Before we have children of our own, we typically form a lot of expectations about what it would be like to have children, and expectations of what kind of parent we plan to be. When those expectations meet reality, we may need to take time to re-evaluate and re-adjust our own definitions of what it means to be a successful parent.
What did you expect?
Our pre-parenthood expectations may have been unrealistically optimistic, filled with the sorts of happy, active families having lovely outings that you see in all the commercials for medications that will fix all your ills. We may have imagined that we would always love spending time with our children, and that we’d teach them to love the things we love, and that they would achieve things we had not achieved. Even if we saw other people’s children being challenging or difficult, we may have reassured ourselves that our children would be better, because we would be better parents – we believed that if we just did things right, it would all work out.
Within a few days after a baby’s birth, we typically discover that the reality does not meet our expectations. Even if we “do everything right”, our babies still cry and they still spit up all over us. And often we don’t do things right. We make mistakes all the time as we try to manage this new full-time job we weren’t adequately prepared for. Parenting is hard work! And it’s made harder by the contrast between our expectations and our realities. That contrast is a significant predictor of postpartum depression. Parents with very high, even unattainable, expectations are more likely to experience mental health challenges.
For parents of infants and young children, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on what expectations you hold for yourself, and making conscious choices about adjusting those expectations to make them more realistic and compassionate.
What expectations did/do you have that don’t serve you?
Let’s examine some types of thinking that parents may have which are not helpful.
To be a good parent, do you need to be happy all the time? Fully functional, with a clean house, healthy home-cooked meals, and festive decorations for holidays?
Should you always know exactly what your child needs? Should you always be able to meet all their needs? Always enjoy spending time with your child? Never speak harshly to them?
Is your self-worth tied to your achievements or your child’s achievements? Are you afraid that if anything goes wrong, you’ll be blamed? If you’re coming from a successful long-term career, do you expect to be just as successful at your brand new job of parenting?
What criteria do you judge yourself on? Should you never make mistakes? Should you do all the things that other parents show themselves doing on social media?
How would you like to adjust those expectations?
If you find yourself often thinking you’re not a good enough parent, maybe it’s worth re-defining what it means to be good enough.
Can you assess your own personal values so you can prioritize putting energy into the things that matter most to you, and let go of the high demands in areas that aren’t that important?
Can you role model resiliency for your child? We can’t always control whether bad things happen to us, but we can control how we respond. We don’t always get everything we want, but we can find ways to be happy despite that.
What do you want you child to remember from this time? Do things have to be perfect to make good memories?
Can you embrace messy moments when things go badly as learning opportunities? Can you remind yourself often that not everything will go as planned, and it’s OK to make the next best choice?
Can you admit that sometimes you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and that it’s OK to ask for support? OK to take breaks? OK to prioritize self-care?
Can you let go of your not-enough story? Let go of doing things because you think you need to prove your worth, and start believing in your inherent worth.
Instead of setting vague goals – “to be a better parent” or unattainable goals – “to never yell at my kids again”, can you set up clear and achievable steps in the right direction?
Can you practice self-compassion? I often urge parents to remember the power of the word YET. Instead of thinking your child will never do something, just think “they can’t do it yet.” We can do the same thing for ourselves – we can hold ourselves to high standards AND forgive ourselves for the times we aren’t yet meeting those standards.
I created an exercise you can do to examine your expectations, and to re-frame them into more reasonable, achievable goals. You can do either art or some creative writing of a “job description” in this exercise.
I remember very early in my parenting career (in the mid-90’s) looking at a parenting book and feeling uncomfortable about the advice I found there – perhaps it was advocating for cry it out as a response to sleep problems or perhaps it was saying to not immediately respond to your child’s cries because it might spoil them. Those types of advice did not feel right to me as a parent at a gut level. Then I found other books that did feel right – (the Baby Book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and Our Babies, Ourselves) and I found parent education classes as well. Those resources offered me the opportunity to learn that there are lots of different ways to parent children and no one-right-way-that-fits-all.
All parenting book authors are sharing ideas that worked for them as parents, and worked for their children or maybe that worked for their clients. If their methods work for you and your child, that’s great. But if not, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or you have bad kids, it just means you need to find different advice. And you especially need to find advice and support that is strengths-based and responsive – instead of things that say / imply “if you do it this way it will always work, and if it doesn’t work then you’re a failure”, seek out things that say “here are some ideas that work well for many families. If they don’t work for you, here are other resources you could try.”
