I have studied parenting on five continents for close to four decades. I’m also a mom — the mom of two sons, one of them who is very sick. I know what it is to beat yourself up about not being a perfect parent.
But too many parents beat themselves because they are trying to meet two entirely different, incompatible, and unrealistic standards.
Most parents – and I’m going to focus on mothers here, because the issues for dads are different – compare themselves to two different and incompatible standards.
- Full-time homemaker: In the fantasy depiction of a time when many more women stayed home with children and did not work outside the home, mothers were always available to their children. The house was perfect, meals great, and they run a huge infrastructure of volunteer work.
- Quality time: When more women worked outside the home, many families focused on “quality time.” Rather than the quantity of time mothers were available to their children as full-time homemakers, families would focus on shorter spans of focused family time — watching movies together, playing games, or other child-centered activities.
For those of us with kids who live with persistent pain, there’s also the role of perfect protector, nurse, and advocate.
Lots of moms beat themselves up because it’s impossible to do three full time jobs at the same time – homemaking, caregiving, and play companion. Oh, and most of us ALSO work outside the home.
No one ever did that. Full time homemakers didn’t usually play with their kids – that’s why kids were free roaming and played with each other. Quality time was SHORT DURATION because you can’t have that kind of focus all of the time.
Doing what’s most important
All parents are busy. But parents of kids with special needs are REALLY busy. There’s the caregiving. There’s all the reading and research. There were times when my son was at his sickest that I spent four or five hours a day learning about his condition. There’s the advocacy and doctors appointments. And there’s the work they’d normally do that they’re not – chores undone, dishwashers unemptied, and laundry left in hampers.
So just as people with persistent pain have to focus on doing what’s important first, so do we. Fortunately, there’s consensus in the literature on parenting.
- Unconditional love. Since we started studying parenting — over 100 years — the single most important factor in positive child outcomes is unconditional love. Children need to know that no matter what happens, they can trust us to have their back. To love them no matter what. To try to keep them safe. We need to be what attachment researchers call “safe havens.” Places they can retreat to when they are scared or stressed or tired from their explorations and adventures.
- Predictability. Children thrive on predictability. There is a reason Mr. Rogers and Barney are loved by children: We always know what they will do (and they exemplify unconditional love). It is easier for children to weather stressful, tumultuous, and scary times — like this last year — when they know they can count on you. This isn’t just rituals like eating meals together at the same time each day. More importantly, it’s your emotional predictability. Do they know how you’ll react when they make a mistake? Or do well? Or do you make them anxious because sometimes you’ll praise them effusively, sometimes you explode and sometimes you ignore them for exactly the same behavior. Knowing what to expect takes worry out of kids’ lives.
- Expect their best. Children thrive when they are encouraged and expected to do their best. Taking responsibility for doing chores shows them they are needed. Praising good behavior and telling them to cut it out when they are behaving badly tells them that you notice what they’re doing and that you care what they’re doing. We once did a study where we interviewed over 100 teens, many of whom were involved in fairly heavy drinking and substance use. When we asked them what their parents would think about it, many said “they wouldn’t care.” They didn’t just mean they wouldn’t be punished if their parents found out. They meant that their parents did not care enough about them to be upset. Setting reasonable, high expectations is one way that parents show their love.
Children grow into healthy, happy adults all over the world in many different conditions. It’s a fascinating area of study. But these three things — unconditional love, predictable routines, and high expectations — seem to be pretty universal. Focus on those.
And be kind to yourself. You’re doing your best.
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