Covering parenting and child development issues
"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself." (Eleanor Roosevelt)
When I found out I was pregnant, I made a conscious decision to remove the word "never" from my vocabulary, at least as it pertained to parenting. I figured proclamations containing that word would end badly - specifically, with me eating my own words.
Instead, when my husband and I saw public parenting in action, we'd play a little game. We'd make a mental note of the practical, creative parenting we saw in action and, in cases where things weren't going so smoothly, we'd try to decide what we'd do instead (not in front of the family in question, of course!) It was a very safe sort of parenting boot camp, one that allowed us to problem-solve with clear heads and none of the emotion or responsibility that came with parenting publicly in the heat of the moment. Like the role plays in which I engaged with my students, this little game allowed us to practice skills in preparation for the time when we'd be the ones in the trenches.
Somewhere between role-playing parenting solutions in the grocery store and parenting a teenager, I came to the realization that although I'd removed "never" from my verbal utterances, the word - along with all the pressure that came with it - remained entrenched in my expectations. Blatantly inappropriate behaviors - physically hurting or intentionally humiliating my daughter, foul language directed at her, for example - remained firmly on my list of don'ts/won'ts. Other less offensive parental behaviors crept into my vocabulary and action in times of stress. I realize that now that it was idealistic to expect otherwise, but as I broke those self-imposed parenting "rules" (does any parent ever manage to raise a child without saying "because I said so"?), I felt a sense of disappointment. After all, I was trained in child development, and had more than a decade of experience as a school counselor by the time my daughter came along. This should all be second nature. Piece of cake.
This philosophy was predicated on an equally fallacious foundation - that discliplining my own child would be just like discipling my students at school, that parenting her would be a succession of choices as simple as the game my husband and I had played in the grocery store before she was born.
Parenting is hard. Any well-meaning relative, friend or nosy passer-by in the grocery store who tells you otherwise either has never done it or is wearing her rose-colored glasses. Sure, it's rewarding beyond anything you'll ever do in your life - when it's going well, that is - but it is hard. The rules change daily, or on some days, minute by minute.
When I was a school counselor, I often joked with the parents of my students about the fact that kids don't come with instruction manuals. This is a source of great distress to many parents, but in reality, most of us would probably toss the book aside once we figured out the basics. Be consistent. Practice what you preach. Love the child, hate the behavior.
And many of these books fail to address an equally important guiding principle. As parents, we need to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes. Because we're definitely going to make mistakes. On a good day, the mistakes are small ones, but over the course of our children's lifetimes, there will most likely be some whoppers. We'll fall from our pedestals - hard - and feel as though we're too crumbled and broken to try again.
But being a parent means picking yourself back up, putting the pieces (yours and your child's) back together and trying not to take the same tumble again.
Fortunately, as my husband and I learned in the grocery store game, it's possible to learn from other parents' falls from grace. And once you're a parent yourself, it's easier to sympathize witht the mistakes other parents make - in the grocery store, among other places - because we've learned that parenting is dynamic. It's far from cut and dried and requires flexibility and a sense of humor every bit as much as the basics.
So on those days when it feels as though you have indeed made all of the mistakes, remember you're not alone. And if you call a friend who's also a parent, you'll probably find out that she's made the same one - or another one like it. Hang in there.
At least until the manual comes out.