Friday, July 29, 2011

How To Be The Best Parent In The World

As a preschool teacher, I get to know too many women who are tied into knots over every detail of their parenting. To a certain extent, I suppose it’s always been this way, but I have to believe that modern life has greatly exacerbated and magnified the anxiety level.

Throughout most of human history the job of raising children has been strictly “women’s work,” and like all of the other things that fell into that category (e.g., cooking, housekeeping) it required a set of “job skills” passed down from women to their daughters. Girls were expected to help out with their younger siblings in a kind of generational on-the-job training program that ultimately lead to a societal assumption that all women are naturally gifted caretakers. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of a genetic “mommy instinct,” but I will assert that this kind lifelong learning at the feet of “the master” lead to more realistic expectations about the job and greater confidence in carrying it out at a younger age.

In much of the world this continues to be the experience of girls. I’m not saying that it makes them better parents. What I am saying that this experience means that they are less likely to get tied up in knots about it.

Parenting is still something we learn on-the-job, but most of us today don’t start learning it until we have a baby of our own. Like any new job, there’s going to be anxiety, self-doubt, and moments of feeling out of control. Add to that the fact that most of us have internalized, at least at some level, the vestigial message that being a “good” mother is an instinctive part of being female. Then subtract the very real day-to-day support of older, experienced women (grandmothers) and the hands-on help of younger women (12-year-old daughters). And finally, calculate in the reality that most young mothers now have jobs outside their home (or the nagging feeling that they should), add husbands who aren’t as fully engaged in parenting as they might be, and we’re looking at an equation that can only produce anxiety.

An enormous industry has arisen to fill the void left by grandmas, one that produces thousands of new book titles, studies, theories and warnings every year. And while I’m sure that each one is issued with the best of intentions, many mothers experience it as a flood of things they should know and do, but don’t.

A few years ago, the subject of parental anxiety was the topic of our monthly parent education session. Mothers voiced their frustration and concern that it seemed like whatever they did they were somehow failing their children. They feared they weren’t patient enough. They were concerned they weren’t providing enough of this or that kind of experience. They worried about diet, exercise, role-modeling, emotions, sleep, television, toy choices, attachment, separation, you name it. It was a tense and somewhat angry meeting.

Finally, our parent educator Jean Ward, a wise, calm, experienced woman, said, “Listen, if you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you’re the best parent in the world.” As she let that statement hang there, the release of tension from the room was palpable. I have no idea where she came up with that statistic, or even it’s true (although I suspect it is), but if I could have read the thought bubbles around the room, I’m sure they would have said something to the effect of, I can do that.

A companion phenomenon that I’ve observed as a preschool teacher is that the most anxious women tend to be first-time mothers of 2-year-olds, and they always become noticeably less anxious over time, just as what would typically happen with any new job. And most of them are downright cavalier by they time their child is ready for kindergarten. It’s all about experience. If they’re bringing their second kid to preschool, they come in exuding confidence. And if they have a third, they seem as wise and calm as any grandma who ever lived.

I’ve not written about fathers in this post because, to be honest, it’s very rare to come across one who is tied into knots over every aspect of his parenting, even among stay-at-home dads. Of course, it could be a function of our notorious unwillingness to confess weakness, especially to other men, but I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that we aren’t as burdened with the weight of historical expectations. Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender.

I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers
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Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Great post Tom. I love your concluding statement "Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender." Have you ever noticed when a Dad is watching the kids, it is referred to as "Babysitting," like they are doing an extra job, instead of understanding that they are "parenting"?
Mothers somehow receive the burden of judgement, and like you wrote, I do believe this comes from a historical and cultural context. You are in a unique position to make change through your daily life & work. Seattle is lucky to have you.

Nikoli said...

Word. :)

FWIW, these days, the term babysitting I believe is used more in humorous context than anything (at least in my experience). My friends and I use it(including mothers), and you wouldn't think ANY of us "dislike" it when we're 'babysitting.' Just a word to clearly explain why we can't accept an invite to something generally. (Because the other parent/babysitter already has plans.)

I think it's all about attitude. It's obvious when a parent doesn't really want to be involved and is only doing this that or the other thing out of obligation. And do you really want to hang out with that parent... with or without their kids? I don't anyway.

