Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Free Range Kids Lecture and "Perfect Parenting Syndrome"...

Went to see Lenore Skenazy talk about her views on parenting in a day and age where parents are more fearful than ever before.  The woman is a BRILLIANT speaker, absolutely brilliant.  I laughed myself to tears and found myself spontaneously applauding her (and being the only person in the room to do so, yes, that was me folks)...

Lenore Skenazy, "America's Worst Mom" and founder
of the Free Range Kids movemnt
She talked about the obvious things - PREDATORS - and just how unrealistic it is to fear a predator coming by and snatching your child out of your front yard as they take themselves to the letterbox alone (for example).  She talked about cyber predators, too, which was a bit of a wake up call for me, because if anything that is my biggest concern.

But the MOST interesting thing she talked about - it was also the thing that immediately drew her criticism in the question part of the talk - was how even what we SAY to children is so carefully monitored today, that parents are being told in books how to have conversations with children that will not completely crush their spirit for the rest of their lives.

This reminded me of a blog I read recently which, at first, I agreed with, but on further thinking actually felt quite annoyed about.  It was called You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations.

The sentiment of the blog post is that all children are precious gifts who we, parents (particulary father's in this case) need to treasure and protect. I really liked that sentiment.

Sadly, the blog post was full of sneering derision of parents who "break" their children constantly by not greeting them each and every time with a smile and open arms.  By being impatient, or oblivious, or pre-occupied, or angry.  By have expectations that are too high, or too exacting.

Now I'm not saying these things can't hurt children.  What I'm saying is the benchmark of NEVER doing these things to your child because their spirits will be forever wounded and they will NEVER reach their full potential is some sort of expression of a self-loathing that propels parenting into a condemned state of Sisyphean proportions.  Sisyphus was the guy who pissed off the Greek Gods, so they made him role a large boulder up a hill every day - it would take him all day to do it and each morning the boulder would be back at the bottom of the hill and his labour would begin again.  Perfect parents make it from sunrise to sunset without yelling, ignoring, smacking, shaming, or belitting their children, then have to start this epic journey again the very next sunrise.

NO PARENT I have ever met has ever achieved this mythical state of having NEVER wounded their child's spirit.

Well, of course, you say.  To err is human.  DUH, Sif!

Okay, so riddle me this, Batman.  If to err is human, and we're ALL doomed to wounding our child's spirit sooner or later, WHY OH WHY do Parent Bloggers (hey, notice I wasn't sexist there?) and Parenting Experts (like Alfie Kohen) insist of telling us how if we use the wrong words (assuming we're well heeled enough to never have smacked or yelled), or we aren't overjoyed at the very sight of our child each and EVERY time they enter the room, then we will have BROKEN them, CRUSHED their spirits and doomed them to an eternally hellish existence on earth plagued with self-loathing and anxiety and maybe, if we're lucky, they won't hang themselves by the time they're 16.

Skenasy actually broached on this very point.  She borrowed a drawing from a little girl in the audience and told the rest of the audience how one parenting book advises parents to "take a moment"  when presented with artwork by their child (because, I'm assuming, if you allow your natural reaction of parental joy and pride to overflow, you're bound to have failed already), and then carefully reflect back to the child just what the child did, "I see you used green and blue to draw this drawing." To tell the child it was a fantastic drawing or that she was a great drawer or a a good girl would be tantamount to beating the child will young sapling you'd forced the child to go out and find just for said beating.

This is when I, and I alone (because everyone else was taking a moment, I guess), applauded!

I have to wonder if the parents who try to be perfect think about what they would NOT modelling for their children (if they could achieve this mythical state of parental Nirvana)?  If you are always happy to see your child.  Always say and do the right things to your child.  If you are perfect.  What does your child see?  They see the person they want to be (because most children admire their parents, even the far-from-perfect parents); they see someone who never feels anger or disappointment or frustration, who never requires forgiveness, who never needs their own space or time.

Then when they grow up and they feel anger and disappointment and frustration, and they need forgiving, and their own space and time, what will they do?  They will feel like somehow they've fallen short.  Something must be wrong with me because my Mum was always happy to see me and ready to do for me whenever I asked.  My dad never felt angry or sad or the need to just not talk to anyone right now.

Of course, NO CHILD will ever have parents like that (thank goodness, I say, who wants a robot for a parent, a person so self-composed they seem somehow less HUMAN).

So, where do Parent Bloggers and Parenting Experts get off judging parents who have weak moments.  How does Single Dad Laughing guy know that what he witnessed at Costco was the be all and end all of that child's relationship with his father?  For all SDL guy knows, that Dad may have just watched his wife die, or maybe he had some beligerant family member tell him his son was "spoiled" so he turned to some freakazoid Parenting Expert's book in desperation that his child shouldn't grow up "spoiled and unlikable" and he'd just started implementing some counterproductive Super Nazi shame tactic that week...  Maybe Costco dad was just having an unusally rotten day, but most of the time he IS warm and open to his son's requests...

SDL guy pleaded for people to tell him about the good dad's they knew, to restore his faith in humanity (because obviously humanity owes him).  I thought about posting about the Father Figure in our household, but then thought - oh, but, hmmm, he does yell at the kids, and he has said stuff like, "What's wrong with you?" to our boys when they've done something he just can't fathom.  Evidently, according to SDL guy, he is one of "those" dads who need congratulating for having broken their child (and more than once).

