“I’m so afraid I’m going to blow it.”
The niece of a friend of mine, 24 and pregnant, confided to me while we were out walking last weekend.
“I mean. I’m just figuring out my own life. How am I going to be a great parent?”
My heart goes out to her. I’ve heard those same words, or words like them, from more young mothers and fathers than I can count. Sometime after the initial excitement and joy, sometime amidst telling family and friends, planning where to put the crib, and the figuring out possible names, most expectant parents are struck with the realization of the enormousness of the changes ahead. For first-time parents especially, the reality hits that they are not only birthing a new baby. They are also transforming themselves into new parents. It’s a thrilling and frightening idea.
Often enough, they make themselves more anxious than they need to be. It’s an anxiety born of love and hope. They want to be the very best parents they can be for this child who is, of course, the very best child in the world. If they had good parents, they hope and pray they will do the job as well. If their parents’ parenting fell short, they vow that they will do it better — while at the same time worrying that they won’t know how. Common myths about what it takes to be good parents both inspire and overwhelm them. Whether as a professional counselor or a family friend, I usually find myself talking to them about some or all of these myths:
- “I have to be a great parent to be good enough.” No, you don’t. For one thing, it’s impossible. No one is a perfect parent. Anyone who says he or she is a perfect parent is delusional or lying. It’s enough to set your standards at a reasonably high level and then to do your best to meet them. By the way, since you are human, you will fail — probably many times. It’s enough to be “good enough” most of the time and to keep making the effort.
- “I have to parent perfectly so my kids will turn out okay.” No, you don’t. Chances are your parents bungled quite a few things and you turned out okay. More important than perfection is the willingness to admit mistakes and to talk with the kids about what to do differently the next time. This models for kids that mistakes are how we learn. Rather than parenting perfectly, seek to learn how to parent mindfully.
- “Kids are scarred for life by the mistakes of their parents.” No, they’re not. Abuse and neglect can and do cause long-term harm. But within the realm of the ordinary mistakes made by ordinary people, children survive and thrive. Being imperfect and making mistakes shows them we’re human.
- “Someone out there knows exactly how to do parenting the right way.” No, they don’t. There are hundreds of parenting books on library and bookstore shelves. Each one has a different take on parenting. Each will work for some parents at least some of the time. For parents who really haven’t had any positive role models, the books can provide some guidance for consistent parenting. But ultimately it comes down to this: Love your kids. Provide them with some clear limits for responsible behavior. Behave responsibly and lovingly yourself. Be consistent but flexible. Love them lots. After that, it’s details.
- “If I don’t teach them everything they need to know, I’m a failure as a parent.” No, you’re not. There is no way that you can know everything about everything. Whatever you can’t teach them, someone else can and will. Chances are you have had many teachers in your life. Some of them were older adults. Some were peers. Some were the mistakes you made and learned from. Your children will have many teachers too. You will help them find various mentors (coaches, youth leaders, relatives, etc.). It’s also important that you support them when they find some of their own.
- “If I don’t provide them with everything they want, I’m failing as a provider.” No, you’re not. It’s important to do the very best of your ability to provide them with shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Everything else is extra; it’s a slippery slope for a parent to want to over-indulge their child. It’s great to be able to provide a trendy wardrobe, ballet lessons, and tennis camp but it isn’t necessary. Not everyone has the good fortune to be able to live the middle- and upper-middle-class lifestyle. What kids need more than $150 sneakers or a big-screen TV are parents who love them, who help them solve life’s problems, and who find time to play with them.
- “It’s important that I be my kids’ friend.” No, it’s not. Children need you to be a parent. Your child is not your peer. He is not your partner. She is not your confidant. Kids need room to be kids. They need to feel that you are in charge well into their teens. As they grow, they will push for more independence and you will require more responsible behavior. They will push some more. You will gradually let go. This is the rhythm of growing up. Treating kids as equals too soon or too fast disrupts their natural development into mature, healthy adults.
Close Enough to Perfect
My young friend and her husband have a lot going for them even though they are just starting out. They’re smart, sensitive people who love each other very much. Their apartment is small, their car is old, and they pay out a staggering amount each month to school loans but they do have jobs and they have figured out how to get by. Friends and family are as excited as they are about their pregnancy. Like all first-time parents everywhere, they won’t be perfect parents — but they will be perfect enough.