New parents are under a lot of pressure to get things right. There is advice everywhere you turn and, worse, a new understanding of the importance of the early years in shaping children’s future lives. It’s understandable to fear that at any moment a parent could miss a key step in the complex process of raising a child and set the child up for failure without ever intending to.
It’s time to calm things down. Yes, we know more today about infant and preschool development and we understand better how the developmental pieces fit together. But children themselves haven’t changed one whit. Babies are still the same as babies have always been, since you were young, since your parents were young, since even George Washington was young. Babies are the same as ever and knowing more about how they grow doesn’t mean we need to worry more about that growth.
But perfection is still the goal of many new parents. A recent study of Midwestern parents of newborns found tremendous pressure to be a super mom or a super dad. Researcher Carrie Wendel-Hummell found that the stress of new parenthood is felt equally by mothers and fathers. Both parents are liable to feel anxiety, depression, and stress, even though post-partum depression is traditionally thought of as a maternal issue. And, while worry about finances and employment surface in the period before and after a new baby arrives, parents cite the pressure to be perfect in their parenting as an overriding stressor.
Wendel-Hummell said, “Middle-class mothers often try to do everything to balance work and home life, and fathers are increasingly attempting to do the same. This pressure can exacerbate mental health conditions. If everything is not perfect, they feel like failures.”
Another look at the same problem was published this month in Nature, when seven scientists warned against blaming parents – mothers, particularly – for prenatal conditions that might lead to post-natal effects for the baby. It’s easy to find studies that blame mothers’ diet during pregnancy, exposure to second-hand smoke, and even stress reactions after a traumatic event as somehow the mothers’ fault. The unspoken assumption in news reports that present these studies is that mothers (and sometimes fathers) are irresponsible and selfish and don’t know how to control themselves to create a better life for their children. This is simply unfair.
Not only are parents and expectant parents human beings too, with all the foibles everyone else has, but information available to parents is not all that conclusive. It’s possible to find prenatal recommendations that oppose each other. It’s possible to be told one thing by one’s mother-in-law and something completely different by one’s mother, or best friend, or pediatrician. To blame parents for their children’s disabilities and issues is to assume that it was all that easy to tell what to do at all. It isn’t.
So what’s the solution? Here are some tips:
- Believe in yourself. Everyone wants to be a great parent; it’s more likely than not that you’re, if not great, then at least good enough. Good enough is good enough.
- When the worry and stress of your new parenting role seem overwhelming, get help. Realizing you need some support doesn’t expose you to criticism – just the opposite: it demonstrates your commitment and care.
- Support your child’s other parent. You’re in this together, so work together to get adjusted to your new responsibilities. Be careful to not criticize each other or ignore your partner’s need for help.
- Don’t look back. Every parent makes mistakes and everyone can look back and see points where he or she should have done things differently. But what’s in the past can’t be fixed, so look ahead. Your family has a beautiful future ahead and that’s what counts.
Being a new parent is sufficiently difficult already without feeling that you have to be perfect all the time. You don’t. Being a new parent is sufficiently worrisome that you don’t need to add in worrying whether how you’ve eaten or exercised for years was all wrong and will cause your baby irreparable harm. It won’t.
There is no way to be a perfect parent, so don’t even try. Be good enough. You undoubtedly are good enough already!
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.
New parents often share a sunny fantasy: they will manage their child perfectly, they will apply the latest theories and advice faultlessly, and their baby will develop into the perfect child.
This fantasy lasts just as long as it takes for Baby to assert his own ideas. Parents quickly discover that child-rearing isn’t something they do alone; their child is a full partner in the process.
A new study of over 14,000 pairs of infant twins confirms this fact. Babies’ inborn predispositions and inclinations shape their behavior and influence how their parents treat them. Babies are not passive recipients of their parents’ efforts. Babies shape their own family’s dynamics.
Researchers compared family interactions in homes of identical twins to those in homes of fraternal (not-identical) twins. They speculated that if babies’ genetic predispositions influence parents’ behavior that moms and dads would treat identical twins similarly to each other but would treat fraternal twins less-similarly.
This is exactly what they found. Babies who share 100% of their genetic inheritance were treated very similarly by their parents. Babies who share only 50% of their genes (as all children in a family who are not identical twins do), were treated differently from each other. This indicates that parents respond to babies’ preset traits and inclinations. Babies influence their parents.
This might seem obvious, but notice that most parents act as if it’s not. As lead researcher, Reut Avinun says, “There is a lot of pressure on parents these days to produce children that excel in everything, socially and academically. Since children are not born [as a blank slate], I felt it was important to explore their side of the story, to show how they can affect their environment, and specifically parental behavior.”
Not only do new parents tend to believe they have total control over their children’s academic and athletic futures, they also believe everything they read in parenting guides. But these guides can never take into account the child’s side of the story. Avinun says, “There isn’t one style of ideal parenting. Each child requires a different environment to excel.”
Parent-child interactions, then, are a dialogue, not part of a plan formulated by adults. The child’s inborn personality influences how parents respond to them. These responses influence the child’s actions in return. This interplay of personality and inclinations is what makes every child’s experience different, even children in the same family. According to Avinun, “parents should not invest a lot of effort in trying to treat their children similarly, but instead, be aware of the variation in their children’s attributes and nurture them accordingly.”
What does this mean for us, in practical terms?
- We should abandon our own intentions to shape our children in a particular image and instead let the children’s intentions emerge. We have influence but we don’t have control.
- We should not worry about treating different children in the family differently if each child seems to need something unique. Children are not all the same and trying to make them all the same is frustrating for everyone. (This includes identical twins, by the way, who may be identical genetically but will be shaped by different life experiences.)
- We should not obsess over parenting perfection. Good parenting is not based in some advice guide but is based in our relationships with our children. It’s a dance we engage with our children, gradually moving into harmony.
Finally, we should remember that children are people too. Funny, special, quirky, surprising people. They have the power to show us things we never could have imagined.
Letting children be themselves develops the best in both of us.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.