Parents and the Culture of Criticism
Posted October 28, 2018
“So how are you adjusting to being a new parent?” I asked Sarah.
“I’m doing okay. I mean I’m tired, but it’s okay.”
“I'm glad to hear that, because a lot of parents tell me they feel a lot of pressure. There are a lot of opinions out there about how we should be parenting.”
“Oh! You mean that thing where everyone tells me I’m doing it all wrong the time!”
“Yeah. That thing.”
Do you want to know the truth? You probably are getting it wrong. Daily. Like I am.
If we step back for just a moment we know that. We know that we can’t help mistakes, that mistakes are part of any process, especially one as messy as a human process. We also know that everybody makes mistakes and that they are okay.
But then we see an article about how one shaming comment ruined some person’s life and we panic.
When I hear this idea that we are not supposed to mess up with our kids, I find myself asking what exactly is going to happen to our kids that is so terrible? And what happens to our kids if we don’t mess up? I hate living with the burden of having to be perfect, and I think you do too. If I accept it and act as though there is no coming back from mistakes, then I teach my kids that this is the real world. And that would be terrible because I want my kids to have the inner freedom to live beautiful lives full of meaning and connection. But there is no joy in perfectionism, only the eternal hamster wheel of endless striving that never satisfies. I want my kids to grow up in an entirely different world. That means I have to show them how to mess up and then get right back up again and try again. It means I have to show them compassion in their mistakes. It also requires that I show myself compassion for my own mistakes, and do this in their presence.
Everybody has an opinion on our parenting.
Years ago, on a brutally hot summer Saturday, while I was at work taking care of patients, my husband took our four-month-old son grocery shopping. They were grinning and talking to each other in the fresh vegetable section. My husband was selecting nutritious food for our family and showing all the veggies to our son. Suddenly a woman approached him. “Where are his socks? Didn’t you know babies need socks? He’s going to get cold feet!” My husband was flabbergasted.
When my husband told me about it later, I could tell he was worried I would yell at him too. But I said, “That’s ridiculous! His feet are not going to get frostbite from five minutes in the vegetable section on a hot day.” I wanted to find this woman and tell her that we both worked full time and that we were struggling to manage all the demands of being new parents. I wanted her to know that it was not going to help us take care of our baby, if she discouraged my husband from doing the grocery shopping.
In my parents’ generation, this kind of behavior would have been shocking. There was a term for people who got involved like that: a busybody. But it seems normal now. I hear stories like this from parents all the time.
The idea that one small thing will alter our child’s destiny forever is driving us crazy.
We come to parenthood vulnerable and open for advice, looking for guidance. But the culture around us values getting it right as a parent so highly, we get swept away by anxiety. We respond to that anxiety by looking for the right things we should be doing, but there are thousands of sources to sift through. So we tend to do what our neighbors are doing.
Have you ever tried relaxing about your kids? Doesn’t somebody show up to tell you that you’re doing it wrong? Your Facebook feed, a news story, a neighbor?
We are up against paralyzing parenting anxiety that cuts us off from connection with our kids, even when we know that connection is supposed to be the most important thing.
The moment I started in pediatric practice 10 years ago, I knew there was a problem. My older colleagues commented daily on how anxious parents were and how it was getting worse every year. “What is going on?” They asked.
Recently, Alex Williams wrote in The Independent that “… anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition... a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media.”
It’s a Shouldstorm
The moment that parenthood approaches, we get pulled into a storm of shoulds. We should do this, we should do that. And we definitely should not do that other thing. It makes us anxious and restless. It drives us to work very hard for our kids, but it steals our joy. We are told that everything we do matters, and that we will harm our kids if we mess up. For just a moment, if we can step out of the shouldstorm, we might notice that twinkle in our child's eye when they notice something interesting. And that's where life really happens.
©Alison Escalante MD