How come everyone else is getting parenting right?
by Jessica Maliphant
It’s a dreary winter weekend. During the week, plans have been made for a family activity – we’ll have fun, we’ll bond, our cheeks will be rosy, and our eyes will be aglow with love and wholesomeness.
Somehow, though, this didn’t quite materialise. Instead, there’s been bickering – if we’re honest, not only on the children’s part. The house is a mess; all those plans have gone out the window. There’s an air of gloomy resignation. If you turn to your phone now, you will see pictures of that family down the road whose children are constantly winning medals and certificates, baking, and smiling, smiling, smiling! How do they do it? The parents seem to have more hours in the day, more arms and legs, and definitely more patience.
Why is it that the children upstairs (who you’ve asked to tidy their rooms and who are, instead, embroiled in an argument over which one of them it was that started the last argument) instinctively seem to know exactly how best to wind you up? Like the other day when your elderly neighbour stopped in the street and cheerily asked your eldest about school and got a monosyllabic grunt and an awkward shuffle as a response and you felt a combination of mortified and enraged. Are babies born with an innate capacity to tap into exactly what will most challenge their parents?
If we take a step back, we might view this from a different perspective. As parents, we are naturally focused on our children; of course, this is obvious. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to remember that the lens we use to view our own children is a much more focused one than the one we use when we view others. We can take the analogy of a fancy camera to think about this: when we look at our children, we often adjust our lens to zoom in to capture maximum detail and sharpness. In contrast, when we look at other families, we are likely to zoom out or, perhaps, ditch the camera entirely and paint a picture in the style of Monet – there’s no fine detail and everything appears almost effortlessly beautiful and pleasant.
Let’s think for a moment about why we might zoom in on certain details when considering our own children. Could it be that when we are stressed, tired, or fed up, we find ourselves more likely to focus on intricate details? Could it also be that these intricate details are so painful because they resonate with us in a way that we may not have identified? Do we become annoyed, enraged, or mortified precisely because something about the situation harks back to our own experience as children when we felt lost, awkward, scared or incapable of talking to old ladies in the street. Or, perhaps, we are triggered not because of a comparable experience but because we have experienced quite a different sort of upbringing to our children. Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Sometimes our experience is so different to our children’s that it can be hard to relate to their experience.
With a bit of reflection, after a chat with a friend, or a run or a glass of wine, our emotional response to specific incidents with our children can feel disproportionate. As well as considering how our children may trigger feelings related to our own childhood experiences (be they painfully similar or discordantly different), it’s vital to take opportunities to zoom out and remind ourselves of the big, messy, conflictual, and also wondrous picture that is family life. And don’t forget, it’s likely that the medal-collecting family down the road are using their paints, canvas, and perspective, when they think about your family too.