We do not raise children to go out into the world and be perfect and build perfect relationships with perfect people. That would be impossible. We raise children to be good enough to build good enough relationships with other good enough people. Therefore, good parents are, by definition, not perfect. It’s our imperfections — deftly handled — that will help our children to grow up and handle other people’s imperfections with compassion, understanding and good boundaries.
With that in mind, these are some of the pervading myths of good parents.
Myth: Good Parents Don’t Get Angry.
Actually good parents do get angry. Sometimes they even yell and stomp around. But good parents work hard to manage their anger appropriately, apologize when they handle it inappropriately and work to get help if their anger feels out of control or truly scary. Good parents need to know that their children are going to deal with people who get angry (otherwise known as: everybody) for their entire lives. They also know that their children are learning how to handle their own anger so they learn to see the everyday challenges of living as learning opportunities for all of us.
Myth: Good Parents Always Enjoy Their Kids.
No. they don’t because the children of good parents are not always enjoyable. ‘Nuff said.
Myth: Good Parents Have it All Figured Out.
Actually good parents get that this parenting thing is a process and it’s changing all the dang time as kids move from one developmental stage to another. Good parents may feel great about parenting a 3-year old and absolutely lousy about parenting a 13-year old or vice versa because those are totally different kinds of parenting, which take a totally different skill set. Good parents get help (books, friends, therapists) when they feel stuck and most good parents will eventually feel stuck because parenting is hard.
Myth: Good Parents are Fair.
Nope, good parents try to be just but they are not always strictly fair. That might mean different bedtimes, different chore expectations or different privileges for different kids. Sure, sometimes good parents take the easy way out and just buy everyone the same pack of gum — no arguing! — and other times they wearily wade into explaining yet again that just because your sister gets to go to a birthday party doesn’t mean that you get to go to Kroger’s to pick out a cupcake. Good parents learn to withstand tears and sorrow with sympathy but without giving in. Sometimes they don’t because, remember, good parents are imperfect.
Myth: Good Parents are Patient.
In fact, sometimes good parents are patient and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes good parents don’t have the energy to be patient or they’re having bad days. Good parents learn to bring this experience to build empathy with their own impatient kids.
Myth: Good Parents Have Clean Houses, Lots of Home-Cooked Meals and Amazing Holiday Traditions.
Ummm, sometimes? Sometimes not. Good parents do some things really well and other things not so great. Good parents may be terrific softball coaches with filthy kitchens. Good parents may know how to make a mean pot roast but can’t make cookies to save their lives. Good parents don’t always remember to buy pumpkins in time for Halloween or advent calendars in time for Christmas. Good parents don’t always have money for the tooth fairy. Good parents sometimes don’t notice their kids have grown out of their tennis shoes until they notice them limping across the playground. Good parents forget to pack the diaper bag.
Myth: Good Parents are Confident.
Sure, sometimes good parents look at a parenting challenge and say smugly to themselves, “Yeah, I got this.” But lots of other times good parents lie in their beds wondering if that decision they made about homework or screen time or dessert was the right one after all. They work hard to model the great grand work of self improvement, understanding and relationships. They live complex lives that sometimes create challenges they hoped their children would never have to face — divorce or death or depression. They struggle and worry and fret. They move forward because they have to, not always because they’re sure.
Myth: Good Parents are Consistent.
This is one of the things every parenting book says: Be Consistent. And it’s true that consistency will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. If you always say no to the candy aisle in the grocery check out line your kid won’t necessarily stop asking (or whining) but they’ll learn that when you say no, you mean it, which will come in handy when they’re teenagers. But sometimes the candy seems like a good idea because you’ve got such a headache that you’ll say yes to anything to get them to shut up. Good parents sometimes make short term decisions just to cope because life is like that.
Myth: Good Parents are Born, Not Made.
No way. Most of us have to work hard — ongoing — to be good parents just like we have to work on our skills to do anything else well (play tennis, bake yeast breads, create killer TED-inspired presentations, etc.). Good parents sometimes get tired of all of the self-growth and effort that being a good parent takes, particularly when they look at the 2-year old wailing on the floor or contemplate the disaster-area of an 11-year old’s room or note that the 16-year old is missing curfew. Then those good parents reach out to friends for a night out or call a therapist for help or reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen again. Sheesh, says the good parent to herself, when am I gonna get it? But the good parent keeps trying.
