You can get a lot of interesting advice on how to raise children via Facebook memes. I’ll admit it, I’ve posted
a few dozen hundreds on my own Facebook wall, platitudes that appear innocuous as we scroll through our New Feeds, liking or sharing with only a few moments’ thought about the message. Many reflect cultural ideals of Western society and are taken as a given. But looking back at a few that my friends and I have shared over the years, I came to realize that they are sentiments shared by many parents- parents who are well meaning and wanting the best for their children. The messages sound good in theory but what do they mean in practice? I’ve heard many of these ideals shared over and over, both in speaking to other moms and in my work with parents. I’ve shared these beliefs myself. But when I sat down to analyze them, I realized that these seemingly harmless and good intentioned beliefs may actually be getting us results contrary to what is best for our kids.
“I just want my child to be happy.” Sounds like great advice, right? What parent doesn’t want that? Of course we want our children to be happy. Except that happiness, as a state of being, is by its nature transient. And as humans, when we experience something for an extended period of time, we become habituated. If we teach our children to strive merely for happiness, we are setting them up for failure. Happiness is also one of those emotions that is magnified by contrast. If I have a million dollars and I win $100,000, I will be happy, but not in the same way that I would be if I were struggling to pay my mortgage and won 100k, right? Sometimes, you need a little struggle or moments of discontent to fully appreciate what you have. Instead of wanting my child to “just be happy”, I want her to experience the fullness of her emotions- moments of joy, elation, happiness, boredom, frustration, sadness, anger- all normal emotions to the human condition- and to be able to acknowledge them, embrace the moment that has created the feeling, and continue on having learned from the experience. I don’t want to teach her to strive for a feeling that is fleeting. And yes, while overall I’d like her to be happy, I wouldn’t promote it as one’s primary aim. Happiness should be the result of a well lived life, not the goal. Because if she’s striving for mere happiness, then how will she feel when she experiences periods that are don’t meet this ideal? She will likely feel as if she’s failed, even when she hasn’t. And I will have failed her by setting a standard that is by its very nature unachievable. Besides, I don’t want to end up in this situation when Miss Fancy Pants is 30:
MFP: I quit my job and am moving back home.
MFP: Because my job doesn’t make me happy. And you said all you wanted was for me to be HAAAAAPPYYYYY!
Me: Happiness is overrated. Get a job.
“It’s not our job to toughen up our children…” I agree with this to an extent. I want to teach my child to help make the world a kinder place. And if we all strived for that goal, we’d be a lot closer to achieving a better existence for all of humanity. But reality is, the world is sometimes cruel and heartless, and I don’t want to raise a child so sensitive and sheltered as to be crushed and made immobilized when life is unfair or others act in wicked ways. I want her to be empathetic, kind, sensitive, AND “tough”, which by definition means to be able to withstand difficult conditions. I want her to be the kid who stands up for herself when bullied and the one who speaks up when she sees others being treated unkindly. I want her to dust herself off when she fails and keep trying until she succeeds. I want her to challenge those in power who abuse their authority. I want her to be able to dismiss unjust words from others, recognize that her self-worth is not defined by those who may taunt or discourage her, and to persevere despite wickedness. I want her to be resilient.
“You shouldn’t care about what others think.” Yes and no. If the other person is being unreasonable, judgmental, doesn’t have the whole picture, or is just being a plain old jerk, it’s true, you shouldn’t care about what they think or at least, you shouldn’t let their opinion to force you to change your behavior if you’re acting justly. Besides, there are some people that will judge you no matter what you do, just because of their own inherent prejudices and negativity. It’s not worth your worry to dwell on what they think. However, there are times when we should absolutely care what others think. If our actions hurt or are unfair to others, maybe we should be spending a bit more time thinking about what we do or say and consider how others feel about our behavior. I hope I will do a good job helping my daughter to distinguish between two, erring on the side of caring while being “tough” enough not to let others’ (unfounded) opinions prevent her from living an authentic life.
“I want my child to have high self-esteem.” By now, it’s well documented (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) that the self-esteem movement of the 70’s and 80’, which included indiscriminate praise and reward) failed to produce the desired effects of making children get along better with others, obey the law, improve school performance, delay sexual activity, reduce rates of drug use, improve social skills, or reduce rates of aggression. In fact, people with high self-esteem tend to be more narcissistic (self-centered, with big, swollen egos) and have a tendency to inaccurately rate their abilities and/or their negative impact upon others. I can recall a former acquaintance who spoke frequently about his high self-esteem. And while he was bright, successful, and competent at his job, he often put his needs before the needs of others. He was helpful when it suited his desires or increased his social standing, but neglected friendships and colleagues when it didn’t benefit him. He often bragged about his ability, turning off others, rather than letting his achievements stand on their own merits. Certainly low self-esteem, with it’s correlation to depression, is no better; rather, accurate self-esteem appears to be the most desirable goal. Instead of praising children for everything little thing that they do, giving them trophies for mere participation (except for the littlest ones), banning teachers from passing out failing grades, etc., children need realistic feedback about their performance. Not shaming or harping on weaknesses, but offering praise when they achieve difficult (relatively speaking) tasks, while taking advantage of teachable moments when children miss the mark.