After 27 years of parenting and 23 years as a parent educator, I believe that even more strongly. And, as the parent of children who are “thrice exceptional” – gifted and autistic and ADD/ ADHD, I especially know it’s true. Different children need different parenting styles, and neurodiverse children may need different parenting approaches than neurotypical children.
For example, let’s talk about “picky eaters.” First, I’m going to say that 30 – 50% of parents say their preschool-aged children are picky eaters! So, if you’re in the 50% that doesn’t have this experience, count yourself lucky! (And don’t pat yourself on the back too much… it might be more about the kids’ temperament than about what you did as a parent.) I work with parents to re-frame some of their assumptions about picky eaters, and see things from their child’s perspective, and I give them lots of great tips I’ve gleaned over years in this work. But then someone says “but my kid is really picky – I’ve tried all those tips, and they still won’t eat!” And I say “I know… I’m right there with you.” Because my first child was a flexible, easy kid with food. My second was picky – turns out she has lots of allergies and intolerances and she knew that some foods made her feel sick or in pain – she couldn’t articulate that as a young child – she just was “picky.” And my third child is a whole other realm of picky eater – he has a VERY limited set of food he’ll eat. He is autistic with sensory issues, and has a hard time trusting food – if he has one bad blueberry, then it takes weeks or months to coax him back into trying blueberries again. So, I have another collection of tips for those super picky eaters, and I have a lot of empathy (and no judgment!) for the parents who are managing that.
And toilet learning… well, based both on all the reading I’ve done and classes I’ve taken, plus my own experiences with my 3 kids, I’ve got one set of standard issue recommendations on potty training, and then advanced tips for children who resist toileting. 20% of children go through a phase of refusing to poop in the potty. And 10% of children (usually boys) will have challenges with bed wetting up to age 8. For the parents who are already struggling with challenges, getting well-meaning advice from others who say “it’s easy – just do this and it will work” just makes them feel worse about themselves as parents. It is so much more helpful when someone says “wow, I’m sure you’ve already tried all the usual fixes – I’m sorry they haven’t worked for you. Can I help you find other resources or do you just need someone to tell you – ‘it’s OK, you’re doing your best’?”
Sometimes these challenges and delays will work themselves out if we just wait for it. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek professional support or testing to figure out if our child has particular challenges that need extra intervention. And as you’re working on challenges, it helps to find books, websites, educators, and/or other parents who offer advice that is helpful and relevant to you and to your unique child.
Today, I was reading advice on a parenting site, and I found something that troubled me. (I am not going to share the source, because otherwise the advice on the site was excellent, and I do not wish to criticize their whole approach – only this particular content which I will be contacting them about.) Here’s what it says:
These signs – things they say show you it’s time to set a limit – almost perfectly duplicate any list you can find of common symptoms of autism.
This troubled me, so I wanted to double-check myself on this. I showed this to my 23 year old, who is autistic, and just said “I was reading this blog post on parenting advice, and wanted to know what you think of it.” She immediately said “These aren’t signs that you need to set limits… it’s like they cut and pasted in the wrong list… these are all things that are normal for an autistic kid. They aren’t signs that ‘truly difficult behavior’ is coming… unless you try to force this kid to act neurotypical, and then yeah, you’re going to see some misbehavior!”
I told her that was exactly my impression. And I worry about parents of neurodiverse kids who would see this site and think… “oh, every day my kid shows all these signs! Either I’m a bad parent who is failing to connect with them, or they’re a bad kid with too many behavior problems.”
I do agree with the overall message of the parenting site that image is taken from – the idea that connection is important for discipline. When our children feel connected to us and valued by us, they want to behave well, and are responsive to our guidance.
I think it’s so important for parents and teachers to understand that connection and disconnection can look different for different kids. For example, for some children, it is absolutely true that eye contact shows they’re feeling connected and avoiding eye contact says they know they’re in trouble. However, many (not all) autistic people are uncomfortable with eye contact, and in many cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. Demanding eye contact could set off behavioral problems rather than serving as a path to resolve them. For some children, placing your hand on theirs and having a conversation about what is happening will calm them and resolve problems. For other children, when they’re already on the verge of a meltdown, uninvited touch might set them off, or being asked to talk it through may overwhelm them.