Do you want support in the hard work of parenting? Contact me. I’m a big fan of helping parents (and the kids who love them).
Both in my office and in my real life (the one where I’m not wearing my therapist hat) I am meeting more and more kids and teens who identify as transgender, gender variant or gender queer. And I am also talking to more and more worried parents who are trying to make sense of this. They want to know, how do I support my child? Is this a real thing or just a phase? What do I do next?
First let’s talk some about the language. It’s important to know that the language around gender identity issues is changing quickly and language that one person uses may be offensive to another person. I am using the language suggested in this infographic created by the TSER (Trans Student Education Resources). Their organization defines transgender as an umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity is different than the gender assigned to them at birth. This would include a child designated “boy” at birth who identifies as a girl as well as a child designated “boy” at birth that does not identify as any gender (agender) or whose gender identity varies (often referred to as gender variant or gender queer).
Gender is culturally defined. What it means to be a boy or to be a girl depends on where, when and how you live. In India, straight men hold hands. Here in the states, not so much. So something that we know to be “true” about masculinity — that straight men do not hold hands with each other — is not actually true; it’s a gender performance that differs depending on one’s cultural surroundings.
Our gender performance is just that — performance. We are taught gender norms before birth (is it a girl or a boy?) and within the context of those teachings we learn how to perform gender. We learn who wears make up and who cooks dinner and who shaves their legs and who is loud or quiet and who is allowed to take up the most room on the subway.
Discussing gender performance can be challenging for people who believe that girls are naturally this way and boys are naturally that way. Many of us also have experience that tells us that boys really are louder or dirtier or rougher than their sisters. I would argue that whether or not we can prove this is unimportant. We can acknowledge the rough and tumble 5-year old boy in front of us, seeing the truth of his expression and we can also know that “boys will be boys” is a cultural norm that can be freeing (for the boy who wants to be rough and tumble) or stultifying (for the boy who does not). We can recognize both the personal experience and the cultural construct that surrounds it.
To be clear, understanding cultural norms around gender doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that people we’ve identified as boys and girls may be different; it means acknowledging that how we understand, code and define these identities and these differences is complicated and dependent on social values and mores.
Children generally become aware of gender roles between two and four. When I taught preschool I had short hair and many of the kids in my care would ask me if I was a boy because of it. Children who are trans may start speaking up around now — Johnny declares he is a girl. Louisa declares she is a boy. Some of this may be about trying on gender roles, for example some kids realize that the opposite gender has access to gender performance that they want, like a boy who wants to be Cinderella or a girl who wants to be G.I. Joe. This may not indicate that they are transgender; lots of little kids figure things out by trying on different identities.
These conversations tend to come up again in the tween and teen years. As kids become more aware of the demands and expectations of gender performance — particularly as they head into their teens and adulthood — they may question them or feel critical of them. Children who are transgender and who are likely going to live out their lives under that umbrella have a “consistent, insistent, and persistent” identity with a gender that was not assigned to them at birth. This means the child identified as a boy at birth will always know she was meant to be a girl or the child identified as girl at birth will always know they are gender queer.
So what about the child who does not show consistence, insistence and persistence? What about the child identified at birth as a girl who wore tutus all through preschool, dresses all through early elementary and who now only shops at the boy department and insists that you call them Jack? Is that just a phase? Should the parents be alarmed?
Let me be clear that this blog post is meant to support all three — the transgender child, the gender variant child and the child who ultimately will align as cisgender but who is exploring. There’s something happening — I call it the Tumblrfication of this generation — where our kids are having more complicated and more nuanced discussions about gender than their parents’ generation (i.e., us) could ever hope to have.
Let’s go back to Jack, the child identified as a girl at birth who announces he is a gay boy (i.e., a boy who likes other boys). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a girl? Or a tomboy?
Or Jack says he is a straight boy (i.e., a boy who likes girls). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a lesbian?
Here’s the thing, Jack gets to decide who Jack is. And who Jack is may change. Jack may go back to be Jeannie. Jack may even go back to Jeannie and marry a man and live out life ostensibly as a straight woman some day. But what does that mean for Jack right this minute, 13-years old and standing in front of you in skinny jeans and a beanie and a buzzcut?
It means right now, right this minute, Jack is Jack.
