These days, most parent
s have very little experience in taking care of children before they bring home a new baby
. They are then plunged into an atmosphere of impossible expectation
, and desperate need for childcare books. It’s all down to demographic
- Our parents tended to have smaller families. As a result, few of us have really young siblings whom we’ve cared for. (Babysitting is too short-term to give the same confidence.)
- We’re more mobile than previous generations, and therefore more likely to live further from our parents. They’re still valuable sources of information, but we don’t call on them as often as we would have if they could just pop round.
- We’re much more likely to acknowledge that we have issues with the way we were brought up, and rely less on our parents because of that (even if they are nearby).
- We’re having children later in life, when we’re more conscientious, and wealthier. We don’t tend to “wing it” as often, and we don’t want to make do with less.
- There is increasing pressure for our children to “succeed”, within ever narrower parameters of success. They must all be academically successful, go to college, and become professionals. (My grandfather, who almost definitely had Asperger's syndrome, was an electrician in a family of lawyers, and there was no shame in it. My brother, also with Asperger’s, also from a family of lawyers, is having a harder time finding his own path.)
- In our litigious era, every problem must have someone to blame. If a child doesn’t succeed within the narrow definitions we subscribe to, it must be the parents’ fault.
What's a new, inexperienced parent to do? A number of authors, child psychologists, columnists and publishers have stepped into the gap. The bookshops are full of helpful advice on baby care and child rearing, particularly for the under-five age group (parents of older children are presumed to have got the hang of things, I guess.) More and more websites are also devoted to these issues. Each of these sources is written on the basis that there is One True Way to raise children, which they will graciously explain. They then hint at dire consequences if parents disregard them.
This all makes new parents deeply paranoid, of course, since good parenting matters so much. After all, what can be more important than raising a child? No one wants to do anything less than their best; no one wants to be less than perfect. This plays into the hands of the experts, who make their money by feeding these fears.
These books and websites foster three myth
s about parenting:
- There is such a thing as the perfect parent.
- If you are not a perfect parent, your children will not be normal, emotionally healthy people.
- If your children are not normal, they will not be happy or successful.
Let’s take them one at a time.
There is such a thing as a perfect parent.
Perfect parents – a mix of June and Ward Cleaver and Richard Branson - charming, gentle, and with enough money to buy their children the best of everything. These are the people who discipline their children invisibly – no spanking, no harsh words. Their kids obey them out of pure love. And these parents never do anything wrong – never make an unfair decision, never are too tired to be patient, never let their own lives get in the way of raising their kids.
Get real. Parenting is the job of turning a deeply selfish infant into a socialised, considerate human being. It’s messy. At some stages, it involves shouting, and often a certain amount of spanking. It’s also a huge, complex task, lasting for decades. I can’t even type a node without making mistakes. How can I be expected to do everything right on a grander scale? How can anyone?
If you are not a perfect parent, your children will not be normal, healthy people
OK, we’re not talking about parents who emotionally and physically abuse their kids here. This is the notion that everything you do has consequences later in life (usually negative), no matter how much you love your children.
As a kid, I had friends whose parents never said no to them. Never. Under any circumstances. Their father used to follow them out into the street and stop traffic rather than tell them not to go in the road. These children were savages. They’d play tic-tac-toe on our walls in crayon. They were not the product of perfect parenting.
Then they grew up, and have turned into thoughtful, considerate people. It took hard work on their part, and they deserve a lot of credit. But the imperfections of their upbringing were not enough to destroy them.
If your children are not normal, they will be unhappy and unsuccessful.
I’m not sure this one should even be dignified with an answer, but here goes.
As mentioned above, my brother has Asperger’s Syndrome. This means that there are things he cannot do, mostly involving messy social and emotional situations. But the bouquet of characteristics that makes up Asperger’s contains some profound strengths as well as profound weaknesses. In his case, this includes an uncanny empathy with machines, particularly computers. He learns about, understands, and fixes computers faster than anyone else I know. He has a gift for connecting incompatible hardware. With skills like those, he will never starve. That’s success under one definition.
He also has a set of friends who appreciate his sense of humour, the average number of romantic connections for his age group, and an unshakeable self confidence. He’s happy with who he is. And that’s a more profound, and more difficult level of success to achieve.