A recent Motherlode blog (“Confessions of a Mother Who Couldn’t Say No”) and its comment thread has me thinking—about my role as a parent, the lessons I hope my children learn from me and the ugly misguidedness of parental guilt.
The post was written by a mom who is unhappy with her previous parenting choices. She thinks she did her children a disservice by being too permissive in the past. Now that her kids are teenagers, she has chosen to course correct. She’s adopted an attitude of “dispassion” and disengagement. She doesn’t attend every single performance and game. She’s worked on mastering “the ‘oh well’ shrug.” This, she believes, will help her—and her kids—when, in the very near future, they leave home and it’s time for her to let go for real.
Her post, and the ensuing comments, makes me sad. Her guilt and her course correction both, it seems to me, are based on an utter misunderstanding and confusion over what she’s supposed to be doing as a parent. Of course all parents want their children to be independent and resilient. But you can’t teach emotional resiliency by being emotionally absent.
I agree with her in some respects. I believe parents should nurture their children’s independence. (Independence by adulthood is kind of the whole point, right?) But I also believe none of us—parents, children, people in general—were meant to go through life completely on our own. We’re here to help each other. Of course, not all attempts to help are equally helpful. It’s the ways we support our children that are important.
Our number one job as parents is to protect and provide a safe place for our children. Period. That’s pretty much the bare minimum of what we’re supposed to be doing. Most parents would never dream of neglecting their child’s physical well being. But when it comes to a child’s emotional well-being, many of us are at a loss for what to do.
What’s at the top of my list for emotional well-being? First and foremost, I want my daughters to learn how to trust—both other human beings and, most importantly, their own intuition (a basic survival skill). How do children learn to trust others? By having a steady, constant person or people in their lives that they can depend on, no matter what (that’s you, parents).
Saying no to ‘stuff’ is one thing (giving in to all your kid’s whims and wants, being a pushover; that’s not okay). But denying your child your presence, your support, your availability: that is the wrong kind of boundary to set.
I believe we should approach parenting, and any other relationship, from a place of love and respect and empathy, not a place of fear. Remember: your children are just as human as you are. Imagine how you would feel if your spouse or your friend didn’t show up for an important appointment with you, and when you asked them about it they just shrugged, “hey, that’s life.”
Speaking of life… I know there are many hard lessons my daughters will learn as they grow up. I also feel pretty confident the world can teach them those lessons without my help.
This doesn’t mean that I stand back and leave my children to their own devices. I believe it’s my job as a parent to equip my kids to handle those lessons. I do this by teaching them real, concrete skills (for open and honest communication, problem solving and conflict resolution, to name a few), rather than leaving them with the vague idea that they should ‘figure it out themselves’ or ‘learn to deal with’ being upset. I didn’t just happen to know all these skills. I had to learn them. I’m still learning them, and practicing them—usually very imperfectly—every day. I see that as part of my work as a parent too, mistakes and all.
As a parent, you never really let your children go. They grow up, they move out and on with their lives, but you don’t abandon them. Your relationship with them grows and evolves, just like you yourself change and grow and evolve over the years. Boundaries shift—the crying baby you cradled in your arms for hours at a time no longer needs that same level of attention from you when she’s a big soon-to-be third grader—or a high schooler or a mom with kids of her own. But she always needs your support and your love.
There is so much more I could say on this topic. In fact, Susan and I both have a lot more to say. Look for more parenting posts from us in the coming weeks.
I hope to do an audio or video conversation with Susan soon to post on the blog. (Fun!) I’d love to get her thoughts on the whole topic of “benign neglect.”
Do you have any questions you’d like to ask her? Send me an email: jaime[at]sunflowercreativearts.org
© Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2013
Photo © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2013