Thankfully, children are more resilient than the woman who posed the first question criticism at the lecture last night believes them to be.  This woman felt the need to point out to Skenazy that she had spoken about the toothfairy in a quiet voice (Skenazy implying to the audience that she would keep the toothfairy secret safe), but then spoke animately about people being murdered while the children at the front of the room were drawing.  She pointed out that while children draw, they listen and so while they may have seemed pre-occupied, they were probably taking in the horror Skenazy was describing (not in great detail).  She went on to say that children are very SENSITIVE and that had her grandson been in the audience, Skenazy's horrific descriptions would have given him night terrors.  (the audience was booing by this stage, LOL)

When did our society turn children into such delicate flowers that we dare not breathe too heavily around them?

Children throughout the ages have lived through far greater horrors than anything we can offer in modern day Australia, and not only have they survived, but they've come through the other end with a passion to do great things!  How many times have we heard of great beauty and determination of character stemming from early childhood traumas?  Far from robbing children of their full potential these events have provided them with enormous motivation to achieve!

Obviously, I'm not suggesting we schedule "Traumatise the Toddler" into the monthly calendar.

Resilience is born of overcoming difficult times.  The most resilient children are those who experience adversity AND support getting through the adversity.  What this means is, it's not the shouting at your child or fobbing them off that hurts them, it's WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.  If wounding your child's spirit is following by more and more wounding your child's spirit, i.e. a pattern of abuse is established, then your child will definitely suffer long term.  HOWEVER, if wounding your child's spirit is following by SINCERE regret and asking for forgiveness, and explaining to the child how what you did was the wrong thing to do in that moment, then chances are it will actually make your relationship with your child stronger, and the child him or herself MORE RESILIENT.

It will also make the child more:

  • Compassionate
  • Able to forgive others
  • Able to ask for forgiveness
  • Able to forgive themselves
  • Insightful, regarding other people's limits and limitations
  • Confident in their relationship with you (because they know you are just like them, human and prone to mistakes)
And maybe, it'll also make them a hell of a lots less likely to sit in judgement of every stranger they see in public being less than perfect.

So, rather than saying every single moment of a child's life to should be laughter and love and light - something we are immediately doomed to fail.  Why can't we judge ourselves and one another by our best moments and focus on achieving a high percentage of laughter, love and light - at least enough to tip the scales so those memories outnumber the flawed memories in a grown up child.  Let's set the benchmark at a level that is achievable for most of us so we can rejoice in being parents and not constantly live in fear of failing or being judged to have failed our children when we only did what 100% of parents have done since the dawn of parenting - prove our status as humans, in all our glorious impefection.  Have forgiveness in your heart, for your child, for other parents, and for yourself!


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

*Applauds* Loudly.:) Sing it sister! At some point, this cult of the "perfect parent" must be dissected, analysed and critiqued. Which you have just done beautifully. I am aware I stray often from (my perceived) "ideal" as both a parent and a child care worker (and daughter, friend etc).
I question the idea that an "ideal" even exists anyway. I reject the notion I have damaged my kids in my moments of "less than perfection". I (gods forbid!) praise children, sometimes even use the dreaded words "Good boy/girl". I am so grateful to LS especially, for untying the last shackle in my self imposed chain, which made me feel bad about my self, for simply interacting with my kids in a way that feels natural. Let's examine the word 'natural' for am moment too.
Natural doesn't always equate to "good" or ideal. Natural is simply that which comes most instinctively-good and bad (loaded, subjective terms, I know).Sometimes it feels natural to yell at my kids to STFU because mummy has a headache! Other times, it's natural to tell a child (mine or one I am paid to care for) their painting is wonderful(*insert any other appropriate adjective). Using 'evil', praising words like "good" :D
My (extremely drawn out) point being, lets stop heaping shit upon ourselves as parents, and give children some credit for the incredibly resilient beings with highly developed BS detectors that they are. Lets be GENUINE and AUTHENTIC. Such buzzwords, with the potential to exude complete and utterly wankery ;) Believe me, they KNOW when the words "good boy/girl" mean "I love and admire you" and when they mean "I am judging you patronisingly so shut up"! When treated with respect, a child knows when to trust the adult who talks honestly about the dangers inherent on living-and learns to mistrust the adult who lies that everything is *always* sunny.

Er yeah...sorry about the essay! *blush* Am a bit fired up tonight:D

Jayne said...

Soz, first post choc full o' typos :D

Leah said...

Great post Sif. I've long felt uncomfortable with the filter many parenting books seem to want to install between a parents brain/heart and mouth, the impact of a less genuine parent must not be good. To have to worry about the impact of everything from the tooth fairy to a good girl to what to say when your kid shoves a picture under your nose is stifling. I have to admit it was rubbing me up the wrong way that this "free range" label had been started to get slapped around and used as another moral judgement in the perfect parenting stakes, so I'm glad to hear she took that kind of thinking head on.

I also found that costco father post self righteous to the point of irritation. I wonder if the author would like it equally loudly asserted that if you have never got to that emotional point with your kid, one of you, probably both, must be a spineless wonder and life is gonna kick your arse anyway! The reality for me at least is, that at those times I am in danger of "breaking" her, she is well and truly "breaking" me - as the parent I have many more resources than her, and a discussion about harnessing that in difficult times is far more productive than shaming me.

Good Job!