There are many pearls of wisdom people learn about parenting, and some people are often eager to share them with any new parent. They can be useful, coming from people who have been there, done it, and got the t-shirt. But it can also infuriating when you hear advice rehashed time and again, and often given without any thought to what the aphorism actually means or how it might relate to your personal circumstances.
Being a parent – a truly effective one – is more than just a series of sayings and corny one-liners. It’s a willingness and a desire to make your child’s life a content, fulfilled, and happy one; there are actually many different ways to achieve that, and that’s something we should learn far earlier in our parenting lives.
Being a good parent means knowing your own limits and accepting that, whilst you’re their parent, you’re not the only one who will care for them or be responsible for them. In short, it takes a village to raise a child.
Every parent needs a support network, as much as their child does; it’s important that they have friends and treasured adults they value alongside their parents. They can’t get absolutely everything they need from one person, and nor should they; nor should parents, of course. Having a robust friendship circle is key, but you should also be ready for it to change when you become a parent; your priorities do shift … or should do. Where they don’t, and pre-child lifestyles continue unabated, that is unfair on the child and puzzling – why become a parent if you’re not willing to actively parent?
Those changes can sometimes involve difficult conversations with people, or sometimes an acceptance that people will fade away because they are no longer the centre of your world. You have chosen your child to be that centre, and what a wonderful place to be in; you don’t have to give up your friendships, but those friendships will need to evolve if they’re willing to let it – and if not, you need to be willing to let them go. That often involves some degree of sadness; I know that from personal experience. But that grief at the loss of friendship has to be endured, so that the relationships you keep (and new ones you make in the future) become stronger over time.
But to become a parent, we assume a very powerful responsibility; the careful raising of a child to become a good person whose interests and moral development are both taken seriously. As mentioned earlier in this piece, it takes a village to raise a child well, but what that “village” looks like is important.
As a parent, I want to know the people around my son are moral, good-humoured, kind, and intellectually curious. There will be times in his life where he sees things that aren’t moral, good-humoured, or kind; I can’t protect him from every cruel reality of life, no matter how hard I try – and no matter how hard it pains me when I see a little piece of innocence fall from his eyes.
But it’s important that I know what’s happening, as much as I can, so that the influences in his life are as positive as possible. If I had a laissez-faire approach, then I really wouldn’t understand what was happening in his life and who was influencing him. If I don’t take an interest in the big things, how can I understand the “every day” things?
I enjoy the walks to and from school; they’re “our” moments together, and whether we’re walking along in companionable silence or chatting about the day ahead, we’re connected. When we’re at the school gates, I get to see him interacting with his friends; one of the only moments I do get to see that, aside from play dates and if he’s chatting to a friend over facetime (something else it’s important for me to observe, so I can see the sorts of friends he chooses). It surprises me, therefore, when I see parents stopping their car on double yellow lines outside the school gates, saying goodbye over their shoulders, and driving off as soon as the child’s feet touch the pavement – even if there’s then a five or ten minute wait before they are allowed in the gates.
Perhaps the parents are busy; they might need to get to work, or deliver another child to a different school. Both very reasonable options; lives have to continue – and to leave your child with people you trust, and who you know will take care of your child, is perfectly reasonable (whether that’s fellow parents at the gates or breakfast club). But if you are leaving your children to “hang around” at the gate, without taking the time to know some of the other parents and whether you feel comfortable with them being part of your village, then that is a very odd choice – and goes to the root of what parenting looks like.
Good or bad parenting can sometimes be objective; what one parent chooses to do might be entirely opposite to another. We usually have an instinct that tells us where something “feels” right, even if it’s not something we would do ourselves; most people can respect a difference, to a lesser or greater degree.
It pains me when I hear parents shouting at their children – continuously, that is. Shouting a warning is normal, or sometimes in shock, but to shout whenever something has gone wrong rather invalidates the “shock” value of a voice being raised in key situations – where the child is in danger, for example.
Is that an example of bad parenting? Is there an objective measure we can take that would tell us whether or not that was bad or good? It sets me on edge, certainly, but my instinctive response is not necessarily the same as a factual reality. I use this as an example without having looked at any research, merely to pose the question – each reader will have an opinion, and check yourself when you read these last two paragraphs; have you reacted in a particular way because you think I’m being critical, or perhaps because you don’t think I’ve gone far enough in being critical?
Our children are cared for by others as well; grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends – they care for your child in their own way. They will want to express that love in whatever way is right for the family, and it’s right we bring them into that village; a child isn’t designed to express love to just one person, and we shouldn’t jealously keep them all to ourselves in order to receive that love – your relationship won’t be diluted by them developing relationships with other people who are important to them.
Being a parent is a balancing act, where you try and juggle a variety of decisions; when do I enforce a strict decision that needs my child’s obedience, and when is it okay for them to stretch the apron strings and develop their own opinion that might clash with your own? How do we juggle those competing demands so that our parenting style doesn’t veer entirely into permissive or authoritarian?
We need to encourage our children to develop their own set of beliefs; by being their guides, they will absorb views from us. If they are self-critical enough, they will review those beliefs when they are older and consider which ones are right for them and which ones they disagree with. We each learn from our parents, learning as much how not to do some things as well as how to do others. I don’t think anyone has a fully-developed strategy for every situation when we first have our child; it develops over time, and all we can hope for is that we are consistent, and also learn from our own mistakes. When something isn’t right, it needs changing, and we need to show that we can change as well; children will see that too.
But there can be objective moments of negative parenting; we have family courts for a reason, as well as a whole system of fostering and adoption. My own son came home to his forever family after some negative experiences, and he is just one example. There is a natural respect for emotional bonds between parents and children when considering parenting issues, but that has to be outweighed by what is right for the child.
As I read through a short course all about this on the Open University’s website, a simple statement took my breath away. It’s a statement that I know to be true, as all right-thinking people will agree, and it comes from an important piece of law – the Children’s Act 1989; a long time ago, but a law that resonates through the decades. What it says is this;
“There is a respect for parental rights, but only as balanced against parental responsibility.”
Isn’t that so right? We have a responsibility for our children; a responsibility to ensure that our child’s welfare is treated with the utmost respect – which outweighs everything else, even the parent’s rights. It is so breathtaking in its simplicity that we would do well to remember it.