An Ode to Imperfect Parenting

By Catherine L’Ecuyer, published in El País on February 14, 2017

Children are not showpieces, pre-designed to satisfy the sweet dreams of an idyllic parenthood

When we discuss different parenting styles, we tend to polarize the issue, falling back on various stereotypes, like the cruel “tiger mom,” the “indulgent” or obsessive “helicopter” parent, or the “negligent” (or uninvolved) parent, to name a few. Tiger moms are authoritarian and do not hesitate to awaken their children at four in the morning to practise violin for two hours before rushing them off to begin a day as packed as that of a stressed-out business executive. Helicopter parents don’t let their children climb a tree or go exploring alone in the woods, for fear that might they fall or get dirty or be startled by a squirrel. Indulgent parents are dedicated to instilling in their children the idea that the world should work the way one wants it to. If it doesn’t, it is the fault of a cruel and unjust world that does not understand or respect how you feel and a child has every right to rebel against authority, which is never legitimate. Uninvolved parents spend their energy passing off their children into the hands of a third party for as much time as possible, until childhood, that stage of life that they consider too much of a headache, has passed by.

Which style do you identify with? Probably with none of them. These parenting styles are, in reality, stereotypes or labels that help us to understand why certain extremes can harm children. The problem arises when we, out of ignorance, use these labels to describe parenting styles that contribute positively to a child’s development. When we label other parents, criticizing them for ever-imperfect parenting, we unjustly associate them with one or another of these parenting styles, out of context and regardless of what is appropriate for one or another stage of development.

Examples? Accompanying a child and helping him or her to make good decisions does not necessarily make one an indulgent parent. Nor does making house rules that require one’s children to help set the table or have a schedule for practising the piano make one a tiger mom or an authoritarian father. Preventing a reckless son from climbing a 150-foot-high tree does not make one a helicopter parent. Allowing a seven-year-old daughter to play freely and without supervision in the backyard while we are doing something else does not make one an indulgent or negligent parent. Breastfeeding until the age of two, bringing one’s baby everywhere, and deciding not to send him or her to school before the age of six does not make one a paranoid or helicopter parent. Demanding that a son be honest, kind, and refrain from hitting his brothers does not make us cruel or dictatorial. And attending to crying babies or giving children encouragement when they are having difficulty or are the victim of bullying, is not being overprotective.

Raising a child isn’t something mathematical. Life is too rich and complex for one to be pigeonholed into one or another category of parenting styles. It’s only logical that we will be a mix of all of them (and more), and that we will be engaged in a constant struggle to better ourselves, seeking the best for children for whom we would give our lives. No, no one said that raising our children was going to be easy, but neither did anyone tell us that we were going to suffer so much by blaming ourselves for everything that doesn’t turn out the way we planned. Oh, the guilt! In it lies the secret of the success of the “prepackaged advice industry.” Yes, there are people who are paid to write about exactly what we must do and must not so that our children obey, eat, and sleep perfectly. They sell it as the “definitive parenting manual,” as if parenting followed a fixed method that never takes into account the freedom of the child. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Bad news for tiger moms or authoritarian parents, or those who “know it all.” Just let them wait to see it come back to get them. Perfect parents don’t exist and if we are told that they do, we should be suspicious of them, because if they never make mistakes, they never correct themselves. They are then setting themselves up to have dangerously conceited children, which is a clear indication that the parents were not perfect in the first place. The perfect parenting manual doesn’t exist, and for this simple reason: the people who write these books do not know our children. It might seem obvious that knowing another person is a prerequisite for educating them, but in an increasingly digital educational model, we can no longer take this for granted. In reality, true education begins, on one hand, with the knowledge that a parent has of his or her children, and on the other, with that parental sensitivity that develops as a result of spending time with them. Bad news for the uninvolved parents.

Generic advice that doesn’t take into account the age and circumstances of a child is of little use. For instance, being demanding on a child under the age of two could interfere with the secure attachment that is so necessary for his or her development. Parents should gradually begin to make demands on a child from the age of about three, in virtue of this secure attachment, which is the basis for trust, which in turn is the basis for authority. When we claim to solve problems based on advice “for everyone,” we lose ourselves in the mechanics and forget the purpose of education. In short, everything would go considerably better if we forgot the “how,” the “what,” and the various labels, and began to ask ourselves the “why” and “what for” of raising and educating children. Education is not the process of creating an à la carte child or a little Einstein. Children are not showpieces, pre-designed to satisfy the sweet daydreams of an idyllic or utopian parenthood. Education is like gardening. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to prune, remove some weeds from time to time, and keep a lookout for snails that try to get too close to the tender shoots. And it doesn’t mean that we will never make a mistake and prune too much or not enough. Yet despite the imperfection of the gardener, the plants continue to grow, like the forest that bursts into life again once the frosts come to an end in spring. To educate is to guide another free being to achieve perfection, following the natural laws of childhood.

Having a child is a risky decision, as risky as the freedom of the child that we bring into the world. It means allowing another free being into your heart; a being that can inundate your life with meaning, while also turning your heart upside down, or even leaving it shattered to pieces. And I am not referring to your quality of life being negatively affected, which, for those who understand what parenthood involves, is frankly of the least concern. Having a child is one of the most wonderful risks in the world. It is the greatest insanity that we have ever committed. But human nature is so curiously made that we repeat it over and over again.

(Translation Andrew Sheedy)

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