Parenting isn’t easy under any circumstances, and parents seem to be under excessive pressure today to do everything “right.” Books, classes, and websites abound to teach parents how to do what used to be a rather simple proposition. Experts are everywhere; unfortunately, some will undermine your confidence in your ability to parent your own children.
The “Expert Class” has convinced parents that they’re inept and completely incapable of completing the simplest of parenting tasks without consulting them. And it’s not just the credentialed experts. Friends, family members, and people on the street liberally dispense advice and many parents feel so overwhelmed that they lose confidence in their ability to make good decisions for their children, constantly second-guessing themselves. Worse, many parents leave the parenting up to the “experts.”
Dr. Ray Guarendi, clinical psychologist and father of ten, describes the pressures this way:
Few things can ruin the enjoyment of parenthood more surely than a fear of mistakes. Nowadays so many parents live with the daily worry that they will accidentally set in motion some emotional hang-up that will plague their youngster through childhood and maybe into adulthood. One single parent mom told me she was reluctant to discipline her strong willed son because she didn’t want him to grow up with bad feelings towards women.
It’s no surprise that parents are so skittish. They’ve been blamed for everything from Waldo’s bellyache to his dropping out of school. Somehow, some way, the finger gets pointed back at the folks. They must have miscalculated or blundered at some crucial stage along the way. Out of ignorance, inexperience, lack of sophistication or savvy, they’ve done something to create the instability or defect in Sigmund’s mental health.
Let’s begin with a basic premise: They are your children and you know them better and love them more than anyone else on the face of the earth. This doesn’t mean that you’re a perfect parent or that you’ll never make any mistakes, but it means that more than anyone on the earth, you care about the well-being and success of your children and therefore are the best qualified to make decisions on their behalf.
However, in order to be an empowered, confident parent, you must learn to recognize when others, whether they are “experts” or family members, overstep their bounds and when it may be appropriate—and better—to trust your instincts and judgement.
1. The Pediatrician
The other day I was talking to the mother of a newborn baby girl. She shared with me the pressure new mothers feel to breastfeed their babies. Right after the birth of her daughter, the nurse asked how she planned to feed the baby. When she said she planned to breastfeed, the nurse said, “Oh good! She’ll be able to go to college, then!”
Medical decisions often present challenges, in particular to new parents. Those who choose not to circumcise, vaccinate, test for heartworm (or whatever else they do to newborns these days) arouse suspicions within the medical community.
We ran into issues when our kids entered the “tween” years. If you haven’t been through this yet, prepare yourself. Around the age of 12, the doctor wants you out of the exam room so she can talk to your child about his sex life (and offer appropriate contraceptives). When I took one son for a 12-year old well check, we saw a pediatrician who was new to the practice. She entered the exam room, took his medical history, and then told me to leave so she could examine him and talk to him privately. My son shot me a panicked look that said, “Don’t leave me alone with this woman!” He then told her, “I want my mom to stay.” She persisted (rather forcefully) and explained that she wanted to talk to him in private about some things. I insisted and she reluctantly let me stay, although she made it clear she disapproved. She began to ask him things like, “Have you lost your virginity yet?” and “Are you attracted to boys, girls, or both?” I stopped her and explained that we had that subject covered and there was no need for her to go on. It was not a relevant medical issue for my 12-year-old son. I’m glad I stuck around so that we could debrief after that office visit (and also so I knew we needed to find a new doctor).
It’s important to understand that whether your kids are two or twelve, you’re the parent and you know what’s best for them. Just because most parents comply with the vaccination schedule, the medication recommended for wiggly boys, or being ordered from the exam room doesn’t mean that you have to. Yes, you’ll be viewed as the overprotective, paranoid, helicopter parent. But you’re in this for your kids, and your private family medical decisions are nobody else’s business.
I’m not advocating eschewing medical doctors, medication, or modern technology. I’m only saying that as with many things in life, it’s important to do your homework and understand that what’s right for most children may not be right for your child. Medical decisions are very personal and it’s important to find a pediatrician or family doctor who shares your values (or at least is not hostile to your views) on medical (or social) decisions that are outside the mainstream. Ultimately (child abuse cases excepted, obviously), you have the right to make medical decisions on behalf of your children.
