Before I had kids, I was a pretty good parent. Actually, I was the best parent. Out in public, at a grocery store for example, I’d walk around smugly judging other parents. I’d observe parents having a hard time with their children and would declare under my breath, “bad parent, bad kid, weak parent, out of control kid.” “Can you believe that kid is having a tantrum about Frosted Flakes. Just tell him no, and if he keeps it up, give him a spank. How hard is that?” I imagined myself at the helm, in control. A child wouldn’t dream of acting up around me. I’d rule with an iron fist. I equated obedient behaviour, with good behaviour, and good behaviour with being a good child. I thought the way to get that “good” behaviour was to be strict. It was a simple equation. Almost too simple.
It should come as no surprise that when I first became a parent, I wanted fingertip control of my kids. I wanted it so bad. But, I didn’t get it. And when I didn’t get it, when my son would disobey me, my brain would short circuit. I’d be beside myself in disbelief.
“What’s wrong with this kid?”
“Is he trying to mess with me?”
“What doesn’t he understand about, no?”
“Does he speak a different language than us?”
“I just said no, I know he heard me?”
The worst of it was the intentional defiance. It killed me. It made my blood boil. I saw it as complete and utter disrespect. He knows what I just said, yet he keeps doing it. He’s basically telling me that I’m a worthless weak parent that couldn’t control him if I tried. Looking back, I’m not sure that it was intentional defiance, or that he was trying to communicate to me that I was a loser parent. But, my parenting worth was tied up in being able to control and dominate my kid. If I couldn’t control his behaviour, then I must not be a good parent. I was failing. I was no better than those parents in the grocery store.
If I couldn’t control my son, then I wasn’t doing a good job. My little son’s actions, I thought, were a reflection on me. In that regard, any way that he acted that wasn’t happy or helpful, was a threat to me and my worth. Because of this insecurity, I needed to dominate and control my child so that I wouldn’t look like a weak or ineffective parent. That’s the truth of it. I was making his childhood about me. That’s some weird shit…not healthy and not based in reality.
Happy and helpful is great, but it doesn’t make up the entire range of the human experience. Sad, frustrated and mad are also very human emotions that we all experience. I wasn’t being realistic. I was holding my kids to an impossible standard. Why? Why would I do this? Well, I suppose having happy little robot children would have made things easier. But, how on Earth could anyone ever really expect this? I know other people who felt the same way. So, where did this idea even come from, that only obedient or passive children are good children?
I had a thought. Do we unwittingly start judging children and holding them to an impossible standard from day one? In an attempt to support new mothers (and fathers) and sympathize with them, are we also subtly judging the obedient goodness of their new children? It makes me wonder with questions like these:
Is he latching well?
Is he feeding well?
Is he sleeping well?
Is he sleeping through the night?
Is he fussy?
The one question that convinced me we might be doing more harm than good was this one: “Is he a good baby?”
Is he a good baby??
It seems like an obscure question to ask, but everyone seems knows what it means. From what I could gather, the question is in reference to the baby’s behaviour. If he is easy to take care of and does what we want, then he is a good baby. If he is not so easy to take care of and his behaviour is “difficult,” he is not so good (however no one actually says it).
Although possibly well-meaning, focusing on the baby, and how good he or she is, can actually have the opposite effect than intended. The reality is that most babies aren’t “good” as it is meant. Asking a question like this is to a mother (or father) could make them feel like they, or their children, aren’t measuring up… when they invariably reveal that their child is indeed human. Most babies tend not to meet this implied standard of goodness, and as a result, neither do the parents. And so starts the judging and measuring up. This isn’t the only example of how we equate compliance and obedience with goodness, but it’s a good example, and it’s also perhaps where it all starts.
**Let me propose something. If we are concerned about new mothers and new fathers and would like to offer our support, let’s focus on the parents. We can ask a new Mom or Dad: “How are you doing?” “Do you need anything?” “How can I help?”
Why we do this to ourselves, I don’t know. It seems like the definition of insane, trying to meet an impossible standard. It seems like the only two things it could result in are 1. Faking it, or 2. Feeling inadequate. Neither are that productive. Pretending never felt good to me, so I was left with not measuring up. Feeling like this made me dangerous, it put me on edge. Inadequacy led to insecurity, which for me, lead to frustration and anger. I tend not to be the best Dad when I’m angry. I was more prone to lashing out when feeling like this. And I know a bunch of other parents who have felt the same.
But here is the fix. Here is the solution: It’s not real. So let’s not buy into it. The standard is a sham. I call BS. Little kid are good, even if they are having a tough time. The absurdity of it becomes clear when we look at how we talk about our brand new babies: Is he a good baby? Is he sleeping through the night?
“I mean, yes of course he is a good baby. All babies are good. And no, of course not. No, he is not sleeping through the night. He is a baby.”
Once I got tuned in to the absurdity of how we talk about little children, it was easier for me to reevaluate what it meant for my children to be good. If all babies were good and the ways in which they behaved were completely normal, then maybe all kids were good too. Maybe my son was normal? I mean, his behaviour was not always helpful or easy. But realizing that “difficult” behaviour (yelling, crying, flailing) was: 1. normal and 2. Not an indictment of me and my parenting skills, meant…freedom! No longer bound by the impossible standard, I was able to see children as pure. All that kids do is natural; they are honest and transparent. More so than anyone else, kids are completely trust-able. They are good. I realized that my own kids were good. The veil was lifted and I started to see that their behaviours were normal, natural, and completely understandable.
My parenting evolved. I went from trying to snuff out unacceptable behaviours to trying to help my kids out instead. Behaviour is communication I realized. At first it felt really incomplete to “let misbehaviours go unpunished.” It felt unnatural not to respond with a show of power. But trusting that my kids were good, meant that guidance rather than punishment was more appropriate. Cooperation rather than domination was more effective. I did a 180 on how I saw and interacted with my kids, and it has gone a long way. My kids have responded. Ironically, their behaviour now is much better than when I was so concerned about their behaviour.