Parenting wars

 

Whereas in the past parenting differently was tolerated, there is now a belief that there is only one ‘right’ way to rear children

It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.”

– Henri Matisse

A COUPLE OF months ago in the UK there was a furore over parents who allowed their children, aged six and eight, to cycle the short journey to school each day unaccompanied. Parents of other children were so upset at this that they made official complaints to social services, which escalated when the parents refused to change their behaviour.

The case caught the attention of the national media and opened a polar debate about the rights and wrongs of the parents’ decision. Whatever the risks of cycling to school at a young age, the case certainly highlights the increased scrutiny that modern parents are under and the pressure to conform to certain child-rearing practices. Whereas in the past, parenting differently was tolerated, there is now a belief that there is only one “right” way to parent, and parents seem to be quicker to judge rather than support one another.

Parenting is embroiled in major controversies such as the issue of stay-at-home versus working mothers or the tug of war between following your babies’ demands and getting them into a sleep routine at an early age. Rather than being polite debates, these discussions often become more like “parenting wars”, and are driven by very strongly held views with little tolerance for differences.

This trend represents the emergence of “competitive parenting” as a feature of modern child-rearing. More than ever, parents feel under pressure and are anxious about getting their parenting right. They labour under the false idea that there is a single “best way” to bring up children, and they therefore can easily become defensive and be quick to judge anyone who parents differently.

At the heart of this competition is insecurity. If someone is doing something different, this makes us question whether what we are doing is wrong, so we can either become insecure in our parenting or rush to defend it at all costs. Parenting brings out strong feelings, and we feel we must defend our way of parenting at the expense of accepting other people’s.

A more balanced view is to realise that most differences in parenting are not right or wrong but reflections of different values and culture, as well as of the different needs of parents and children.

While not the choice for every parent, allowing young children to cycle to school reflects a respect for independence and could be a boost to a child’s self-esteem if it suits their needs and what they are able for. At the heart of this is the fact that parents, children and families are different, and that these differences are okay – there is no one-size-fits-all approach in parenting.

Parents come with their own specific needs and personalities. For example, some parents seek to establish their children’s early independence as a means of achieving the right balance for themselves, while others value a closely connected relationship with their children as a means of making the sacrifice of parenting bearable.

As a clinician, I see many parents in difficulty who have been pushed into choices that don’t suit their own needs or values. These can include mothers who feel pressured to achieve a routine with their child when they would be much happier responding to demand, or mothers who are worn out by their babies’ demands and would be better to prioritise their own needs more.

It also includes mothers who become depressed when they stay at home to mind children and neglect their need to work outside the home, as well as fathers who, driven by the pressure to be “a provider”, become depressed in work when they would more naturally fit the nurturing role of caring for their children at home.

The first principle of good parenting is to be aware of your own needs as a parent and as a person, so you can then more freely attend to your children. In addition, children are different and come with their own personalities and temperaments. Good parents tune into their own needs and those of their individual children, and try to find a match between them.

In my work, parents often come to see me when there is a mismatch between their needs and those of their children – for example, an independent parent bringing up a fussy child who needs much more reassurance than the parent naturally gives, or a very self- reliant child who battles for independence from a parent who prefers to be much more connected.

In those cases, my work focuses on helping the parent to reflect, and to tune into their child’s different perspective, so they can find a way to meet both their needs.

There are many different ways to parent that are “good enough” and allow children to grow into happy, well- adjusted adults. The key is to find a synergy between your own needs as a parent and those of your children. This is very important, as the biggest gift we can give our children is that we enjoy being with them and we enjoy being their parent.

If we choose parenting practices that leave us resentful, depressed or unfulfilled, then we serve neither their interests nor our own. As a result, an overly competitive approach to parenting that makes mothers and fathers judgmental or insecure in their own parenting should have no place in society. My hope is that we will establish a more compassionate culture of parenting.

We need to call a truce in the parenting wars and see the different sides of the debate as both contributing a valued perspective. Then we can begin to create a more supportive culture of parenting that values diversity and gives parents the space and support to make the right choices for themselves and their children.