Parental separation, child care, attachment parenting, leaving babies to cry, never leaving babies to cry, too many after school activities, not enough stimulation, free range parenting , working mothers, stay at home mothers, tiger mothers, hang on where are the fathers here? Geez it’s not surprising that young people today are the horrors they’re portrayed as with so much stuff ‘damaging’ them.
The nature of this damage is often unclear. Stuff is bandied about regarding ‘self esteem’ or ‘stress hormones’ but a lot of time what ‘damage’ spells is: ‘Mothers this is your fault, why have you perpetuated/not stopped this damage that is happening to your children RIGHT NOW’.
Parental guilt is journalistic catnip, and is yet another thing constantly thrust at parents, most often mothers, until they start believing it because we all feel guilty sometimes don’t we? About how little time we spend with our kids? About how we’re buying their love with material goods? About how our relationship with their other parent didn’t work out?
I’ve never seen, though, anyone talk of another way of looking at this – of understanding and accepting that we probably won’t bring up our children to reach their maximum possible potential. This is really what media talk of ‘damaging children’ amounts to – all those working mums, or attachment parents or single parents or just somewhat flakey parents are not ruining their children’s lives. The Media and The Internet and Advertising are not going to rot their brains. Because kids are resilient. Humans are resilient. If we weren’t, we’d all be in a state of mental fugue by the time we were 12. We can cope with the fact that Mummy often said she was busy, or Dad shouted sometimes or once Mummy didn’t give us a cuddle once when we were feeling sad, all other things being basically OK.
And yes, the way we parent will most likely have some negative impacts on our children. We may bring up kids to be too averse to conflict, or bad at taking criticism, or too uncompromising or with a short temper. But you know what? Despite that they will most likely still enjoy friendships, satisfying and lasting relationships, educational achievements and decent jobs. Your mum and dad do fuck you up. But only slightly.
Middle class parents are portrayed as agonising over the slightest decision: ‘What if seven is too late to start classes in Mandarin? He’ll end up cleaning toilets for a living and HATING me’, ‘If I don’t do a good princess castle cake for her birthday no one will be her friend and I’ll have ruined her entire childhood’. The flip-side implication being, I feel, that those parents who can’t stretch to the cost of cello lessons are assumed immune to this sort of thing because they ‘don’t care about education’ and think good parenting consists of shouting lots at their numerous uncouth offspring and keeping them quiet with expensive gadgets bought with the immense wealth of benefit payments.
Classism aside (mostly as that’s a whole other post) I feel if you are worrying, even a little bit, about whether you’re doing the right thing, you are probably doing the right-enough thing. If you find parenting hard and the decisions a bit worrisome, that’s fine. If you’re being crushed by guilt that your every decision could send their future lives into a swan dive, I’d say ‘Calm down, you’re only their parent’.
The media likes to present research on profound neglect, such as the heartbreaking lack of care suffered by Romanian orphans, as though it is some kind of continuum on which your children may be found if you’re not careful. If, for example, you go to work before a certain age, or don’t constantly hold in-depth conversations with them or don’t have a family meal every day. Not only is this insulting to the genuine sufferings of the appallingly neglected, it’s also insulting to humans’ general ability to be the parents that their kids need them to be in the vast majority of cases.
It also rankles with me that privileged parents are encouraged to cluck over minutiae when plenty of children endure experiences rather more testing than not being selected for the school debating team – persistent poverty, imprisoned parents, being a carer to a family member, childhood illness – and nonetheless come through with flying ‘being a sorted human being’ colours.
A lot of parents need to forgive themselves more, stop looking into the crystal ball of doom and appreciate that, actually, their kids, right now, are basically OK and are very likely going to stay that way. So don’t start saving up for a psychiatrist just yet, and if they do need one later, swallow your pride and accept it might not be all about you.