We have become a society of heavy duty self-improvement. In the process we have lost sight of the value of just being yourself. As part of this trend parents are increasingly being told what to do and what not to do in order to become better parents. Be consistent. Be a united front. Be involved. Be calm. Be patient. Be interested. Be supportive. Be firm. Be empathic. Be reflective. And to this long list some would add promote character building by making sure you don’t praise.
As a founder of Center for Reflective Communities with programs designed to enhance parenting skills, I am the first person to support parents doing a better job and helping them be more of aware of what children need in order to do well.
An unintended downside is many parents have taken the message a bit too far. Parents are increasingly preoccupied with worry that they are doing something wrong. Parents are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to accommodate to all their child’s needs. I see parents being way too cautious about how they speak to their children for fear they won’t say it right. I see parents who are reluctant to tell their children what they really think, lest they hurt their child’s feelings or impose their own beliefs on their children and sometimes because they worry it will make their child not like them.
I propose more balance. Sometimes you just need to be yourself. Sometimes this will mean doing what you need, not just what your child needs; saying what’s on your mind, even if it is not the most emotionally sensitive and reflective comment.
Children need to have a relationship with a parent who is a real person. Children need to know you have imperfections and flaws and that you accept yourself warts and all. They need you to express your opinions, preferences, limitations and needs, albeit in an age appropriate way. This provides the child with a role model for them to be comfortable being themselves, respecting their own limitations and being able to take care of their own needs when necessary, even if they may conflict with someone else’s. These qualities are so important for children to develop.
Being yourself and being a real person means that as a parent you need to be clear and honest about:
- what you expect of you child
- what you need from your child
- what you are willing and not willing to do for your child
- what your values, traditions and beliefs are
A child may be angry with the parent, or refuse to comply or disagree or reject what the parent says, but at least the child has a connection with a real person and that is a critical foundation to have.
Being yourself it is not always so easy. It is hard because it means taking the time and effort to reflect on who yourself is and to be honest and clear about what you expect, want, need and believe in. You can’t be clear to your child, unless you are clear about it yourself.
The truth is real people, including parents have flaws and limitations. They are not necessarily always consistent or united or calm. They are not always interested in what their child is doing. They don’t always want to spend time with their child or help out with homework late at night or go on a field trip. They don’t always have the time to go to a sports game or make a nutritious dinner. They don’t always enjoy playing games with their child. Sometimes they are too rushed or tired to have a lot of patience with their child. Sometimes parents will have to take care of their own needs even if it makes a child angry or disappointed. Sometimes a parent is more rigid or lenient than other parents. Sometimes they are more old-fashioned or new fangled than other parents. Everyone is different and everyone should feel OK about being themselves.
I totally agree with those of you who caution that we need to make sure parents don’t feel they have free license to be hostile, controlling or neglectful, and that we need to protect children from their parents sharing too much. But I believe we can protect children in these ways and still give parents more room and support for being themselves.