There’s a famous poem that begins, “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad,” and that is the message that society has run with for the last few decades. It’s all the parents’ fault. And, when you become a parent yourself and start to read books about parenting, you very quickly begin to think you’ve already f*cked your child up before they even arrive.
I read so many parenting books in the first two years of my eldest child’s life, by the end of which I felt pretty f*cked up myself. The main message of most of these books seems to be, “If you don’t follow our advice, your child will end up deeply emotionally damaged, will never be able to have a happy or successful life, and will resent you forever.”
The thing is, most of us haven’t been irrevocably damaged by our parents, or certainly not our parents alone. There are, no doubt, damaging parents out there, but they’re in the minority. There are plenty of strained parent-adult child relationships out there, and many of us wish our parents had made some different choices. We all have our share of personality quirks that we can trace back to our parents. But the bottom line is this – loving parents don’t mess up their children.
We inherit and pick up on idiosyncrasies of our parents. We internalise and reject behaviours and beliefs under their influence. We are, without question, shaped by our parents. Sometimes for the better, sometimes in ways we wish we hadn’t been. But we are also shaped by our experiences, our peers, our role models, our teachers, our media, our neurological wiring and our own unique personalities. We are not just products of our parents.
And our children are not simply products of us.
If we know we are loved by our parents, everything else in our relationship with them becomes easier. Whatever mistakes and missteps they might make. Or that we might make. If we show our children that we love them, that we’re always there for them and that we accept them for who they are, we’re not going to f*ck them up because we didn’t follow a particular parenting model at all times.
That doesn’t sell books, though. If you want to climb that bestseller list, you need to strike some fear into the heart of your target audience. And unfortunately there’s a huge industry that’s cottoned on to just how easy it is to terrify people who have recently brought home a tiny, helpless human that they have no experience in caring for but are massively emotionally invested in trying to keep alive. There’s money to be made from that kind of terror.
I’m not against parenting books – I still read loads. They can be great. But as a source of inspiration, not a manual. As my eldest turns four and my youngest careens towards 18 months, I’m now a lot more discerning about how I read these books, and whether I make it past Chapter 1. So I thought I’d share my tips on wading through the parenting advice material:
Choose books that align with your values
If advice doesn’t resonate with you, put the book down. If it doesn’t feel right for you and your kids, then it isn’t. I only read books that make me go, “yes, this is exactly the way I want to raise and relate to my kids.”
Ignore the doom-mongering
Any books that list various dire consequences of not following their path go straight in the pile for the charity shop. Fear sells books, but it doesn’t build happy parents. Relaxed, joyful parents are better for their children than stressed out ones with homework, and anyone trying to stress you out does not have the best interests of you or your children at heart.
Take it as a guide
These books should give you guidelines and helpful techniques to try, not instructions to follow at all times. Take useful tips to incorporate into your everyday, but don’t expect to make that approach the foundation of your every day. And don’t beat yourself up for not following the advice sometimes – they’re suggestions, not rules.
Read them, then put them away
Take the advice on board, then put the books aside and do it your way. Parenting in a way that feels right to you and responds to the real human child in front of you – not the imaginary cardboard cut-out of book world – and in a way that is governed by love will always be the best approach. You’ll likely find your parenting will grow into a style influenced by the advice, but still uniquely you (much like you have been shaped by your parents but are still uniquely you!). Don’t try to be a different parent to the one you are, much less a mythical ideal out of a book. The best parent for your child is the genuine, authentic you.
Real parents make mistakes. And that’s ok. It’s actually really good. Trying to model perfection isn’t healthy for our kids, because then they’ll think it’s not ok for them to make mistakes. Showing them that it’s normal and acceptable to mess up, that we can recover from it, and modelling how to make amends are valuable skills to pass on. So trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal in a book isn’t just unachievable in a way that will only lead to stress and anxiety, but it’s unhelpful.
There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Trying to be one not only models unhealthy behaviours for our children, but sets us up for exhaustion, guilt, anxiety and burnout. All of which can actually distance us from our children. Child development expert Donald Winnicott said that the aim should be to be a “good enough” mother – whereas perfection is impossible and striving for it is toxic, a mother who is trying but occasionally getting it wrong and then trying again is actually the ideal mother for a well adjusted child. So whichever model you’re trying to follow, it’s not only ok if you don’t follow it to the letter, it’s actually good to mess up from time to time.
Be clear about the kind of parent that you want to be, read books that will guide you on that path, and then put them away and follow your heart.
Incidentally, the guy who wrote that poem about your mum and dad f*cking you up, he also wrote a poem about wanting to do various inappropriate things to the girls from my school because he used to live nearby and watched them walking past his window in their school uniform every day. So we shouldn’t pay too much attention to anything he had to say.