One of the most startling and unpleasant discoveries I made on becoming a parent is how many parents indulge in flattering themselves that everything good about their children is because of their parenting prowess. If their kid is well behaved it’s because they don’t “let” their kids misbehave. If their child is smart it’s because they’ve been reading to their kid since birth and played intelligent music for them and didn’t let them watch any poisonous television. If their kids eat well it’s because they wouldn’t “let” their kids be picky.
It became immediately apparent to me as a new mom that what was troublesome about my child was troublesome because I wasn’t parenting him well and that all his amazing qualities were due to my good parenting. Or, at least, that’s what other parents constantly implied. It struck me that many parents I met had what I almost think of as a god-complex; that it is by the grace of their own hands that their children are good or bad, smart or dumb, sweet or mean, sinners or saints, well adjusted or a psychological mess. All the recriminations of other people’s parenting styles and the self congratulatory comments on their own methods made me feel like I was sucked down a worm hole of unreality.
There are so many things that influence a human being’s development that I think it ridiculous for parents to believe that they raise their children in a bubble in which the only influence is themselves and that their methods, if they work on their own children, will work on all children universally. It ignores the fact that children are as much individuals as adults.
Other influences on a child’s development:
Their own personality.
Their individual temperament.
The environment they are raised in.
How that environment works with the child’s personality and temperament.
Their physiognomy (brain function, neurological wiring, body function)
Sibling dynamics or the effect of being an only child.
Culture. The world outside.
Just because you made a baby doesn’t mean you are automatically a great parent and equipped to handle the challenge of parenting. I know that I am ill-equipped for this challenge and I do the best that I can but being a mother doesn’t make me some kind of god of wisdom. Some women start off with temperaments better suited to dealing with the constant needs of children and others have to adapt to it more. Just because you are doing well with your own child/children in no way means that you are capable of parenting all children well. Just because you’ve found methods that work well for your own kids doesn’t mean you know anything about parenting other people’s kids.
Just because your kids seem well adjusted and happy now (and well behaved and good eaters and not overweight and completely mentally healthy…) doesn’t guarantee that they will continue to be so. The totally well behaved 7 year old may turn into a pregnant substance abusing 15 year old. There is no guarantee that you are raising a prodigy just because your kid is smart at 11 years old.
Arrogant parents do a great disservice to other parents, especially ones seeking advice or help. The arrogant parent will give absolute advice and let it be known to you that if you try their advice and fail it’s because you failed at carrying it out. This is an awful way to set up new parents. I know, because I was there so many times and it turns out my kid is, as I knew he was from the beginning, not the least bit usual and doesn’t respond in any of the expected ways other parents implied he should and I spent so much time thinking that my kid was struggling because I was a shitty parent. I know better now. I realize that anyone reading this blog on a regular basis knows that periodically I write an “I suck at parenting” post. These posts are inevitable because I am NOT arrogant. I question myself constantly. I ask myself “what am I not doing for Max?” and “Why is this method not working?” and “What shortcoming of my own is resulting in all of us banging our heads against the wall?” and asking these questions of myself is an important part of my parenting process. Raising an unusual kid means that I never get to rest on my laurels (mostly because I don’t have any) or be smug about my parenting prowess. My kid has special needs and they don’t allow me to rest for a second as a parent. I have come to understand that part of parenting a special needs kid is to let off steam from time to time. So I do. Sometimes I need to thrash myself to get it out of my system. Any regular readers also know that I come to the same conclusion over and over again: I am the best person I know to be parenting Max. There are many “better” parents out there but I don’t know any in my acquaintance who could handle my son’s challenges better than I am doing.
What makes a good parent? Obviously opinions on this vary wildly. I don’t think any parenting method is inherently better or worse than any other (barring abusive parenting, obviously). I don’t believe that my parenting methods are better than yours. In fact, I’m sure they’re not. In the beginning I might have looked at your kids and judged your parenting based on their behavior but that was a long time ago when I followed everyone else’s cues. I know better now. I know that how your child behaves is not necessarily a direct result of your parenting ineptitude or greatness. It might be, but that’s not something I can know unless I know you very very well. Even then, it’s not something I can be sure I know because I don’t parent your child.
What makes a good parent, in my opinion, is a parent who chooses their parenting methods based on who their child is as an individual. A good parent will recognize when the boundaries and ideals they’ve set aren’t working well for their child and will try different methods and set different boundaries. A good parent will not flog their child with ideals they think they SHOULD be following and blame the kid when it doesn’t work. A good parent will recognize that if their own methods are working well it’s because they’re using methods appropriate for their child but if a sibling comes along and doesn’t fit the same mold, a good parent will adjust. A good parent, like a good spouse, is flexible and evolves and seeks to make a life appropriate for the individuals in their family and not try to fit their family into some general ideal of family life. A good parent doesn’t view parenting as a power struggle or as an autonomy in which your child must be made to be the person you want them to be. A good parent sees their child’s strengths and builds on them. A good parent sees their child’s challenges and stretches to meet them, to find the best way to help their child through them.
Arrogant parents give dangerous advice because they fail to acknowledge that what worked for them with their own kids might be disastrous with a different kid. I keep this very much in mind when I find myself advising anyone on parenting, which, I don’t often do in the first place. If asked my opinion I will tell another parent what has worked so far for Max and I try to emphasize that my methods may be worth trying in their own family but their kids aren’t Max and so it may not be as effective for their kids. Parents need each other’s support and I think it’s truly valuable to discuss parenting methods with each other to get new ideas and to help us get through parenting challenges. However, it is important that all parents acknowledge that kids are individuals and there is no one method that will work for all kids and for most of us there is no one method that will work for one child and that our best bet is to put together a unique set of boundaries, rules, routines, consequences, and rewards that suit our wonderfully different children.
As a parent of an almost-eleven year old, my best advice to new parents is:
Trust your gut over everyone else’s advice.
Have some humility.