Parenting Fail: An Introduction
I've been thinking a lot about parenting lately. Most of us have some relationship with parents (good, bad, or indifferent), and a good number of us have become parents ourselves. There are many ideas about what constitutes good parenting (check any Barnes & Nobles or do a cursory search on Amazon), and most people think they know what constitutes bad parenting. I suspect that parenting is a lot like listening. Everyone thinks they're a good listener, but when I ask people how many people truly listen to them, most people can only think of 1 to 3 people. The math just doesn't add up. My guess is that parenting is a little like that. We all think we're good parents, but if we were visited by the ghost of Christmas future there's a good chance we would be shown a frightful scene of our children in a therapist's office or in the throes of some distracting addiction brought about through our unconscious approach to this sacred vocation. Of course, we may use the power of comparison to absolve ourselves from lingering guilt about our latest parenting gaffe ("At least I'm not like that parent," we say watching at the latest viral video depicting some uncommonly poor parenting). At a church I used to attend, we were taught that parenting was essentially about allowing kids to experience natural consequences and to embrace choice so as to raise responsible children. The authors of the book suggested using sarcasm as a way of addressing children when they made poor choices, suggested locking kids in their rooms if they didn't follow directions, and withholding food if they didn't do their chores. It was (and is) a truly awful approach to parenting, in my opinion. And yet many found it to be an improvement over what they had been doing, which is a little terrifying.
I get it, though. For a good while, parenting was mystifying and scary to me. I am sure that I'm not the only father who has felt—at one time or another—somewhat bereft in the way of a philosophy of parenting. Dominant social discourses on the stereotypical male role in parenting is often that of the enforcer. "Wait until your father gets home!" Having to play bad cop sets many fathers up for a monochromatic approach to parenting that may actually go against who they are at a fundamental level and stunt their parental development. Similar discourses about motherhood no doubt influence expectations and practices for women as well. It took a rather intense week at a therapeutic workshop for me to have a better understanding of what helps and what hurts in parenting (and in being parented). As I have unpacked my time in this educational and therapeutic environment, I have learned a great deal about the source of my own woundedness as well as about ways to build upon existing inner resources to more fully embrace self-compassion. When I listen to the persons to whom I offer coaching and consultation, I do so at least in part through the lens of the core wounds most, if not all, persons carry from their parents' unconscious approach to raising them. That unconscious approach is usually imbibed through the ways their parents parented, which sheds light on the old adage about the sins of the parents being passed from one generation to the next. The family systems approach to generational transmission holds that one can interrupt these generational patterns if one becomes aware of them, but there is often little in our lives that creates an impetus for self-awareness and consciousness beyond a good crisis and some useful therapy.
If we're honest, a lot of parenting is flying by the seat of your pants and hoping to God you don't screw up your kids too much in the process. In our quieter, more reflective moments, however, parenting is often much more about our need for control than about connection. We are more interested in having children adapt to our needs or desires than we are in seeing and valuing them in their uniqueness, especially when it inconveniences us. As a single father, I have been given an opportunity to re-evaluate what I think children need in order to feel valued and grounded, and I can honestly say I have never felt more fulfilled and confident in this role than I have in the last two years. I am certainly no expert, but I hope to share some thoughts along the way that may be of use to readers who desire a deeper connection with their children. At the very least, I hope to persuade you about the profound negative implications our actions can have on our children that can last a lifetime as well as how to turn the ship around wherever you are in your parenting journey. It's never too late to change the way we care for our children.
It starts with how we care for the child within.