, I suspect that you probably want more for your kids than just average. I strongly believe that there are things you can do, and attitudes you can adopt, that will give your children the very best start to life they could possibly have. And, at the same time, will actually make life easier and more fulfilling for yourself too. It is not a long list, but if you can manage the following, then I believe you have every right to call yourself the “ultimate” parent:
1) Recognise you are human. You cannot do everything, you cannot be everywhere, you cannot know everything. You will make mistakes. You also have your own issues, problems and hang-ups from your own past. That is all okay. The key to this game is not being perfect, but having the right attitude.
What is the right attitude? Being humble. Recognising that you have much to learn (we all do) and being willing to be teachable and to learn from your mistakes. A sign of genuine maturity is being able to look back at your past, recognise the mistakes you made, and say “this is what I have learnt about myself, and what I need to work on changing in myself”.
But there is a flip side to this. Constantly putting yourself down with an “I’m no good” attitude is just as bad as the “I have nothing to learn” attitude. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Celebrate your successes. Look back to the past only long enough to learn from it, then set your sights forward, and press on in the directions YOU want to go. If you have any serious issues from the past, be brave enough to seek help and get over them.
2) Recognise you are playing a percentage game. We have all heard of them: the kids from the most abusive, deprived backgrounds who somehow manage to make huge successes of themselves. And the kids from the very best of families (as demonstrated by their siblings) who somehow go off the rails into drugs and crime.
The reality is that you, the parent, are only one factor in your children’s upbringing. They are also subject to influence from the friends, other relatives, teachers, shop keepers, TV, magazines and, of course, their own genetic makeup.
You cannot control all the variables. You might be the very best, the ultimate parent, and yet your kids turn out as failures. You might be the very worst, alcoholic and abusive parent, and yet your kids do fine. Nothing in life is guaranteed.
So you play the percentages. You know that if you beat your kids, they are more likely to turn out bad than good. So, on average, beating your kids is probably not a good idea. Using fair and consistent discipline probably produces better odds for a successful outcome – so do that instead.
You success as a parent is NOT determined by how well your children turn out. It IS determined by whether you did all you reasonably could to do the right things and make the right decisions for them, WITH THE KNOWLEDGE YOU HAD AT THE TIME. Maybe those decisions turn out to be the wrong ones. So be it. That does not mean you failed as a parent. But, if you were too lazy to get the facts, if you just took the easiest decision without thinking about the impact on your children, then, I believe, you have failed – even if it turns out that the decision was the right one!
3) Recognise your children are not the only things in your life. In this day and age we seem to be obsessed with the idea that the interests of the children come first, before anything else. I strongly disagree with that concept. Yes, me must consider the best interests of the child, but there are other things to consider too.
It may be, for instance, that taking a new job in a different city might be the best thing for your family – even if it means taking your child away from his school and friends.
By putting children first in everything we run the danger of creating a selfish, “me first” generation where they grow up believing that the world owes them a living. Sometimes children have to take second place – and that in itself is an important lesson about life. Yes, before making any decision consider its impact on the children. But, in the end, make up your own mind as to what would be best for the family as a whole.
4) Look to the long term. Raising children is a long drawn-out process. Have your long-term goals in mind. How do you want them to turn out as adults? What qualities and skills do they need to learn? What experiences do they need, along the way, to learn those skills and character traits?
Many times as parents we are faced with the choice of taking an easy, short-term quick fix, or a harder approach that will bear much more fruit in the long term. The TV is such a classic example of this. How easy is it, when the kids are playing up, to just switch on the TV as the electronic babysitter? A quick fix for the immediate hassle or rowdy kids. But how much better, in the long run, to spend a bit of time teaching them how to build a model, or sew a soft toy, or put together a jigsaw?
Call me a Luddite, if you will, but if you really want to be the ultimate parent I believe the very best thing you could do would be to sell the TV! Go out to the cinema as a family, instead. Or go around to your friends or relatives to watch a movie together as an “event”. But don’t just have the TV on for hours every day.
Why? Because of the old saying “garbage in, garbage out”. Is the stuff on TV really what you want your kids to be absorbing and learning? Do you really want them to depend on passive entertainment? Is it not better that they learn how to entertain themselves?
4) Look for the positives. Like you, your children will make mistakes. Forgive them. Correct them gently and move on. Always be looking for what they did right, not what they did wrong. Children crave their parents’ attention. Pay attention to what they do wrong, and they will do more of it. Pay attention to what they do right, and they will be eager to please your more.
Besides, it is just so much more fun to be in reward mode than punishment mode.
Finding yourself stuck in punishment mode? Then go back to Key 1, recognise you need to change something, and have the humility to go and get a good book, or seek help, so that you can find the way out.
5) Stick to your guns. Believe in yourself. If you are doing all the above, then you are well on the right track. There will be times when you make decisions and you get challenged on them, either by your children, or by others (such as interfering relatives). Unless there genuinely are new facts that you weren’t aware of before, don’t be swayed. And don’t be afraid to say no – to your children and your relatives – if that is the right thing to say.
Sure, your decision may turn out to be a bad one. That happens. Hindsight is 20-20. But far better to stick to your decision, than to be a plastic bag blowing about in the breeze. You children are watching you; watching how you deal with life, how you make decisions, how you cope with adversity, how you believe in yourself and stand up for yourself and your family. Be a good example for them.
Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.