Saturday, 16 January 2016

What makes a good parent?

Being a parent - anyone can do it, right? Well yes, technically, anyone can become a parent if their reproductive bits are in working order and they manage to get together with a fellow reproductively functional type. Reproducing is however different from parenting. You can pop out sprogs like a rabbit, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a good parent to them.

There is a bit of trend on parenting blogs to self-congratulate and essentially say, "Let's not fight! We all have our different approaches, but we're all good parents really, whatever style we adopt." This is of course absolutely true; style doesn't really matter, when by 'style' you're referring to two alternative approaches which are both ultimately fine for your kid (breast or bottle, sling or buggy etc.). However, I think this narrative only really addresses fellow, lovely, caring Mummy types. If you are a parent whose 'style' involves going on holiday and leaving the kids to fend for themselves, deliberately depriving them of basic necessities, resenting them for existing, using them as physical or emotional punch-bags... Well, I don't think anyone would describe you as 'good'.

Though I'm pretty clear about what really isn't 'good', I don't think you can automatically say you're a good parent just because you don't abuse or neglect your child either. When I first embarked on parenthood, I thought I had a pretty clear idea about how to be good. It was just about loving them lots. As Duckling has grown however (and yes, I realise he's only two, so in parenting terms I still know NOTHING), it has become increasingly clear that love is just one small (but nonetheless bloody vital) piece of the puzzle.  There are also a whole bunch of other things that are needed - patience (soooo much patience) being one, and balance being another.  Specifically, you need to find a balance between:

Compassion and control: your child is a little person, and needs, like anyone to feel understood. If you don't empathise with them, then they both learn that their feelings aren't valid, and will struggle to learn to empathise with others. However, there is a difference between understanding your child's feelings, and giving into their emotionally-driven demands. They may desperately want that Kinder Egg in Sainsbury's, and genuinely be of the opinion that the world will end if they don't get it, but you know that they've already eaten the crust of the bread, six strawberries, a bag of Pom Bears and a banana. They do not NEED the Kinder Egg, it isn't good for them, and they won't eat their dinner if they have it, so in order to set appropriate boundaries and expectations, you say "I understand you want it but NO". (Or at least that would be what you'd do if you were a good parent. Duckling got the egg, smeared it all over his face, then didn't eat his dinner. Hmm, pretty sure I wouldn't even make a 'passable' grade with that.)

Consistency and change: We all know consistency is vital for kids - they need to know what to expect to feel secure. Seeing patterns is how they learn cause and effect. Consistency also helps to discourage undesirable behaviours. If you get a different response every time you chuck your bowl of Weetabix on the floor, you're going to keep doing it, just to see what might happen next time. If your Weetabix always gets calmly taken away, you quickly learn it's not worth chucking it. Unless you're Duckling of course, in which case you only throw food on the floor once you're done eating, and don't therefore care whether it's taken away, put back on your plate, eaten by Mummy, or trodden into the carpet: throwing is F-U-N! All this said, if you're repeating the same thing over and over and not having any impact, you need to recognise that a little flexibility in your approach might be required. Saying no to everything they try to do will just result in you being ignored eventually. Furthermore, every child is different, and what works for one, may well not work for another. Being a great parent means you recognise your little one's unique personality and temper your approach accordingly.  Easy, right?!

Intellect and instinct: if books, the internet and paediatric gurus are to be believed, being a good parent involves adopting a particular philosophy - in the modern era, one ideally backed up by all manner of chemical measurements and colour coded brain scans - and then applying the principles of this philosophy to your everyday parenting approach. This is all well and good, but it's very difficult to take a step back and think "what would Bowlby propose I do here?" when you two-year old is trying to ram a stickle brick into his sister's ear. On the other side of the coin, champions of instinctive parenting would tell you to ignore all the books and simply go with the flow - using your innate parenting smarts to guide your children through their early years, setting rules (or not) as you see fit. Great, but this falls down when you're a bit screwed up yourself, or your instinct fails to recognise that your child does not reason and behave like an adult. Your intentions might be good, but positive intentions do not always make for positive outcomes. And what do you do if you have no good examples to help form your parenting instinct? In the West, most of us now live outside of the extended family groupings common in other cultures, so we never really see other people raising their kids on a day-to-day basis. The only real role models we often have are our own parents, and they may well be the worst examples going.

Protection and permissiveness: you love your child and want to keep them safe from everything: scissors, dogs, germs, lakes, peas (they fit very snuggly up small nostrils). However, you also know that they have to explore the world in order to learn how to stay safe in it. This particular balancing act is the one Drake and I argue over most. I am quite laid back about safety (within reason - I don't let Duckling juggle with steak knives or anything). Drake should really work for the Health and Safety Executive. Cue many a discussion along the lines of "Why did you let him have that glass?" "I didn't LET him have it, he picked it up off the side." "Well why didn't you take it away?" "Because he was carrying it very carefully over to me, and I want him to feel confident about carrying things like that about." "But he spilled juice on the floor!" "Yes, but only a little bit and he didn't break the glass." "But he COULD have." "Well yes, and he could have been snatched up by a pterodactyl on the way, but he wasn't was he?" And so on...

Intervention and independence: Duckling, unlike his fiercely independent cousin, likes a lot of help to do things (a.k.a he's a bit lazy). This is fine, but sometimes for my own sanity and his self-confidence, I have to say nope, I'm not going to help you, you can do it yourself. Yes, it is quicker to carry him up the stairs (we have A LOT of stairs) and it is easier to take his shoes off for him, but if I do it all the time, he's not going to learn. The last thing I want is to get to his teenage years and think, "Why do I have this sullen, spoiled, lazy teenager on my hands?" OK, so  I almost certainly will think that at some (many) point whatever happens, but if there are occasions where he's willing and able to do things himself too, that'd be great. My sister on the other hand struggles to get Gosling accept help with anything. Cue a variety of heavy things being lifted and causing injury / damage, teeth not being brushed properly, clothing not being worn, food being shovelled in eyes... We both accept what our children are like, but we also both know that sometimes we have to push them outside of their comfort zone and make them do (or not do) things they don't like in order to foster independence / make them realise it's OK to ask for help.

Essentially, parenthood is all about a delicate calibration of approaches and reactions; recognising their nature and adapting your nurture accordingly. And apparently lots of alliteration. I know Duckling better than anyone, but it still isn't easy, and I'm sure I get it wrong a lot. But I suppose being a good parent doesn't necessarily mean you find the perfect solution, because there rarely is one, whatever the gurus may tell you. It means you TRY to find a way forward by seeking a balance and learning from your mistakes. And of course loving them to bits.

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