You can’t go anywhere these days without hearing something about parenting. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a parent. And hang out with lots of parents. And work at a parenting magazine. But the trend we’re all noticing lately is an avalanche of criticism. Really, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t world for moms and dads. Has it always been like this? Maybe. But at one point, how you were messing up your kids was whispered discreetly between friends. Today, with our every thought out there in the world every moment of the day, it seems like parents get it from all angles all the time. Who wins? Not parents, who find their confidence shaken at every turn, as they’re simultaneously told (sternly) to follow their instincts.
Guess what? We all get to have our own ideas about what’s best for our kids and no one has the right to show you up for how they think they do it better. Yes, it takes a village, and we all learn a lot from each other, but there’s a huge valley of difference between sharing wisdom and passing judgment.
Here are three things I never say to parents:
“I’ll never do that”: The biggest thing I’ve learned since becoming a mom is to never say never. Don’t get me wrong—before I had kids, I said it all the time. I had a list as long as my arm of all the things I’d never do. I’d never send junk in my kids’ lunch, or let them sleep with me, or watch TV for more than an hour a day, or get away with backtalk. Pfft! I’ve since learned that kids pop out with their own temperaments and preferences and many parents spend a crazy amount of time just trying to keep their heads above water (I’m definitely including myself in that group). But sometimes, that’s because we think every rule we created pre-kids needs to be set in stone. It doesn’t. Some will work and some will fall away, and that’s OK. I have managed to hold on to a few “nevers” and they’re important to me right now, but they may seem less vital down the road. Parenting evolves. Kids sometimes need (or don’t need) things you didn’t expect. So I never look at another parent’s choices and say, “I’ll never do that.” Because you just never know.
“You should”: I think it’s a good rule of thumb to never start a sentence with these two words (unless it’s something like, “Yes! You should send your kids to your parents and take some time for yourself!”), but it’s especially unhelpful when you’re in a discussion with someone about kids and parenting. It’s hard not to—it’s instinctual and I think it’s almost always meant with the best intentions, as a way of saying “This worked for me or a friend, so it will work for you, too.” But that’s often not true. If I really feel I must offer my two cents (and that’s not always a good idea, either), I try stop myself from starting it like that, and have adopted this phrase: “Have you ever tried/heard of…?” I think it’s more respectful because, often, they have tried it. It seems much less combative for them to respond with “Yeah, that didn’t work for us,” than to have to refute what you’ve dictated as the solution to their problem. Who likes being told what they should be doing instead of what they are doing?
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“Good kids come from good parents”: I’ve seen this a dozen times on Facebook over the past month, usually in the comments section of a graduation photo. “You must be so proud—what a great kid. And good kids come from good parents!” I know—they’re just trying to pay the parents a compliment for their hard work raising their child, and rightly so. But when I read that phrase, I can’t help but think of the flip: bad kids come from bad parents. And I know we shouldn’t use the word “bad” to describe a child, but sometimes “good” doesn’t spring immediately to our lips, either. Is the child who bites her friend on a playdate or won’t listen at school or gets caught drinking or doesn’t graduate the result of bad parents? No. It’s not fair make that assumption. As I said above, kids arrive with personalities that sometimes surprise us, and do things quite the opposite of what we’ve taught them. The best thing that can happen is to have our village come close and be supportive when our kids are not showing the traits we’ve been trying (and trying and trying) to instill. I remember reading somewhere that parents tend to take a lot of credit for their “good” kids, when so much of how a child behaves is actually inborn (that’s not to say that parents don’t play important roles, too). That seems to be how society sees it, too, which does a great disservice to all those parents who work extra-hard every day to raise kids who don’t behave according to the owner’s manual.
One thing I always try to say to parents who choose to share their problems with me: “That must be hard.” Or sometimes, “I know how you feel.” Because often, I do. And because often, parents don’t actually need advice. They just want to unload to someone who will listen without judgment and let them know they’re not alone. That’s what the village is for. The rest of the rubbish should be kicked out to the curb.
Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her@T_Chappell.