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FoMO Parenting: Nothing New

Millennials and Facebook didn't invent parental competition and anxiety

As if being a parent wasn’t hard enough, now we have to worry about FoMO Parenting. This is a permutation of the FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) that people report experiencing on social media. Only know we worry about it for our kids. Parenting is plenty stressful without this whole new level of anxiety. However, before you feel bad for succumbing to FoMO Parenting in addition to whatever you're not doing for your kids, rest assured that FoMO Parenting isn’t new. Social media just makes it easier to see.

Parents are always taking cues from those around them. We take in information in four “meaning” channels. One is utility – can I use this information? A second is self-esteem and identity—am I a good person? The third is in the context of an individual’s perceived role as a parent—am I a good parent? The fourth is in a social context—do YOU think I’m a good parent?

This is a quadruple whammy and they are often intertwined. Most of us want to be accepted as a normal part of social functioning and most of us want to be good parents. It gets complicated when we also want to be seen as good parents by our social group. This cognitive function reinforces certain social norms—and thus has usefulness for the transmission of cultural norms-- but over-reliance on this aspect means that the target goal is the parent’s self-esteem and sense of acceptance rather than the wellbeing of the child.

Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock
Source: Pamela Rutledge/Shutterstock

Paying attention to others isn’t all bad, as parents often learn useful things from each other, such as parenting techniques, which teachers do a better job, which games or movies are appropriate for children or how to get to the soccer game. When you get information from others, however, you are giving away authority. You are relying on others’ judgment to make decisions. It’s all a question of degrees.

We all pay attention to what others are doing. Our brains dedicate the most energy to processing social information. Things like social comparison are a normal by-product of human cognition as it is essential to our physical and psychological wellbeing to be able to navigate the social environment effectively. This was true prehistorically and it’s true now. It’s how we can organize into teams, tribes, and coffee klatches.

There is a tendency to view social comparison as a weakness or personality deficit as if we were supposed to be completely guided by an internal compass. This is wrong. It is, like all things, a question of balance. Relying too much on our internal drives and goals makes us socially selfish, unaware of other’s values, needs and behaviors and, in general, lacking in social and emotional intelligence. (And not such a great parent, either). On the other hand, continually watching what others are doing to be liked (which is essentially a fear of exclusion or abandonment) without any internal compass reflects a lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy. This also impairs our ability to provide the structure and security that allows children to flourish.

Parenting is both wonderful and stressful. But as usual, people are creating a new level of worries on top of all the “regular” anxieties we have every day. Now when parents get information (however they receive it—on or offline) they have to consider if they are giving in to FoMO Parenting.

Social media amplifies the amount of information available. This can be good when we become aware of information resources we didn’t have before, whether it’s after school programs, health information or academic support. It can apply pressure when people want to make sure their children have “all the advantages” or when they worry they aren’t a good parent or that other people think they aren’t a good parent, resulting in what people are calling FoMO Parenting. Social media isn’t, however, our only source and it’s often not the most influential source. People are likely to be much more influenced by peers and family than Facebook friends. The Millennial parents did not invent FoMO. I’m a pre-Facebook Boomer and I saw plenty of FoMO Parenting when my kids were young. People FoMO’d in line at the grocery store, at school gatherings, soccer games, and passing each other on the street.

No matter the source, if you’re running yourself ragged, a victim of FoMO Parenting trying to keep up with (or as) the mythical perfect parent, here’s some advice:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Reflect on your fundamental goals
  3. Be grateful for new information
  4. Recognize you have a choice based on what makes you and your child’s life better If you feel pressure to “do something” based on what you see others do, then quite hanging out on social media
  5. Remember that you have control over you, Facebook doesn’t
  6. People only tell you about the good stuff on social media, since why would we want to post and remember the bad stuff in perpetuity?
  7. Perfection is over-rated (if not impossible) in parenting

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott referred to something called “good enough mothering.” A good enough parent is committed to parenting, pays attention to the child, provides a sense of security, knows she is going to screw up and knows that, just as the sun rises each day, she will keep trying. A good enough mother is not always blissful; she feels stress and strain, runs out of patience and wishes she had more of lots of resources at her disposal--psychological and material. She worries about doing too much, not doing enough and keeps trying anyway. The perfect parent isn’t guided by FoMO Parenting, nor is she aiming for perfection. (When you know what that is, tell me.) The perfect parent is good enough, guided by the knowledge that he or she keeps showing up and trying. What the rest of them do is their problem.

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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