Parenting is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. It is physically demanding and emotionally taxing. We are the recipients of literal and figurative vomit. We are police officers, nurses, chefs, chauffeurs, and therapists. We allow our hearts to walk around outside our bodies all day with the hope that they will return to us at night.
Yet even with all those challenges, I think the hardest part of parenting is putting aside our egos in order to see the child who is actually in front of us instead of the child we hoped would be in front of us. The funhouse mirror of social media - in which we see the polished and curated view of everyone else’s children but only the stark reality of our own - certainly doesn’t help assuage our psyches.
It’s our egos, I think, that make many of us walk through this parenting journey with shame atop one shoulder and worry about judgement on the other. I hear so many parents express deep concern about how people perceive them. Will teachers think less of them because their children are wrestling with attentional issues and don’t always behave in the classroom? Will their peers withdraw from social situations with them because of the anxiety their child is manifesting? Will other parents think less of them or of their children because the child never makes a basket during the basketball game?
I often wonder how do we, as parents, suspend judgement on ourselves when our kids embarrass us? How do we handle ourselves when their actions or behaviors or performance do not match the kids we thought we would have?
I have heard more parents express shame about their parenting than I have about any other area of life. Our children mirror us and expose our vulnerabilities. And for many of us, they are the one area of our life in which we don’t have complete control and we don’t have a track record of only successes. I have certainly felt this way, not only as a parent but also as a professional: how will my child’s very public tantrum impact the way I am seen, the way I am perceived as an educator?
But here’s the thing: our children are here to navigate the world on their terms, and if we are going to do right by them, we need to find ways to engage with the child in front of us and suspend our own discomfort. We need to remember that they are fully formed beings separate from us, for good and for bad. That means that we can’t take credit for all that’s wonderful about them, and just as importantly, we also can’t allow their follies and foibles to define us.
To parent well - and by this I mean give the child in front of us what they need - we need to suspend our own fear of judgement. And we cannot suspend our fear of judgement until we self-regulate as adults. One of Pressman’s core values is to Know Thyself. From the age of 2, we teach our children to demonstrate self-awareness, to self-regulate, to build resilience. Our youngest students know to breathe when they are frustrated, our early elementary students learn during Council where to identify big feelings in their bodies, and our middle school students actively plan for how they will cope as they transition to high school.
If we are asking our children to know themselves, to self-regulate, and to demonstrate self-awareness, we need to do this in our parenting as well. This is not easy work. It requires a kind of perspective, a self-reflectiveness muscle if you will, that needs to be intentionally developed. It requires us to be brave, to put our child’s need in that moment before our own need to be accepted. And it requires us to sit in, with, and through intense vulnerability.
When your son has a meltdown in the crowded school lobby because he can’t have the treat from the gift shop after school, or your daughter flubs her lines in the play, it is natural to feel embarrassed, to hiss at your son to stop it right now or to crack a joke to the adults around you about your daughter’s performance (an aside: I always think about this photo of Kate Middleton giving Prince George a LOOK to stop his public meltdown - because kids are kids, and we all experience this). But aren’t these the exact moments when it is most important to know thyself and to see the child in front of you who needs something rather than heed your own feelings of shame? To consciously put aside your ego, to suspend your discomfort over being judged, and to support your child instead? To ask yourself: How can I approach my child so I am fully aligned with who they are versus who I think they should be?
Imagine how unburdened we could feel if we were to parent without shame, without fear of judgement. Imagine what the world would look like if we modeled and practiced this kind of radical acceptance. Imagine - not only who our children would become - but who we could become.
Dr. Erica Rothblum is the Head of School at Pressman Academy