There’s a great podcast about asexuality that you can find here. Asexuality is just what it sounds like — it’s people whose sexual orientation is to not be sexual. (Learn more about it here or listen to the podcast.) In the podcast there’s a part where the interviewer asks (and I’m going to paraphrase here because I don’t have time to boot up the podcast and find it), so what happens to your identity if you do become sexual? What if you meet someone and realize you want to be sexual with them? And the interviewee says, basically, Who I may become does not negate who I am now.
For parents, this is an important message. Who our child is right this very minute is what matters. Helping them make sense of it and supporting them as they forge their identity is our job. We can’t look into a crystal ball and know if Jeannie will stay Jack or become Jeannie again. We might make educated guesses (again, consistence, insistence and persistence are our guides here) but how incredibly disrespectful to Jack’s journey to insist we know him better than he knows himself.
For one, we might be unaware of Jack’s consistence because we shut down his insistence. Perhaps Jack knew early on but realized the first time he said, “I’m a boy” at three that this wasn’t going to fly. Maybe Jack’s coming out now is part of a long persistent journey.
Or maybe Jack didn’t have the language to explain what they meant. Perhaps Jack didn’t know how to display their gender variance, to say they didn’t feel like a boy OR a girl or felt like both a boy AND a girl.
Or maybe Jack is playing with gender, unpacking gender. Perhaps Jack is exploring the cultural performance and will come back to her identity as Jeannie with a new understanding of who she is and who she can be. And this is just as valid an experience even if it seems “temporary” when her identity eventually aligns back with her gender assigned with birth.
I see all kinds of experiences in my office but I guarantee that the number of non-binary kids I see — and that other counselors are seeing — have increased in this generation. This is the part that I call the Tumblrfication because yes, there are kids who would never identify as trans in any way, shape, or form in another time and place who are identifying now because they’ve read about it on Tumblr or saw it on Mtv or have friends who are genderqueer. Instead of calling it a phase or being dismissive, I think we need to recognize this as the cultural change that it is. Kids today (not all but many) are willing to dialogue with and about gender in ways that are not familiar to those of us who were raised to only recognize the binary. Many of us may find this threatening. What does it mean to be male if you can be a man without having a penis? How do we know who is “really” a girl and who isn’t?
This is why I encourage parents to get support along with their kids. When our children unpack gender, we’re forced to unpack it, too, and confront the biases, assumptions and prejudices that we took for granted as “true.”
When I’m working with kids who are identifying in some way as trans or genderqueer, my goal is not to herd them towards a definitive statement of gender identity. My goal is to help them understand who they are and what they need in order to align their outward experience with their inward experience. Unless a child is going to be seeking hormonal support to support their gender identity, there’s no rush. (And if in the course of treatment it becomes clear that a child/teen is going to need hormones, then I will refer out to a therapist with expertise in transition since this is beyond my scope of practice.) I ask parents to do this, too. Instead of saying, “Who are you? What are you?” I encourage parents to say, “How can I support you as you discover who you are?”
If your child tells you that they are transgender or genderqueer, believe them. Right in this minute this is how they identify. Some of them will find a home in that identity and will need to craft a support system that celebrates and honors who they are. Some of them will move through that identity on to something else and they deserve our support and understanding, too.
All of us have to make that journey. All of us need to know who we will be in the context of our whole lives — within and beyond our families, within and beyond our cultural surroundings. We have to make sense of it. We have to forge a way to learn it since, for most of us, crafting our identity is a lifelong discovery. (I am an adult, I am a parent, I am a parent no longer raising children — who am I now? I am a partner, I am a spouse, I am alone — who am I now?)
- Here in Columbus we have a great organization to help your child find respectful support. Kaleidoscope Youth Center has support groups and activities for kids and young adults from 12 to 20
- We also have a support group for kids 5 to 11 hosted by therapist Erin Upchurch that meets monthly. You can learn more about that (along with support groups across the country) here.
I have written this post in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, which you can learn more about here.
I see you over there, avoiding playdates, avoiding Facebook (or staying up late reading Facebook like a punishment, because you think you deserve to feel bad about yourself). I see you at the grocery store with the tantruming 3-year old, trying not to cry or scream or completely lose it yourself. I see you at the high school, hurrying by to meet with the guidance counselor yet again. I know that you dread family gatherings where people will give you advice you didn’t ask for and don’t need.