The pressure begins very early—the prenatal mommy wars are some of the worst. When I was pregnant with our second child, several of our friends were expecting babies around the same time. We enjoyed sharing our pregnancies together and cheered and encouraged each other through bouts of morning sickness, miscarriage scares, bed rest, and false alarms.
We also obsessed together over diet, exercise, prenatal vitamins, and the decision about breastfeeding. I admit that I felt pressure and decided to breastfeed because the rest of my friends all planned to do it and I didn’t want to be the “bad mom” who started her kid out on the bottle. It ended up being a bad decision for a number of reasons. I’m not anti-breastfeeding and I certainly do recognize the wonderful health benefits, but for our family, it was the wrong decision and we went through weeks of misery because I let the opinions of my friends weigh too heavily in my decision-making process. I failed to remember: I am the parent, I know what’s best for my child.
When the time came for our son to begin kindergarten and we decided to try homeschooling, one friend exclaimed, “But what about the prom?” Terrible mother that I am, I hadn’t even given it a thought (he was only 5 years old!).
That was a make-or-break moment for me in our homeschooling journey and in the development of our parenting philosophy. Back in 1996 homeschoolers weren’t “out” to the extent they are today. Especially in the early years, we faced many questions about our decision to homeschool. Some friends were genuinely curious and asked innocent questions. Others expressed serious concern that our children would be social misfits. Every homeschooler (parents and kids alike) deals with a zillion questions about the “S” word—socialization.
While it’s always good and important to seek advice before making important decisions, your friends’ priorities may be different from those of your family. With major parenting decisions it’s important to zoom out and look at the big picture. A complex array of values, preferences, and beliefs form your family’s unique ethos and determine your choices and priorities, and even your best-intentioned friends may not share those priorities. The “prom question” actually helped us to think through the long-term consequences of homeschooling and cemented our decision to continue. Once you make your decision, own it and remember: You’re the parents and you’re capable of making the best decisions for your kids.
[As it turned out, our son who never went to school attended two proms his senior year and our son who attended public school for his final two years of high school didn’t go to the prom.]
Many parents feel intimidated by professional educators and school personnel. (It doesn’t help that they make the parents sit in miniature chairs during parent-teacher conferences!) Often there is a sense that “they’re the experts, they know what’s best.” While the teachers certainly possess a certain level of expertise based upon their education and experience in the classroom, remember that you are the expert on your child.
Glenna, a mom from Ashland, Ohio, described a story about her daughter’s public-school experience: “Year after year, I asked my daughter’s teachers about helping her improve her illegible handwriting. Year after year, I was told her handwriting wasn’t any worse than any of the other kids, and that the teacher could read it.” Glenna, whose daughter has spina bifida, knew that handwriting would always be a struggle for her daughter, but nevertheless, she knew her writing could improve if given the proper attention.“The final straw came when she was age 9 and I protested that handwriting is a life skill. I argued that we must have legible handwriting, even if just for simple things such as taking phone messages or filling out a McDonald’s application (this was early 1998, before the day of online applications).” She was stunned when the teacher shrugged and said, “Actually, a McDonald’s application can be scanned into a computer and filled out that way.”
She withdrew her daughter the next month to educate her at home and the first thing they worked on was her handwriting. “It still would never be called beautiful, but at least it’s perfectly legible.”
The education “experts” don’t always know what’s best for our children. Often, classes and curricula are designed as a one-size-fits-all proposition. Children who do not fit the norm sometimes fall between the cracks and parents should not hesitate to step into the gap and be advocates for their children because they know their individual needs better than anyone else in the world.
4. Parents and In-Laws
“You turned out OK. What’s wrong with the way we raised you?” Most parents have probably heard this in one form or another, either verbally or by implication. A pastor recently shared that his parents reacted this way when, at age 27, he became a Christian and made major changes in his life and in the way he and his wife raised their children. His parents felt hurt and offended by what they saw as a personal rejection.