If it sounds like I might be hard-nosed on my kid, let me assure you, she gets loved up and down all day long. I would never purposefully do something to damage her self-esteem or ignore her need for love and approval. Kids need unconditional love from their parents. But I do want to give her the skills necessary to navigate a difficult world, teach her how to deflect unjust criticism, and help her to recognize the impact of her deeds and words upon others. I don’t want to set her up for disappointment by making her think that life is always fair or that a perpetual state of happiness is achievable, but I do want to show her the importance of being grateful for the good in her life and to search for the good even in unpleasant circumstances. These are lessons that I still strive to learn and incorporate into my own life.
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Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1-44.
When I was in college, there would be times (mostly during finals or when some big research paper was due) that my roommate and I would secretly wish for some illness (like mono) to give us a legitimate excuse to buy more time before facing whatever hurdle we were dreading. Yeah, it was warped thinking. In reality, neither of us really wanted to be sick; luckily, the universe didn’t grant our delusional wishes in order to teach us a greater cosmic lesson. But now that I’m a mom, my daydreams sometimes drift to thoughts of another equally absurd escape, and I can’t imagine I’m the only person who has ever wished this. My desire? That I could freeze time and escape to a parallel universe to get a guilt-free break. You know, like maybe make myself a decade younger and do a European vacation with my girlfriends for a few weeks, pigging out on gluten and sugar with abandon (and no ill consequences). I wouldn’t have to worry about Miss Fancy Pants missing me, or if my husband was messing up her sleep schedule and feeding her GMO’s and high fructose corn syrup every day that I was gone. I could leave without Macho Man (MM) putting up a big protest, needing to stock the freezer with a month’s worth of meals so that he wouldn’t starve to death, or dreading the mountains of laundry that would await me had my real life not been paused. Because in reality, while I could probably rope my mom into taking care of her granddaughter for a week while I took a much needed vacation, I would still be calling MFP multiple times a day, wondering if she was ok, and missing my family.
I’ve been told this is part of the affliction called “Mommy Guilt”. Some moms have it to a greater degree than others, but all moms have some. Notice that you’ve never heard the term “Daddy Guilt” – that’s because it doesn’t exist (alright, I just Googled it and there there is a term “Daddy Guilt”, but I don’t personally know of any men who have it so stick with me folks). MM travels for his work…A LOT. He also works really late hours most days and sometimes even works weekends. Sure, he misses MFP and mentions that it bothers him that he’s missing out on seeing her grow up, but that doesn’t seem to curb his enthusiasm when he opts in for “networking” opportunities (i.e. overpriced dinners with colleagues who are all looking for an excuse to take advantage of their expense account and get out of family obligations for a night). I’m not saying that MM doesn’t love our daughter and he certainly has been making an effort to get some quality time with her on the weekends, but men seem to have the ability to put any concerns about their family on hold and enjoy their free time. I can’t ever imagine a career mom (with similar work related obligations) feeling the same freedom.
Sure, I can go out with friends and thoroughly enjoy myself, but it usually involves ample planning, preparation, and relaying detailed instructions. Meanwhile, MM is all, “Hey, I’m going out to dinner tonight with my coworkers…I forgot to tell you about it. I won’t be home until after MFP is in bed. We’re going to be talking shop, so I really should be there,” [Me: eye roll]. Notice, no daddy guilt.
I think moms should have free time and enjoy it thoroughly without feeling like they need to justify it, to others or themselves. As a stay-at-home mom to “only” one child who is now in pre-k for two half days a week, I’m often asked, “So what do you do with all your free time now?” Well actually, when I’m not at the spa or taking dance lessons with Juan Pablo (bad “Bachelor” reference) [insert another eye roll], I can usually be found doing laundry, shopping at Costco, working on my consulting business, or trying to batch cook meals to freeze for days when JP and I need to practice our Salsa (haha). Yet, I don’t recall anyone ever questioning my husband about how he spends his “free” time, even though my days are often longer than his.
