The overly cheerful Christmas letter is a relentlessly parodied cliche. Yet it and its cousin, the perfectly cultivated Facebook feed, call to us: “You want us, don’t you? Your life should be like this. Your kids should be like this.” And then we wonder – “Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe if I tried a little more, my kids would be like that.”
But for the sake of us and our kids, we need to resist the siren song. Not just of comparison – because that’s a shitty, dark hole to end up in as well – but of treating our children like our personal accomplishments. Believe me – I speak from experience.
It diminishes who our kids are as people.
It’s hard to remember as we’re changing the millionth diaper or dealing with a melt-down about the wrong type of sandwich after you made the one he asked for but children are actually people. Frustrating, illogical little people at times, but people nonetheless. They have their own thought patterns, emotions, and preferences. Viewing them through the lens of our accomplishments diminishes their humanity. On the other hand, the “if only I was a better mom…” train of thought denies the fact that they screw up too. After all, none of us are perfect!
It gives too much weight to parents’ influence over our kids – both good and bad.
This is the one that personally trips me up. I have staggeringly high standards for myself and like a stereotypical Millennial, love specific feedback. Because there are no parenting report cards, I can take everything as a judgment on my actions. On my worst days, I see every issue as a personal failure, whether it’s the fact that my baby doesn’t consistently sleep through the night at nine months or my three-year-old will only pee in the potty after bedtime. Sometimes I want to drop to my knees, raise my hands to the sky and yell, “Where did I go wrong?” like a character in a bad movie. Besides tripping my own anxiety, the weight of so much responsibility can make it hard to appreciate my children for who they are. Seeing everything that goes right as an accomplishment of the parent is just the flip side of the same attitude.
It underestimates how other people and situations influence our kids.
Our children experience a variety of influences from people other than us from birth. Not acknowledging that diminishes their essential role in children’s lives. It also leads us as parents to see those other people and situations as completely under our control, even when they definitely aren’t!
It sets up the parent-child relationship as an equation.
Parenting advice is notorious for this. “How to Eliminate Tantrums!” or “My advice has worked for thousands of families – it will work for you too!” or “It works! I guarantee it!” (And then the implication that if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault.) Many days, I just want a set of rules to follow or some simple answers.
But perhaps moreso than any other relationship, there are no simple answers. There are legitimately useful communication tools that may work for some people and situations. But there are no one-size-fits-all, input in/output out equations. There are just two people, with one taking care of the other while also trying to teach and guide them. The more we can give up the illusion that our children are a result of our carefully calculated actions towards them, the more we can focus on building real relationships with them.
It makes comparisons toxic.
Comparing your kids’ milestones to other people’s doesn’t inherently have to be bad. In fact, it can be useful if can pick up some tips for getting through a particularly difficult stage. (Or at least commiserate.) Where it turns nasty is when a mere description of a child’s progress turns into an evaluation of the parent. When the mention of an issue turns into raised eyebrows and comments that sound helpful but are merely veiled judgment. When sharing of a child’s accomplishment elicits, “Oh, I know you wanted him to do that so much.” This kind of conversation reinforces objectifying kids and parents’ anxiety.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t brag about your kids. You totally should! But think about it the same way you might brag on your spouse or a friend: “Look at the awesome thing this person I love has done.”
Unfortunately, finding this balance is far harder than I’m making it sound. I struggle mightily with it myself. But removing ourselves from this mindset is so important for our kids and our relationship with them.
I’m far from a perfect parent – I struggle with a number of issues, including The Hardest Part of Parenting Two Kids and Parenting Fail: When I Don’t Like My Kid Very Much.