Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Good parenting and surviving as a parent

There are two basic things that I have found useful as a parent.

The first is all the good parenting practice I have been taught and often remember to use. Baggage has been giving summaries of what she is learning in her classes right now. What she posted most recently is all about descriptive praise, similar to what I talked about before. Baggage is doing a great job of explaining things carefully and well.

These things really, really help. It is so much better to praise than to punish. It is SO important to remember to teach your child what you want. So many parents, even good and loving parents, teach children by telling them what they should not do. No one tells a kid before going shopping, "Let's talk about the rules for stores. There are long straight places that look like perfect places to run, but we have to walk in the store. It is also really important to stay close to me. We should always be able to see each other." Nope. We get into the store and then yell, "NO RUNNING. Come back and stay here with me!"

So all this stuff is good.

But it is also dangerous. It gives us the illusion that if we do this parenting stuff right we can control how the kids behave. If we just make enough charts, reasonable goals, remember to give rewards, and generally always be the cheerful, alert, engaged perfect parent, we will have perfect children who do their homework and clean their rooms and never get into any trouble.

When they don't turn out to be these perfect children, or adults, we feel horrible guilt. We exclaim, "What did we do wrong?" Often the answer is NOTHING.

Sometimes there is a diagnosis to explain the failure of perfect parenting. Sometimes our expectations of what children can learn and internalize is not consistent with some very basic aspects of that child.

Sometimes we "misunderestimated" the power of the behavior we wanted to "correct." If a child had a strategy that saved her life, that allowed her to survive years in a damaging environment, that is not going to go away because we remembered to praise the other behavior that we prefer in its place. A child who is reasonably and deeply ANGRY and hurt over what has been done to them, or who is terrified of being hurt and believes that getting close to you is risking all sorts of pain, is not going to get over that because you praise them for telling you the truth.

The wonderful parenting techniques are wonderful. They can do a lot and I think and talk about them a lot. They are important.

But they are not magic. They do not simply work. The children for whom we care are not programmable.

So we need the other half, the half they don't teach us in those parenting classes: acceptance. We need to remember that we can do everything right and the child, or young adult, still is a complex human who will make his or her own choices, who will act from pain and experiences that we cannot control. You can do everything right and things can be going wonderfully and then, perhaps because you were doing everything right and things were going wonderfully, the child deliberately does something outrageous.

It could be for all sorts of reasons. It could be because all this goodness and cooperation started to feel unreal. It began to feel like they were living in a Disney movie and the kid needed things to feel real -- so he or she left out the milk to spoil, broke your favorite thing, or stole the neighbor's bike just to inject a little reality into the world. Or maybe they needed to know, again, that you would still love them if they were naughty -- that your love wasn't contingent on this behavior plan working. Or maybe they were overcome with rage that all their life wasn't like this. Suddenly they realized this is how they SHOULD HAVE BEEN TREATED and all the rage against their early life came exploding to the surface. They are mad. They are mad at what was done to them and they are mad at you for making them realize that and making them have to admit that the parent whom they still love was mean to them and it is confusing and frightening and to hell with your nicey-nicey praise and rewards and positive encouragement!

What they don't tell you in the parenting class, is that if you do everything right, you just might make them feel safe enough to feel the rage.

What they don't tell you is that long stretches of everything going SO WELL are often inexplicably followed by sudden stretches of everything going to hell in a handbag.

So the parenting techniques are invaluable. You can't do this without them.

And they are not enough. You also have to remember that you cannot heal them or walk their own journeys for them. They have some serious healing of themselves to do. They need to walk that journey and heal themselves, and we have to accept that we can parent, but we cannot control.


  1. Great post, a simple concept that I often overlook.

  2. Well said. Even though our foster daughter is only a toddler I'm constantly trying to do this or that in order to prevent the losses in her life from leading her into something bad someday in the far future. Which makes no sense because she's little and may not be here all that long and doesn't seem to be reacting to all this with any problems. And so I worry that no problems means there's something terribly wrong and redouble the attachment efforts. It's hard to remember that for all we do, she will in fact make her own choices someday and that those will be her responsibility. Sorry I missed de-lurking week- I've been reading since last summer, just before we started fostering. Great job!

  3. Sage words. Thanks you.

  4. Great post. I think some wounds are just too deep to heal. Can it take the edge off some of the behaviors? I hope so. But can it fix the underlying problems? No way.

    More than anything, it helps me recognize what Bug does right and not worry so much about all that is wrong.

  5. great post. thanks. I am here via Baggage. I realise that this is written re "children with a history" but it could just as easily apply to any parent, and indeed any relationship. Even newborns have their own personalities and will react or not react in ways we cannot predict or control, and past that, everyone is "with history" (ahhh. baggage that matches eh, Baggage?) And we have to trust that doing it as well, with as many new skills, as we can will help a lot. But also be able to let go, to know that trying to be the "perfect" anything isn't going to work all the time... everyone else is their own agent. (Not to mention one's self... wish I could say I was always sweet and relaxed when I treat myself well, eat well, sleep well, surround myself with goodness etc... nope, no such good luck). Thanks for a reminder.

  6. I've printed out copies. This is the best blog I have EVER read, and at a perfect time. Thanks you!!

  7. Great post. We're struggling right now and this was a good reminder that we can try some strategies but we might all just need to hang on and get through it. ~Kari


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