July 13, 2022
Summer’s here! It’s a time to kick back as a family and enjoy fun times together in lieu of maintaining the structure of school, extracurricular activities, and homework. Take a deep breath and sigh with relief. With more open space and opportunities for spontaneity, the summer also brings a chance for you to reflect on your parenting—to look at what’s going well, what hasn’t been working, and what you might like to change.
This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between ‘showing up’ versus ‘managing down’. ‘Showing up’ refers to compassionate parenting: meeting my kids where they are and not where I think they should be; offering choices by using ‘could’ or ‘maybe’; accepting their decisions as their own (excluding harm to self or others); refraining from offering advice unless they ask for it, no matter how much I think it would reduce their struggle. ‘Managing down’, executive parenting, is the opposite: it means telling your kids what they should do based on what you think is right, what you would like to see them do, and what ‘should’ happen to further the success you would like them to achieve. Of course, most of us, despite our best intentions, usually end up doing a bit of these. Last week, in a conversation with my young adult daughter, I slipped and offered a ‘should.’ Instantly, she responded angrily: “Why can’t you just listen without giving me unsolicited advice? I need you to stop doing this.” I quickly apologized and we changed the topic, somehow managing to finish our talk on a positive note. Afterward, I felt terrible. I so wanted to help her shift into a happier place. But the moment I used ‘should’, I stopped showing up—listening and started managing—telling. I made it about me.
When we parent from a place of ‘shoulds’, we are making our children’s lives about ourselves: our needs for them to look, act or be a certain way. In our society, where parents are blamed for their children’s struggles and praised for their successes, it’s tough to avoid living vicariously through our kids and teens. But when we do this, we convey that they are an extension of us, not their own people. It’s harder for them to develop self-worth, practice autonomy, and act with agency. Take a minute and ask yourself these two challenging questions:
- “How much of what I want for my kids is less about their capability and interests and more about my need for acknowledgment of my good parenting?”
- “What would it be like for me to separate my plan for them and let something grow organically? In which areas of their lives could we try this?”
Expectations about parents, especially mothers, emerge from cultural norms. These cultural ‘shoulds’ demonstrate an impossible standard to live by: nobody can reach the level of perfectionism that’s shown on social media, movies, or television shows. Instead, these ideals actually induce anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem in both youngsters and parents. Such a pattern of perfectionism interferes with the essential growth mindset that helps all of us take risks, learn and grow. But sometimes, we get too caught up in comparisons: why one teen is going to Harvard and your son is going to a state university; why your daughter spends more time on the soccer bench than other players; why your kids don’t do as many extracurriculars as other children. It’s a vicious cycle of compare and despair that leaves everybody in your family feeling inadequate, wanting more, or thinking they should do other things. In fact, many parents of neurodivergent kids often feel ashamed that they can’t make things easier for their youngsters and thus have failed. This perception is both unfair and unreasonable.
This summer, I encourage you to nurture a growth mindset in your family by changing one aspect of your parenting. Since the stakes are lower in the summer, spontaneity and experimentation can flourish. A growth mindset establishes that being human means living and learning: accept that you will make parenting mistakes, and put a dollar in the future therapy jar. Nobody comes away from raising kids unscathed. Scrapes and bruises are part of the territory. Instead of berating yourself for your youngster’s fumbles, take a pause, regroup, tweak your automatic response and pivot. When you remove the ‘failure’ mentality from your vocabulary about yourself, it will be easier to shift your perspective about your kids. Rather than paying attention to unmet expectations that foster disappointment, hurt and insecurity, shift your focus to shared hopes that nurture possibility, optimism and self-confidence. Practice accountability, making amends and moving forward. It’s this capacity to pivot that encourages us and our kids to keep going and growing.
Efforting reflects a growth mindset. You try something, see what happens, make adjustments and try again. Efforting reflects the adage “practice makes progress” rather than assuming that anything less than perfection indicates defeat. Efforting is more than ‘trying’: it’s an integrated body, brain and emotional state of engaging with a task rather than making a “throw-away” attempt. Efforting is what’s called for when nurturing a growth mindset in kids: you aren’t looking for a specific outcome (having your son get all A’s or making sure your daughter gets a coveted internship). While those things are great and, of course, you want to encourage your kids, collaborate with them on the goals that matter to both of you. Outline shared hopes and dreams, staying open to what makes sense to them and looking for compromises as much as possible. Forget about ‘my way or the highway,’ and work together to increase their participation and excitement. Focus on the steadiness of everybody’s efforting and accept that you and your kids will stumble. It’s how you all recover from these fumbles that is worth your time and attention this summer as you redefine parental success.
The reality is that you will stumble as a parent. Sadly, anger, guilt, and shame are often the first responses of many parents. Guilt refers to something that you did: it can lead people to amend their errors, be accountable and make a change. You may feel guilty and say to yourself “I wish I hadn’t done that” or “That was a poor choice. Ugh.” Shame encourages negative statements such as “I’m a bad mother because I did that” or “I’m not good enough.” Shame pushes parents to hide or deny their mistakes, dislike themselves, and, at its worst, leads them towards self-loathing. Or you may get angry at your kids the way your parents got angry with you. I truly regret the times when I heard words coming out of my mouth that sounded just like my judgemental father or my critical mother. But, rather than ignoring these poor choices or nasty words, I have been, and continue to be, as accountable as I can. Am I perfect? Definitely NOT. Am I less defensive and more genuine? Absolutely. Was it better than what my parents did? Most of the time, yes. Do I wish those events had never happened with my kids and that I avoid such errors until I die? You bet. But I won’t. I know for certain that I will say or do something irritating or inappropriate again despite my best intentions. All I can try to do is practice self-compassion and forgiveness without trying to be perfect. All you can do is stop blaming yourself for things that you can’t control, honor what is, and focus on what you can actually influence.
Of course, as parents, we don’t want to see our kids struggle. Their pain is so often our pain. It’s lousy to witness your child or teen wrestle with academic, social or emotional issues. You may do your best to ensure that their learning, emotional, and physical needs are being met and, yet, they will experience disappointment, frustration, sadness, and jealousy along the winding path of childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Our job as parents is to be present so we can meet our kids where they are without always fixing things. This is tough for many of us. Separate your expectations from your hopes and rely on ‘coulds’ more than ‘shoulds’. Make different choices as part of your efforting to realize that stumbling or even failure is part of a natural growth and maturation process. When my son lost being co-captain as a junior for his soccer team because he went to a party where alcohol was present and the police showed up, it devastated him. And, to be honest, it was a bit embarrassing for us as parents, too. Everybody saw those boys benched for four difficult games which the team lost and everybody knew why. But this really had nothing to do with me or my parenting. He made a poor decision and got caught. The following year, this experience made for a great college essay and helped him get into the university of his choice. You never know where things will lead.
You may also enjoy more parenting articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.