If you do have a neurodiverse child (autism, ADHD, ODD, etc.) or if you have any child that seems particularly challenging to manage following typical advice, you may find that some resources are much more helpful to you than others, because they are either specialized for the neurodiverse population or are at least sensitive to it. Things I find particularly helpful are the Incredible Years program and challengingbehavior.org, the work of Ross Greene (“kids do well if they can“), the Zones of Regulation, and webinars from Bright and Quirky.
Another issue with parenting advice is that the vast majority of it is written by white, middle class folks, raised in the United States. (And yes, that description includes me, and I know it creates unintentional biases in my work, so feel free to call me on them!) And the research it is based on was primarily done with white, middle class folks in the United States. (Read this article on why that matters – as they say “the research, and the parenting advice based on it, might not apply to everyone who receives it.”) Thus, advice might be unintentionally racist, or classist, or may simply not be relevant to your life circumstances.
When you seek out parenting advice, I do encourage parents to check out a wide variety of sources to stimulate your thinking – I get really good ideas even from reading things I fundamentally disagree with. They broaden my perspective and cause me to further examine my own parenting choices to be sure they reflect my values and goals, and are helping my child reach their potential. They help me to notice differences between my parenting style and those of others in my community which helps me better explain and interpret what my child and I might see in their classmates’ experiences. And they help me double-check myself to be sure I’m not making any big mistakes. So, do read things outside your comfort zone for the sake of mind expansion.
But, when you’re struggling with a parenting challenge, and feeling discouraged about your parenting skills or your worthiness as a parent, or when you’re feeling really frustrated at your child, seek out the parenting advice that speaks to your soul. Advice that includes methods you can see yourself doing and doing consistently. Advice that seems like it could work for your unique child with their unique personality, strengths and challenges. And seek out the people whose advice acknowledges your strengths at the same time it supports you as you work to overcome your challenges.
The identity of a family is wrapped up in its traditions: the daily routines and the annual rituals. As a parent educator, I talk a lot about the power of routines – the ways we move through each day that help us feel like the world is safe and predictable and manageable even in the midst of chaos and change. Rituals are also important – whether it’s how we do the tooth fairy in our family, what we do on the Fourth of July, or how we spend our winter holidays. Rituals honor our cultural heritage. They show our children what we value by what we pay attention to. They make our children feel special and loved. They help to define who we are as a family.
2020 has messed with all our routines, and with all our rituals. We may have found new daily routines that are working for us. But rituals… so many of which revolve around gathering in-person with the people we love and gathering with our communities… may seem out of reach. It’s natural to have a lot of grief over all the things we can’t have this year. (Here are tips for managing the grief.) But we can also work to figure out ways to adapt our traditions to this year’s limitations. We can create new rituals. And we can use this as a year to focus on resilience.
Resilience is often thought of as the ability to bounce back from challenges. Another way to view it is ““being able to continue functioning relatively normally” in adversity.
There are lots of ways we can build resilience in children, but one important one is to tell our children stories of the family’s history that are not just about the family’s successes, but about the ups AND the downs… “we had plenty of hard times, but we made it through together.” It creates a story for the child that “our people” are resilient. (Learn about Marshall Duke’s research on family stories and resilience.) This year is a great year to find a way to incorporate these narratives into your holiday celebrations. I’ll share something I’ve done here, and encourage you to reflect on how you might celebrate resilience through the holidays this year.
Honoring Your Family’s History
At my church, one Sunday in every December, we ask members to share a photo of their family’s holiday traditions, and we gather them into a slide show. Watching those slideshows always brings smiles, and warm cozy feelings. But this year, when I went to find a photo from a previous holiday, it made me very sad. At first, seeing all those photos of large family gatherings just made me grieve all the things that I couldn’t have this year.
Then going into Thanksgiving, I realized that I needed to reclaim those memories, and re-define their meaning for this year. For our family’s Thanksgiving over Zoom, I went through 30 years of photos, and for each year, I found one photo of a family meal or holiday gathering. The first slide read: “Our Family, Gathering Together for the Holidays… The location changes, the guest list changes, loved ones pass away, and new loved ones join us, and through it all, the family goes on.”
We watched it together on Zoom, talking and sharing memories. We talked about the loved ones in the photos that have passed away and shared stories about them. We puzzled over a stranger in one of the photos… who was it? Maybe the nephew’s “holidate” for that year?? We remembered the year my partner and I were divorced, before we got back together again. (We’ve now been back together for 20 years!) We smiled as the babies appeared – including a baby who is now 27 and all those who came after him. We welcomed the new family-in-law members who have joined us over the years. I included a picture from this year, with three of us at one table, and the laptop showing everyone else on Skype. The pandemic reality seems all-encompassing now but it’s helpful to think that someday, 2020 will be just one picture of many, and we’ll chuckle as we remember “the year we all stayed home.” In our holiday pictures, we clearly saw that although the family changes and evolves every year, the love and connection stays constant.
