Mommy Guilt: How to Relax and Enjoy Your Child
Every time we turn around, there’s another parenting book, memoir, child-rearing technique or 10-step miracle that will give us the smartest, happiest, healthiest, most amazing child ever. Do we praise too much? Do we praise too little? Do we hover too much? Do we not hover enough? Do we allow our child to fail, even though it means he or she may not get into the best schools? We’re constantly evaluating how our children measure up, not only to our standards, but to all kinds of external standards, including our friends’ kids.
What’s a good mom to do?
Dr. Robert “Bob” Hudson, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, says to relax. Dr. Hudson, a specialist in parental and pediatric guidance, has spent years studying temperament in children and teaching parents how to parent according to the child they have, not the child they wish they had. Dr. Hudson does not adhere to the one-size-fits-all paradigm for parenting. In fact, he says that such an approach could create an unhealthy, stressful environment for the entire family.
“By not recognizing that children are different and comparing their children to their friends’ children or those they read about, parents are focusing on outcome, not the process,” Dr. Hudson said. “Comparing kids is fine if they were all the same, but when you do that, you focus on short-term performance, not long-term foundations.”
Assuming that parents want to raise resilient children who, as adults, can make their own decisions, live responsibly on their own, create their own definition of success and work to achieve it, learn from their failures and have good relationships with others, then parents need to start laying the foundation during the first 10 years of life. Rather than thinking of child-rearing as a series of short-term products (getting straight A’s, a blue ribbon in the science fair, scoring the winning touchdown), parents should think of it as a slow, building process.
“The first 10 years of life, you’re laying the foundation for kids to apply what they learn,” Dr. Hudson explained, “and a lot of those applications are life applications, not academic applications.”
Life applications usually have nothing to do with grades and short-term performance, but everything to do with character, which develops slowly over time.
“You have to start with the child,” Dr. Hudson said. “Temperament and cognitive ability are the genetic make-up that determines resilience.” Parents can’t change those, but they can control the environment. “Parents should mold their expectations to the child’s ability and temperament.”
Dr. Hudson said that to raise a resilient child, parents need to recognize how their child is wired. Spend time finding out who the child really is. Is he sensitive? Is she distractible? Cautious? Positive? Negative? Adaptable? Honestly evaluate the child’s cognitive abilities. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
“One mistake that parents make,” he said, “is not appreciating the child’s uniqueness, and not parenting to the child’s strengths and weaknesses. What are they good at? Do they need some help in math or reading? If the child isn’t sensitive, what can you do to help him start recognizing social cues better?”
Once parents have an idea of the unique make-up of their child, then they can focus on developing the child’s strengths, while building weaknesses. Parents who insist on straight A’s when the child is a B or C student are only creating anxiety for themselves and the child.
“If their child is not an easy child, and they’re always having conflict, then the parents may need some help,” Dr. Hudson said. “It’s important to find out what’s going on so we can draw up a unique, realistic plan for that child that will help him in the long term, not just temporarily stop short-term behavior.”
Dr. Hudson said that another mistake many parents make is being child-centered rather than family-centered. “The child needs to know that the family is most important,” he said. “What often happens in a child-centered family is that during adolescence, the child gets angry because he doesn’t know how to function without being the center of the universe.”
And parents shouldn’t feel left behind if their children aren’t in every activity. “Parents feel guilty because they’re not doing all these things for their kids,” he said. “But the kids might learn more from staying home and taking out the trash. When every family member is going a different direction every day, the family becomes less of a unit and the parent becomes less and less of a guide. The parents need to be the backboard of reality for kids to bounce things off of.”
Being overscheduled also takes time away from free play, which is important to a child’s healthy cognitive and emotional development. Dr. Hudson said that children need imaginative play and time to socialize with peers without constant adult supervision in order to learn about themselves in relation to others.
Dr. Hudson said that parents often confuse self-esteem with self-worth. Self-esteem often comes from struggle and delayed gratification. “Some kids who turn out the best have to struggle a little bit to get there,” he said. “Parents who say that their child’s only job is to make good grades are focusing on short-term goals. A child gains confidence and self-esteem by being needed and doing something for others, including your own family,” he said. “Having a job and responsibilities at home give children the confidence that they can run their life. It doesn’t happen in a week, but over time.”
Often, parents feel it is their job to make their children happy, which can end up in parents manipulating their children to achieve short-term goals, while forgetting the more important goal of raising autonomous, resilient adults.
“You can’t make anybody else happy,” Dr. Hudson said. “True happiness comes form true self-esteem, and it doesn’t come from the short-term, but from a long process of developing real resilience rather than simply pleasing parents.”
When parents understand their children and adjust their actions and expectations accordingly, they naturally have less stress.
“If you focus on this kind of parenting, you have less guilt,” Dr. Hudson said. “You take what society expects off the child and you stop comparing. Parents spend a lot of effort trying to keep up, trying to make the kid happy and making sure kids never screw up. Focus on the long-term process instead. Let them make a mistake. That’s a hard step for parents to make.”