But Moms and Dads alike should judge their parenting prowess on their relationship with their children. Not what others think. Yea, I worry whether I'm doin' the right thing(s) all the time... but then I look at TheBoy and how he acts with me, HisMother, family and friends... and I smile, and contort my arm a bit to I pat myself on the back... (so far anyway - he's 3.5). :)

Great post TeacherTom! Absolutely LOVE your "work."

Leigh @ Toasted said...

As a mother of two, you pretty much nailed my experiences on the head there. I've just spent three months living with my mother-in-law and, when I have been able to put my anxieties and little tensions aside, it's been a marvellous opportunity to observe brilliant parenting of my children. She is the eldest girl of six children, who had four of her own and felt proud and honoured of her role as a mother. I'm trying to carry that feeling with me into all situations! Thanks for such a well-written observant and insightful post.

Anonymous said...

So true Tom. I am a great believer of providing the love, security, and emotional stability to our children as a basic need. As many theorists say 'until this need is met then how can children grow, explore, develop and learn to the best of their abilities' .

Play-based Classroom said...

I needed this read tonight. Thanks.

Kristin@Sense of Wonder said...

I'm a mother of three and I wish I knew then what I know now. I'm having so much more fun just enjoying life with my children instead of stressing that my child wasn't being given the best possible of everything. So many of us spend so much time comparing our children to other children, our husbands to other husbands, our home to other homes and our parenting skills to other parents so we can nail down just how we are failing our child. Such a waste of energy. All our children need is love, patience, and a little freedom to make mistakes.

Sanchia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sanchia said...

My 1st baby is heading to school next year and its only in the last few months that I actually believe that I am a good Mum and feel comfortable and confident with the 'job' I am doing! Not 100% of the time but more often than not. You sum it up so well Teacher Tom! btw I think you are the coolest teacher and wish my boys could experience the adventure you have at you preschool.

Unknown said...

Great post!

One thing that helped me relax more is realizing that I didn't need to play with my daughter all of the time. She is okay playing by herself at times and sometimes it is better that she does play by herself too.

Nicola said...

Really great post. I'm your newest fan, thanks for sharing! Love the cape btw.

Bld424 said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am an anxious parent of a two year old. I am looking forward to a calm, grandma-like attitude!
PS - I cited this post in my blog because I think some of my readers will benefit from your wisdom!

Kristin said...

Everything you said here makes sense. I would like to add that as a mom of three, and my oldest now being 8 years old, I am experiencing new kinds of knots. There is a whole new anxiety when kids get past the "little" stage and move into the... I don't know... sassy, pre-preteen stage?? Ugh. I wonder if that 35% still applies to big kid parenting!

Robin said...

I'm a late comment-er, as usual.
Your posts are all so thought-provoking, I want to write an entire response to every one! Thanks for all you put into this blog.
I see this so frequently among my patients and friends. I'm blessed to be the oldest of seven kids and a busy teen babysitter for my neighborhood so had lots of on-the-job training. I see so many of my friends hover over their tots, sanitizing or forcing enrichment or using whatever technique they read about most recently. We have wood scrap blocks and hand-me-down oversized plastic blocks--this led one of my friends into a flurry of block buying because she read somewhere that children who play with blocks are better at math and clearly, she was behind! I think this sort of fear of messing up, doing too much or too little, too soon or too late, takes so much of the joy out of mothering. I also agree that it is societal/historical expectations that put so much on the mom. My husband stays home with our son and people regularly compliment him on his abilities (juggling his shopping and a bottle of breastmilk during infancy, in talking with our son now that he's a toddler). I have never once received a random compliment on my abilities when out with my son. It's expected of me. Never mind my hubby has more practice!

Anonymous said...

Love this. My husband enjoys being home with the kids. I am 25 and there's nothing my children enjoy more than spending the day with just dad. He works an office job and continues schooling and we are so proud of him. He may be gone a lot but we still expect that he be there which he is.. and chooses to be. Being the mom I definitely take charge.. but not because he isn't. He is such a great partner and really relieves my stress. He doesn't consider his part babysitting. Your responce to the post was helpful and made me realize how thankful I am for my husband.