If you look only at this year, it seems so disconnected from all that came before. But it’s not. It’s just the current chapter in a long history of a family. A history that includes good times and bad, that has been through challenges before and still is strong. Taking time to acknowledge that was helpful. It led me to think more broadly of the stories we could tell with this year’s celebrations.
Honoring Your Family’s Traditions in a New Way
Remembering What Connects Us
A Jewish friend of mine said: “Maybe to bridge the separation we are all feeling this year, think as you light candles over Chanukah of the connection you have to Jews all over the planet who are lighting candles with you. There is synergy this year as remembering a holiday that celebrates our perseverance and faith that things will get better.” Your faith traditions can help to link you to the history of your people, and also to others around the world who are walking through this challenging year with you.
Every year, my church ends our Christmas Eve service by holding candles as we sing Silent Night, and passing a flame from candle to candle till all are lit. This year, on Zoom, we’ll share a slide show of all of us holding candles, and we’ll all light our own candles at home as we sing along. Our community still unites even as we are separate.
Gather Around the Virtual Table
Many families have long been gathering on Zoom (or Skype or Messenger or Teams…) for family dinners and celebrations. (If you don’t know how to use Zoom, I have a full guide to Zoom which can take you from beginning to expert.) My own family’s tradition of a family dinner every Sunday for those of us who live in Washington has now evolved into weekly dinner calls including family in Nebraska, New Jersey, Wyoming, and England. This Thanksgiving was the first year EVER where my husband and I saw ALL of our siblings and ALL of our parents on Thanksgiving. Zoom gatherings are not the same as in-person, but they have their own blessings. (If you need ideas for fun interactive things to do on a telechat, check out this post.)
At a holiday gathering on Zoom consider doing a Year in Review. Share the highs and lows of your year, and celebrate the roses you’ve found amongst the thorns of 2020. That celebrates our strength, resilience, and adaptability.
Deck the Halls… or the Yard
Some people are saying “why bother decorating – no one else will see the decorations.” If you always find decorating exhausting, then 2020 is a great excuse to skip it. But if any part of decorating gives you joy, go for it! Do whatever small portion of it has meaning, or go way over the top beyond what you’ve done before. Take pictures and share them on social media! Or decorate the OUTSIDE of your house so neighbors get to enjoy. That outdoor décor can also be helpful if your family gatherings will be outside in the back yard this year.
As a preschool teacher whose classes haven’t met in person in months, I have an overabundance of bubble solution in my life… and I have a bubble machine! So on Christmas Eve, we plan to send bubbles streaming from our deck to anyone passing by. It’s just a small way to connect with a community of neighbors that we value.
How Can We Keep From Singing
Music is important to our family… particularly singing. It’s something we do together as a family. If you miss singing out loud:
can you just crank up the tunes out home and sing along?
can you sing “with others” online? On a Zoom call, one person sings aloud (learn how to make music work on Zoom) and everyone else is on mute, but sings along at home and can see the others singing- it’s more joyful than you might think!
could you go for a Christmas Caroling walk through your neighborhood, belting out the tunes? (Just be sure not to sing when anyone else is within 25 feet or so, because singing does carry a higher risk of transmitting any virus we might have.)
Enjoying singing is claiming your right to find JOY even in these challenging times.
The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol?
Theater is a big part of our family culture. If your typical holiday season includes viewing live performances and the arts are important to your family, try a “dinner and a show” night at home. Get dressed up, pick up a fancy meal takeout, sit at the table and eat a celebratory meal. Then go sit in your living room with the lights off as if you were in a theater, and watch many of the holiday shows that are available for streaming online via your local arts organizations, Broadway on Demand and Broadway HD. (We did this last night and our son pretended to be our “usher” – he escorted us to our seats, asked if we needed anything to be comfortable and reminded us to silence our cell phones before the show started. We clapped at the end of each number.) After the show, remember to donate to an arts organization that has fed your family’s soul in the past.
Giving To Others
Many experts recommend thinking about gratitude and celebrating all the things your family DOES have this year, and then consider spreading your “wealth” – whatever form that takes – to others. Donating money, or time, or sharing beauty through art, or sharing kindness with others, or donating to food banks and gift drives could all be ways to acknowledge that your family has enough blessings to share.
