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).
We hear a lot about forgiveness and how good it is for you spiritually and emotionally and that’s all true but forgiveness is a thing that can’t be rushed. Selling people on the merits of forgiveness when they’re right in the middle of their struggle is a little like telling someone who has just had surgery on her knees that she needs to run a marathon. First she has to heal, then she has to begin stretching and moving and who’s to say that being a marathoner is the only way or the best way to be alive anyway?
In my twenties I worked at a women’s shelter where many of our clients were escaping domestic violence. I realized then that it’s possible to forgive too early and I’m not just talking about the women who forgave and returned to their abusers. I’m also talking about the women who looked like they were taking positive steps in their personal growth. I’m talking about the ones who wanted to understand their abusers so they could forgive them. I’m talking about the ones who took personal responsibility for entering into an abusive relationship in the first place.
That sounds really great and empowering in some ways, right? Taking responsibility, working towards understanding — those sound like terrific things but sometimes it’s a detour away from real healing and wholeness. Because here’s the thing — before we can take responsibility and before we can forgive, we have to confront the depth and breadth of the harm done to us.
Imagine that Snow White comes to therapy. She says, “My stepmom had problems with jealousy. I get it now, I get that it must have been hard to marry into a new family and to be confronting your mortality just as your stepdaughter is kinda coming into her own. I mean, I get that she had her own struggles.”
The therapist nods, wondering where this is going.
“Probably,” Snow White continues thoughtfully. “Probably she was reacting to her own troubled upbringing. It can’t have been easy, being raised to catch a man because your only value as a woman is the guy that you marry. It must have been threatening to her to have me growing up there.”
This is where her therapist might respond by saying, “Wait a second, she tried to poison you. She paid a hit man to take you out.”
“I know, I know,” says Snow White. “I’m not excusing her behavior or anything, I’m just saying I can kind of understand, you know, how it was hard for her, too.”
“Poison,” says the therapist. “Murder for hire.”
“Right,” says Snow White. “But she did the best she could…”
“POISON!” says the therapist. “MURDER!”
“Yeah, I know but I want to acknowledge that I never said directly to her, ‘Do not poison me.’ And I did take an apple from a stranger.”
Ok, you get what I’m saying here.
Snow White isn’t going to get to the core of her struggles if she keeps making excuses for The Evil Queen. She thinks she’s being loving and forgiving but really what she’s doing is joining with The Evil Queen against herself. She is unintentionally helping to perpetuate the abuse by excusing it.
I’m not arguing that Snow White needs to spend the rest of her life bitterly denouncing her stepmom but she might need to spend part of her life doing exactly that. She needs to acknowledge that however The Evil Queen was raised, whatever societal expectations she was up against, The Evil Queen did harm to Snow White. It doesn’t really matter what The Evil Queen meant to do — if she meant to just poison her a little bit, say, just long enough to win The Fairest of Them All contest or whatever — or why she did it. What matters is that Snow White was harmed by her actions and Snow White needs to give space to her grief, pain and anger. She needs lots and lots of space and understanding and then and only then will she be ready to think about forgiveness and taking responsibility (if there’s any to be taken).
The women at the shelter, yes, eventually they would need to look at their participation in the abusive relationship in order to recognize the beliefs, values and behaviors that created that perfect storm but they couldn’t really do that until they could acknowledge that whatever they did or did not do, they didn’t deserve the abuse and that abuse is always, always wrong.
Only when we give attention and validation to the very real harm that other people may have caused us, only then can we forgive. Snow White needs to be able to say, “You did me wrong, Evil Queen, through no fault of my own” without people telling her to “stop being so bitter, just let it go, life is too short to hold grudges” because it’s not petty to grieve your losses or to be angry when you have been harmed.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how often we beat ourselves up — colluding with the people who harm us — for holding on to things. Sometimes we need to hold on to things for awhile or our healing will be incomplete. And without healing there can be no true forgiveness.
Sometimes when you’ve won an argument you can help the person who lost save face by letting them get the last word in. I think this can be particularly helpful with kids.
You can help move things along by letting a kid stomp away mumbling. This seems counterintuitive and I know it’s tempting to holler, “What’s that? Who do you think is such a mean mom? Get back here, young lady!” but don’t give into it. If you pull them back, “What was that you said?” you’ve entered into a power struggle. Power struggles are tar pits; do not get stuck in them.
You can pretend not to hear it even if you do, which is going to help things get back to normal more quickly than if you bring them back in to escalate the argument.
We want our children to be respectful and for some families that makes it very hard to let someone grouch off to her chores muttering under her breath. But here’s the thing, if you let her do it, if you let her turn away and get a dig in that’s meant to be just loud enough for you to hear, you’re actually coming out ahead because you’re saying, “I am big enough to withstand and allow your muttering.”
Same thing with slammed doors.
Same thing with eye rolling.
Same thing with “whatever” under her breath.
You can address the things that are truly out of line in your family later (maybe in your family slamming a door is against the rules or maybe it isn’t, remember there is no one-size-fits-all parenting). You can address it when people are calmed down because it’s easier to work out one conflict at a time.
Make your point, let them mutter or stomp or slam. Once everyone is back to an even keel then bring it up, “Hey, when I talked to you about those chores and you rolled your eyes while I was talking, that upset me. In this family we show each other respect even when angry.”
One conflict at a time. Chores or eye rolling, not both at the same time. Otherwise you’re in the tar pit, mucking around in an argument you never intended to have and the chores still aren’t done. Which may be the very reason they’re doing all of that eye rolling.
(I have one child who is a master at this deflection. I say, “Pick up your socks” and that child stomps, arms crossed, pouts and says, “Why do you hate me” and I say, “I don’t hate you” and that child says, “You are so mean!” and I say, “I am not mean!” and it’s three hours later and there are still socks all over the house.)
So how could you respond?
You: “Please clean your room.”
Him: [sigh] “Ok, mother.” [eye rolling as he turns away]
You: “Thanks. I appreciate your help.”
You: “I said no PS3 tonight and I mean it.”
Her: [stomp] “You are so unfair!” [storm away, door slammed]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
You: “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner.”
Him: “This shirt is fine! I’m just going to get it dirty again anyway!” [turning away to go change, muttering, “Like your clothes are so awesome!”]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
You: “I said the trash needs to go out and it needs to go out NOW.”
Her: “It’s not like you make anyone else take out the trash! You pick on me! Why are you so unfair?” [as she storms off with the trash bag]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
If they still try to draw you in, stay one-note and stay calm, “I’m not talking about whether or not I’m unfair, I’m telling you to turn off the PS3.” “I’m not discussing standards of cleanliness right now, I’m telling you to change your shirt.” “We can discuss chore assignments later. Right now it’s time for you to take out the trash.”
Sometimes it helps to turn away physically to indicate the conversation is over. This shows that you’re confident. Resist the urge to keep an eye on them. Resist the urge to end any directions with, “OK?” As in, “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner, OK?” You’re just giving them permission to tell you how not OK they are with your instructions. Unless you’re really interested in their opinion, don’t ask for it.
Then let them mumble, mutter, stomp or storm away from you.
I’m not saying that ignoring a bad attitude is always the way to do things or the only way to do things but if you catch yourself getting stuck in arguments you never meant to have, try it — bite your tongue, sit on your hands, exchange meaningful angry glances with your partner but stay quiet — and see what happens.
Another therapist commented on this post about finding a new therapist and I thought it’d be great to bring it over to a new post and continue the discussion. Anna said:
I agree that being a good fit is important. I try my best to be a good therapist and I believe I am open to clients sharing anything with me. I believe in creating a non-judgmental environment. I even like when clients say they are mad at me or didn’t like something I said. It tells me we have that open relationship to talk about those things and sometimes those discussions lead to a greater understand of the situation. Yet, I sometimes get clients who don’t seem to connect with me, or maybe I don’t connect with them. These are the clients who don’t stay long. I’d love any suggestions on how to improve this (if it can be improved). I wonder if sometimes you just have to find the right therapist for you. I have an example without giving any specifics, I had a client recently who called asking for help with a certain issue. Whenever I brought the issue up, the client deflected. I tried working on other issues because I didn’t want to push too hard but the client kept going to “safe” topics. Needless to say, the client quit coming. Do you have any suggestions for this situation? Does it mean it isn’t a good fit or the client isn’t ready? Any suggestions are welcome.
I don’t think that any therapist can be the right counselor for every client because we are all so very, very different. I think sometimes a client who doesn’t get very far from us may not be ready to go far but also I think sometimes they just aren’t going to be able to do that work with us.
As to whether it’s because we’re not a good fit or because the client isn’t ready, sometimes I don’t think we’ll get to know. Sometimes it might be a little bit of both.
And that makes me think about counselor ego (not that Anna brought this up but it made me think about it).
Being a therapist is weird because we don’t really get any feedback. I mean, we do, we get feedback from our clients but given the nature of counselor/client relationships, we can’t really go with that. Sometimes a client will say, “I love working with you!” and it’s because we’re not being confrontational enough (like Anna says, sometimes our clients need to be mad at us and maybe NOT love working with us, at least not right in that moment). And we get to be witness to client success but any therapist worth her salt knows that client success belongs to the client.
Besides we can’t get our egos all wrapped up in any definition of success like a marriage saved or a job promotion secured or a child who learns how to behave because that’s a very limited view of success. Sometimes success looks like understanding a marriage is over or quitting a job or realizing that “good” behavior in one child doesn’t look like “good” behavior in another.
But back to the bad fit — this is one of those go with your gut things. If you feel like it’s time to push a client, then push. If you feel she isn’t ready, don’t push. I also think that in these cases where we’re not sure that we should seek out peer support. I don’t think any counselor — no matter how experienced — ought to be working in isolation. That means finding peers whose skills and knowledge overlap in some ways (so they can help give you perspective on kids if you work with kids) and don’t overlap in other ways (so they can help broaden your ability to work with all kinds of people).
If connection is an ongoing problem, if a counselor is feeling like her connection rate is down, then I’d say it might be time to look into some counseling ourselves. When we’re depleted or overwhelmed or preoccupied with other things, sometimes this can come through in our ability to be present with our clients. We might need help focusing on some self care or getting the attention we need (because to give loving attention we need to be getting loving attention).
If you are the client who isn’t connecting, I’d bring it up to the therapist if you feel comfortable or if you think the relationship is worth salvaging. Remember, it’s your relationship with your counselor that is the best predictor of your success in therapy so if you’re not feeling it, talk to her or go elsewhere. Just don’t give up on counseling because there are a zillion and one counselors out there, which means there is definitely the right one for you.
This is not a post about spanking even though I’m going to use spanking as an example; it’s a post about context and relationships.
When I worked at the women’s shelter in Portland one of our rules was “no spanking in shelter,” which is a good rule for a domestic violence program, right?
If a mom entering the program protested this rule, the intake person would say, “Don’t worry, just make an appointment with Dawn to talk about other ways to work with your child.”
Sooner or later the parents would end up in my office and they would want a list of things to do that would work exactly like spanking. They didn’t want a nuanced discussion about parenting goals or values; they just wanted me to tell them how to make their children behave.
The women who were committed spankers came to shelter and lost an important expression of their parenting relationship. Parents who are very committed to spanking — that is, parents who don’t have a lot of other tools in their toolbox — have relationships that tend to be more about obedience and power. Taking spanking away doesn’t change the foundations of the relationship. Other parents who were maybe less committed spankers came to shelter and rolled with the rule because they had a dynamic in their parenting that allowed for more flexibility, more discussion and which had room for other parenting tools.
My point is that it does no good to give people a list of things to do or not to do if you don’t look at why they’re doing things in the first place, which is why when parents say, “How do I get my child to sleep alone?” or “How do I make my child quit throwing fits?” or “Should I use a sticker chart to help with chores?” I say, “I don’t know — tell me more.”
D. W. Winnicott, the English pediatrician, once wrote, “There is no such thing as a baby … if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.”
To have a child is to have a relationship. Parenting advice that doesn’t acknowledge the relationships that exist for a child — or the lack thereof in the case of children who were neglected or spent time in institutions — is doomed to fail. Children make the parents and so, too, parents make the children.
This is the value in the Parenting for Attunement classes. Participants learn who they are, they learn who their children are, and then when we talk about the “how to” of parenting (the rules of bedtime, the tantrums, sticker charts) we’re talking about them in the context of relationships. One person may walk away with a plan to help their child sleep in their own bed every night; another parent may walk away committed to co-sleeping. How can both decisions be absolutely right? They are right because they are made in the context of that unique family relationship, which is continually being shaped by the individuals who participate in it.
I hope you’ll join me in June and if you can’t make it, I hope you’ll sign up for my newsletter using the form below so you can get alerted when I offer the program again in the fall.