Our parents can be a wonderful source of advice and counsel as we raise our children. Their experience is invaluable and even when we choose not to take their advice, we should do our best to remain respectful rather than confrontational. Our parents naturally have a great deal of their identity wrapped up in their children and any rejection of advice about the grandchildren can feel very personal.
The other side of this coin is that we may carry baggage from our own childhood. If our relationship with our parents is rocky or we feel like they don’t respect our adult decisions, we may be overly sensitive and inappropriately reject good advice because of our desire to gain control over the relationship.
John Rosemond, in his book New Parent Power!, wrote:
Problems can arise when grandparents continue to perceive and treat their offspring as children long after their maturity and emancipation. In those cases, the grandchildren often become trapped in the middle of a power struggle between grandparents and parents. No one can win contests such as these, but the biggest losers are always the children.
In his book, Rosemond discusses a talk he and his wife had with their adult son and daughter-in-law, who lived two doors down when the Rosemonds’ grandchildren were born:
This close arrangement will only work if we have two understandings: First, it’s our job to always spoil your kids; your job is to never spoil ‘em. If you don’t do our job, we won’t have to turn around and do yours. Second, when in Rome, which is our house, do as the Romans do. And when the Romans come to your house, do as the Romans do.
Taking an “our house, our rules” stance with your parents while allowing them a bit of autonomy (within reason) if they are kind enough to babysit will likely keep the peace and lay the groundwork for a special relationship between your children and their grandparents.
5. Random Busybodies
The woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store as your children are whining. Your neighbor who drops by unexpectedly and critiques your housekeeping skills. The know-it-all mother at the park who thinks your son is too hyper. They usually begin with a sugary-sweet, “You know, if you would only…”
These people can be maddening because there is often an element of truth to what they are saying. The problem is that they don’t have enough information to pronounce judgement upon you and your parenting abilities. They don’t know that your whining child in the checkout line is three hours past her nap and is suffering from an ear infection. The nosy neighbor doesn’t understand what it’s like to juggle toddlers, a part-time job, and migraine headaches. The mom in the park (the parent of that precious little girl dressed in all pink)… would it be wrong to pray that God “blesses” her with a rambunctious boy?
There is nothing wrong with considering their advice and making adjustments, if necessary, but more often than not, it’s best to move along; don’t let the busybodies live rent-free in your head. Unless they have a relationship with your family and understand your situation, you shouldn’t lose sleep over their criticism.
In the end, you will be accountable to God and to your children for your parenting decisions, though your adult children will ultimately be accountable for their own decisions.
Dr. Guarendi says that mistakes are part of parenting and most children survive in spite of their imperfect parents:
Kids are emotionally durable. The good Lord knew that children were going to be raised by humans, with all of our shortcomings, inconsistencies and flaws. So he built them to withstand us, and all the trial and erroring we do on our way to better parenting. Kids are not fashioned from spun glass. They don’t have to be ever so delicately shielded from all bumps and jostles. Not at all! Kids are built tough. They can be more likened to hard rubber, with steel belts on both sides.
Whenever you worry that you may have blundered badly in handling a situation or problem, remember: that occasion is only one of thousands upon thousands of interactions you and Waldo will have together. It’s the overall picture that matters, not the periodic foul-ups that all of us parents are prone to, especially if we’re raising kids and not something easy like wolves.
There’s a bright side to making mistakes. Responsible parents learn from mistakes. If you think you make more than your share, you’ll learn more quickly. Mistakes are how good parents get better.
John Rosemond says it’s important to raise your kids your way and to enjoy them:
Understand that people like me, people who write “parenting” books, articles, and newspaper columns have suggestions, ideas, and guidelines. They do not have the final word when it comes to your kids. You do. If you disagree with an expert on a child-rearing matter, give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
This is great advice. In addition, perhaps we can give other parents the benefit of the doubt and take a more generous view of their families. If nothing else, we can vow to not be the the judgmental busybody in someone else’s life.
Previously from Paula at PJ Lifestyle: