This week my son hit eighteen years. For a while now he has been taller than me, more stylish, and it’s been years since I could have had any chance of helping him with maths homework. He has, like most his age, become a nocturnal creature at the weekends, going out when I am beginning to think about bed, and coming home shortly before I’m roused from my slumber. But sitting with him on his birthday I cast my mind back over those years, which seem to have flitted past in an instant, to reflect on what I have learned about how to be a parent.
You can never be right but you are never really wrong.
If my intention as a parent is positive, and if I make the best decisions I can then it is possible to let go of the need to be right, knowing that I never can be, not all of the time. I often imagine my children sitting in a therapists room in years to come describing with incredulity some of my most unhelpful interventions, but I know I can only ever be me, and my ability to consider that “enough” probably does my children more favours than harm.
Criticism is more easily felt than spoken.
Early in my work as a therapist I realised that criticising a parent is damn hard, even in the most extreme of circumstances. “Yes, they left me tied to a post without food and water for weeks on end but obviously I love them, they’re my mum and dad”. Although this has never actually been said there have been many statements of similar shade. We cannot easily find it in ourselves to criticise our parents, but this reluctance does not serve us well.
Parenting needs a healthy dose of fallibility. Children need to see we are far from perfect because otherwise we are pretending to be something we are not and encouraging our children to aspire to something they can never be.
I often tell my children I expect them to point out what went wrong when they were children, where there were differences between what they needed and what they got. They might never feel able to highlight it to me, but they may feel more able to identify it when they need to without the additional burden of guilt and disloyalty.
Healthy boundaries are critical.
Too many boundaries are no more or less damaging than insufficient boundaries. Giving children too much guidance, trying to maintain too much control serves only to stifle and restrict the development of another human being. Our children are not ours, they are loaned to us for safekeeping. Too little guidance and interest shown frequently manifests in feelings of low self worth and questions about value. A parent can mistake an abdication of appropriate responsibility for giving “freedom” but they are not the same things at all. We are all products of our own childhoods, we are controlled by our own sense of right and wrong, and we are subject to our own inbuilt boundaries, and we must consider these when setting them for our children. Being a human is difficult, living with another human makes it more difficult still, and then creating a third human is a something else again.
We are the model of relationships our children hold.
Statistically a dismal proportion of couples who have children manage to stay together in a healthy relationship, but our responsibility for and our influence over the way our children perceive relationships never stops. I once heard someone on the radio suggest that the greatest gift a father can give his children is to show his love for their mother. I think there is a deep truth in this, and I am sure it is true for mothers love for fathers too. Even when families are fractured, however long it takes to heal the wounds, surely a return to a healthy, supportive and caring relationships between parents is of greatest value to the children. Conflict is inevitable and can be catastrophic, but there is no need for it to be catastrophic forever. When children witness the bitterness and resentment between parents they are learning nothing about the value of positive and healthy emotion. If there were one single lesson I would want my children to have it is that one. If you act with love you will never be without a feeling of love. That is huge.
We all have the opportunity to break the cycle.
It is true that the abused can become abusers but it is similarly true that the abused often recognise the brutal damage done to them and vow never to repeat the same ghastly mistakes. They show affection and love where they were left with destructive dysfunction. They encourage and support where they experienced nothing but empty space. Of course whichever difficult childhood experiences we correct in our own parenting we make other mistakes instead, ones we can’t see, and ones which our children will have the opportunity to correct later on. This is the cycle of family life, and to try and ignore it or pretend that it is possible to “do parenting correctly” is mythical and damaging.
When my children were young it was easy to be a parent. Just like in the picture Tom would only need some paint and paper, and Beth would happily sleep on the table while he worked. It is as they grow older that the huge responsibility of raising humans becomes more apparent. I know that I entitled this piece “How To Be A Parent” but the truth is, I have no idea. I have cobbled together a hotchpotch of repeating what worked for me as a child and adjusting what didn’t. I have tried to act from the heart and the head in equal measure. I have made awful mistakes and let down my family in spectacular ways on numerous occasions, but through it all I have loved with all of my heart. In the end, that is the best that I or any of us can ever do.