Parenting is one tough job. Despite the advice we may have been fortunate enough to receive from our own parents, returning home with our child for the first time can be daunting. Recognizing the vast responsibility that comes with holding a brand new life in our hands can be rewarding beyond measure yet, at the same time, completely overwhelming.
As many of us have learned, the old adage that there are no rulebooks or recipes for successfully raising kids is true. Some of us may be old enough to remember Dr. Spock’s iconic book entitled Baby and Childcare. First published in 1946, the good doctor offered relief to many anxious parents in the form of common sense and practical advice on everything from toilet training to temper tantrums. My own mother, a devotee of Dr. Spock, embraced his sagely wisdom to help her navigate the challenges of children who would not sleep through the night and to address a whole host of misbehaviors (my brother’s, of course, not my own!).
Other generations also searched for parenting answers in popular texts. The Mother’s Almanac, published in the mid-seventies, was written in a conversational style from one mom to another and, more recently, Heidi Murkoff’s best-selling What to Expect series begins when a parent is expecting and is followed by other books that apply to various stages of development. Despite these helpful resources, we often fall back on our own history and instinct when it comes to figuring out the best ways to raise our children. And although we are fortunate to have easy access to a wide range of professional opinions to help us tackle our most important role, none would dispute that first and foremost, children need love.
So, what does parent love look like? In the animal kingdom, many species sacrifice sleep, nourishment, and safety to provide their offspring the best start to a long life. Weddell Seal moms begin to teach their pups at just two weeks old how to survive the icy waters of the Antarctica. Orangutan mothers spend the first eight years with their young apes as they focus on the importance of nest building. Fun fact, baby orangutans express emotions just like our children do. They cry when hungry, whimper when hurt, and smile with joy at their mothers. We humans know that when walking in the woods, getting between a mother bear and her cub could have disastrous consequences. In fact, many of us become “Mama Bears” as we feel the urge to fiercely protect our own children from danger, harm, or hurt. Others become “Tiger Parents” in our attempt to ensure our children will reach high levels of achievement and success.
Parental love does not necessarily require us to morph into animal mode to sufficiently demonstrate our love. In fact, we can also express our love in how we say yes and no to our kids. On April 24, Robbinsville Public Schools partnered with districts throughout Mercer County for an evening with Julie Lythcott-Haims. As you may know, Lythcott-Haims is the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Raise an Adult – Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Her conversation with parents was met with enthusiasm but also the recognition that children today are under more pressure to perform, more pressure to excel, more pressure to fit in and more pressure to “be perfect” than kids of generations past. Sadly, this type of artificially induced stress is exacting a mighty toll on our children. Lythcott-Haims challenges us to express our love by helping children appreciate limits and respect boundaries. This can mean saying no when saying yes would be easier. It can mean being consistent in our responses even when we are too busy, too stressed, or too tired. It can mean teaching our children about consequences by not delivering the homework, sports equipment, or lunch they left at home.
Taken a step further, Lythcott-Haims shared research on three ways we, as parents, might be over-parenting our children and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves;
3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own ego.
If, like me, you are guilty of at least one of the examples noted above you are in good company. One of the great things about life is the older we get the greater our capacity to learn from our mistakes. It is never too late to course correct and tweak the things that may not working well or, in this case, may not serving our children well. If you consider that our job as parents is to teach our children, in just 18 short years, all they need to know to become functional, healthy, independent, well-adjusted adults, who can argue that parenting is not one of the world’s most challenging jobs? When it comes to our kids, there is nothing like a parent’s love—fierce and limitless. A parent’s love is far more than a warm and fuzzy feeling, rather it is a verb. An action word. And often action takes courage.
Join me in considering how we might incorporate the valuable lessons Lythcott-Haims discusses into our own parenting philosophies. A video recording of her presentation is accessible on the district website. We think you will agree that her advice is timely, practical and, ultimately, one of the best ways we can show our kids just how much we love them.
Kathie Foster is superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.