Letting Go of What Doesn’t Bring Joy
This article from Mental Health America has a good point: “Don’t Romanticize Your Typical Holiday Plans. Remember that while your holiday season may normally be full of excitement and joy, it can also be a time of high stress. Long days of travel, endless to-do lists, and dinners with that one family member you don’t get along with are all part of the holidays too…” This year may be a great chance to free yourself from the stale habits and burdensome obligations, and re-focus on what your true priorities are and what things would actually make your holidays happy.
Talking with Children about New Traditions
If you’re parenting young children this year you may feel like you have to put on a smiling face all the time. I think it’s fair to share with our children when we’re feeling sad – “This year, I miss the fact that we can’t do _____ like we usually do.” For older children, honor that this may make them sad too. (Young children may have no memory of what you “normally” do.) And then we can say (to ourselves and to them) – “But I know our family has many many years we’ll be able to do that exact tradition. The part of that tradition that is important is that it honors ______ because that is something that is important to our family. Here’s how we’re going to honor that this year.”
I would love to hear ideas for how you are adapting your holiday traditions for your family and how this could tell a story of how “our family is resilient and comes through hard times even stronger than before.” Click on “Leave a Reply” at the top of this post to share your ideas.
“Next year all our troubles will be out of sight… Faithful friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more. Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…”
As we admit that we’re muddling through this year, we can also embrace that we are learning how to be resilient, how to adapt, and how to find the light in the darkness.
There are several sections of this page – here’s what you’ll find:
Making Life Easier: tip sheets on how to turn events that are often challenging for parents into something more manageable or even enjoyable. Covers: Bedtime / Naptime, Diaper Changes, Going to the Doctor / Dentist, Holidays, and Errands.
Visual Schedules: how to use this powerful tool for teaching routines and expected behaviors: first you do this, then we’ll do that.
Backpack Connection Series: a way for teachers and parents/caregivers to work together to help young children develop social emotional skills and reduce challenging behavior. Handouts on four topics:
In the Seattle / King County area, one of the best resources for families is the parent education programs offered by our community colleges. They serve families with children from birth to age 5 or beyond. With parent-baby classes, parent-toddler classes, cooperative preschools and enrichment classes, they offer great hands-on, play-based, developmentally appropriate programs that enhance child development in all areas: large motor, fine motor, music, art, social-emotional, language, and problem-solving skills. They offer research-based parent education on child development and parenting skills. They offer a community of connected, caring, supportive families and staff. (Learn more about parent ed programs here.)
In Fall and Winter 2020, these programs will continue to serve our community. Some are going completely online; some will offer outdoor-only programs; or indoor programs with small cohorts and hygiene protocols; or a hybrid of these options.
With coronavirus stay-at-home measures, many parents are feeling isolated, and feeling pressured to be all things to their child: parent, teacher, and playmate. They may worry that their child will miss out on developmental experiences and learning opportunities. Parent education programs can help!! We are all working hard to create the best possible support for parents and for their children’s learning and I encourage all parents to seek out a class.
ALL online for Fall 2020. Will re-evaluate for January onward.
Online programs include circle time for children (20 minutes a week for toddlers, 30 – 60 minutes for older children), parent education sessions (~45 minutes per week), plus 1:1 consultations on request. Plus: teacher curated ideas for easy hands-on learning activities that parents can do with their children at home, and guidance on how to support learning.
Programs offered for birth to 6 years: Parent-Infant, Parent-Toddler, Co-op Preschools for age 3 – 5, Art Enrichment age 3 – 7. Saturday STEM for age 3 – 6.
Here’s what I was able to learn about each programs’ plans from their websites. I gathered this information in late August 2020, so verify current status on their individual websites. If it says “no info”, that means that in late August, they had no information about coronavirus or any related changes on their websites.
Infant / Toddler Program (4 to 32 months old) is being offered as online only or hybrid option. Online is 1 hour a week with focus on parent education. Hybrid is 2 hours in-person every other week. I think on the other week you have an online session.
Green River CC. 18 mo to age 5. Includes Benson Hill Coop in Kent – has a full page on covid precautions for in-person classes but they haven’t defined schedule yet, Tahoma Coop in Maple Valley – not meeting at this time – when Tahoma school district returns, they will re-evaluate, Darcy Read – no info