But I don’t mean to sound all bitter…really. I love having the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom and I wouldn’t trade being a mom to our daughter for anything in the world. But loving your family and wanting a break aren’t mutually exclusive. When moms take time for themselves, they are questioned or criticized (i.e. “I heard Sarah gets to work out with a personal trainer while her kids are at school. Wish I had that luxury. Why isn’t she back at work?”). Meanwhile, if I were to complain that my husband seems to find the time for his crazy workouts, I would be told, “Well, he needs to do something for himself. He does work all day long.” And it’s true. Dads need their “me” time. I get it. And most take it without blinking. But moms feel guilty and/or are judged when they demand a little down time. Don’t (I understand, easier said than done). You need that down time for yourself. It’s cliche, I know, but if you don’t take care of yourself, it will be hard for you to be fully there for your family. How much time or what sorts of activities will vary based on individual needs. Me personally, I need time to work out, an occasional outing with my girlfriends, and date time with my hubby (it’s been way too long!). And after MFP is asleep, I love to immerse myself in a good book or occasionally (like during “Bachelor” season) watch some mindless TV. I don’t always get my “me” time, but when I do, I feel like a new woman and a much happier mom.
As an aside, last night (around 7ish) MM called me from work to let me know that his old colleague was in town and that they were going to meet up for a drink. As a result, he might not make it home for MFP’s bedtime…again. I emailed him the rough draft of this essay. Shortly before I was about to tuck MFP into bed, he rushed home to tell her good-night. Hmmm. Maybe Daddy Guilt does exist…if you work it the right way.
For me, 2013 has been an incredibly unremarkable year. This was not a year for getting married, bringing a life into the world, earning graduate degrees, or starting a new career. I didn’t run a marathon, scale mountains, publish research, patent an invention, write a novel, learn to meditate, travel to distant lands, or even venture out of the country on vacation. In fact, my biggest accomplishments were lived vicariously, such as cheering my husband on as he earned a promotion and rejoicing in every milestone or wondrous (in our eyes) thing our 3-year-old did. A year ago (ok, even as recent as last week), I would have bemoaned my lack of accomplishment, especially since I’m nearing my 4th decade of life (you know, midlife-buy-myself-a-Maserati-crisis).
Like most moms, my year has consisted of putting hundreds of meals on the table; doing too many loads of laundry to count; sweeping and mopping the floors; tending to runny noses and scraped knees; wiping bottoms; staying up at night with a feverish child; managing tantrums (our child’s, my husband’s and my own); drying tears; singing the alphabet a bagillion times; coloring; wiping finger paint off of little hands (and the floor, and the table, and the cabinets, and clothing…); driving to swim class, ballet class, and preschool; reading the same books and singing the same songs over and over and over again until my adult thoughts are crowded out by lyrics to “The Wheels on the Bus…”; arranging play dates; trips to the park; nature walks; planting and (almost) killing an herb garden; multiple trips to the pediatrician; helping with homework; drinking over 600 cups of coffee; grocery shopping; clothing shopping; recitals; school activities; scraping food off of the floor; bath and bedtime routines; naps, naps, and more naps; managing finances; pumping gas; cleaning up toys; stepping on Legos; teaching- lots of teaching!- of morals, manners, anger management, self-soothing, academics, and life-skills; and numerous other activities that would be too tedious to list.
There is nothing considerably special about any one of these activities. These are the everyday expectations of mothers, be it stay-at-home, work-at-home, or work-outside-of the home. Not only are these activities not lauded, they are often taken for granted and underappreciated. And yet, their completion is most remarkable for many reasons. The accomplishment (and continued completion) of these activities is not motivated by accolades or a paycheck. They are exhausting to perform and societal expectations are great with regards to how, when, and how often these tasks must be done. Mothers are scrutinized by experts, spouses, in-laws, grandparents, teachers, doctors, politicians, religious authority, the media, bloggers, society, and other mothers. Mothers aren’t just expected to keep their offspring alive and provide for basic needs; indeed, we are expected to raise productive, kind, moral, responsible, mentally healthy, educated, happy individuals, often without the help of a village. More difficult still, many are expected to do these things well while dealing with additional pressures caused by factors such as a strained marriage, divorce, work, chronic illness, lack of resources (financial, emotional, etc.), inadequate childcare, and so forth. AND, while we are managing these feats, we are (ridiculously) asked to have a flat, firm stomach, look pretty, keep a smile on our face at all times, and do things like run marathons, travel the world, patent inventions…
In fact, when examined in this new light, my year was quite remarkable. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on my own dreams and goals; rather, my goals and dreams have merely shifted for the moment. What I have done, what I have accomplished this year- these things are enough. I won’t feel guilty for what I haven’t done. I will celebrate what I have managed to do despite all the roadblocks that I, like all mothers, have faced. I ask that you, wonderful mother who is reading this, celebrate in all the things that you have accomplished this past year too. Let’s celebrate each other. Society may still underappreciate what we do, but we can cheer one another on, offering encouragement, support, a sympathetic ear- and an occasional Cheesecake Factory binge.
There is still time for all the other fabulous goals we have yet to achieve in the years to come. Hang onto those non-Mommy related goals, as those are important too. But if you haven’t checked them off of your to-do list yet, know that you have still contributed your share to the world. In fact, you have had a most remarkable year indeed.
Wishing you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2014!!!
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