I know your baby’s birth didn’t go the way you hoped and you think it’s your fault.
I know your child will only eat buttered noodles (straight, not curly) and you think it’s your fault.
I know the teacher keeps calling you for conferences and you think it’s your fault.
I know your teenager is depressed and you think it’s your fault.
You know what? It’s not your fault.
I don’t want you to beat up on yourself anymore.
So much of this parenting thing is out of control, which is one of the scariest things ever. That’s why we give ourselves (and each other) such a hard time over it. It feels safer to say, “This is a direct result of that!” instead of acknowledging that in so many ways kids are exactly who they are no matter what we try to do about it.
One of us follows the book to a T and our 6-month old sleeps through the night. One of us follow that same book the same way and yet we’re going on a year without more than two unbroken hours of sleep a night.
I’ve got a secret for you. Are you ready? This insight comes from decades of working with other people’s kids and reading about child development and having my own kids. It’s hard won wisdom and I’m going to share it with you:
Some children really are easier than others.
Some go to sleep more easily and eat a wider variety of foods. Some handle their emotions better. Some are naturally neat and clean and sweet and even-tempered.
Some parents just get lucky.
Then there’s this other thing, which is that life happens. Bad things happen and hard things happen and sad things happen and parents lose their way sometimes. We all lose our way sometimes.
There’s not a parent alive who hasn’t made mistakes but that’s not the same thing as being a bad mom. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that this is all your fault. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job.
You know the best way to handle mistakes? Try again. Get help if you need it and try again. Try it differently. Try it with more support. Try it with better information or better friends or better tools. And you know what’ll be great about that? Your kids will learn that mistakes are inevitable but we can do something about it. They’ll learn that taking responsibility is not the same thing as succumbing to blame and shame.
When we can do that, that’s called resiliency. Really when it comes right down to it the best thing we can do for any of our kids is teach them how to be resilient, teach them to survive the hard stuff, even when the hard stuff is us.
Here are two things that everyone everywhere needs to know about everyone else:
- People do the best they can with what they know.
- All behavior makes sense when viewed in context.
This is true for ourselves and our friends and family and definitely for our kids.
Knowing this about each other can make it easier to understand — if not approve — of other people’s choices. Likely if we could stand in their shoes at just the right moment, that thing they just did that we think looks like a very bad idea would make perfect sense.
Take Amelia Bedelia. Now when I was a kid, I could not stand Amelia Bedelia because she was so silly. Amelia Bedelia, in case you did not know, is a fictional maid in picture books who is forever doing dumb things like putting raw chicken in baby clothes (because her employee asked her to “dress the chicken”) or putting sponges in cake (because her employee requested a “sponge cake”). But Amelia Bedelia is certainly doing the best she can and if you stood in her shoes — shoes that are on the feet of someone extremely literal — her choices would all make perfect sense.
Kids can be a lot like Amelia Bedelia (grown ups can be, too, but let’s stick with kids here because I’m filing this entry under the “parenting” category). They can do something that we can clearly see is a very bad idea and we can say to them, “Why did you do this?” And kids say, “I don’t know.” Because they don’t know; it just made sense when they did it. That’s why they lose their homework and hit their baby siblings and eat the last cupcake that didn’t belong to them and watch television instead of picking up their toys. It made perfect sense at the time.
If you assumed your child really was doing the best she could at the time — even if at the time she was leaving her lunchbox at school — how might that change how you consider and deal with the problem? Might you think about the last time you left your cell phone at work or left your wallet on the kitchen table? These things happen when we’re overwhelmed or under slept or chatting with friends while we pack up to leave. We do the best we can and then sometimes we have to deal with the consequences when the best we can do isn’t so great.
What about your child who hits his baby sister every time your back is turned? What if you thought about the problem with the belief that he’s doing the best he can with what he knows. What does he need to know? In what way does his behavior make sense to him? I’m not talking about letting him off the hook but when we understand what’s going on our interventions are more likely to work. Maybe he needs more supervision. Maybe he needs help with emotional regulation. Maybe he’s imitating his big brother.
Assuming there’s a reason behind behavior — even if it’s a lousy reason — gives us tools to solve real problems.
One of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal into it.
Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.
My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”
And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.
Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”
I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.
When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”
Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.
I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”
The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”
I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.
So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.