If you’re like me, some of your most difficult moments have come from raising children. No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you invest, you may always feel inadequate and imperfect. Because you’re reading this, I’m sure you want to improve as a parent (as do I).
Yet even with our pure motives and diligent efforts to improve, I have noticed a disturbing trend among us parents. Too many of us say we want to improve and change — but only if it fits into our assumptions and experiences. However, the number one thing you can do for your children is to seek truth and then parent accordingly. Yes this is simple, but not at all easy. It will be the hardest thing you will ever do.
Let me share a few of the many ways in which this occurs.
I Turned Out Okay!
Every semester I hear the same thing from several students who challenge a parenting idea that they personally disagree with. They may take issue with the fact that traditional time-outs or bribes are counterproductive to character building. Or that you don’t have to punish to discipline a child. The rebuttal comes in many shapes and sizes, but it usually comes down to one idea:
“But my parents did ____________ with me growing up (fill in the blank), and I turned out okay!”
Even if we don’t say it or think it, we’ve probably fallen victim to this philosophy more than once. Research and common sense have made it pretty clear that—for better or for worse—the way we were raised will be the primary source for how we will raise our children. Too often these built-in biases go undetected.
I get the “I turned out okay” challenge so often from students and parents that I preemptively address it by inviting them to seriously reflect on four questions:
- How am I defining “okay”?
- Am I really okay, and could I have been better than okay?
- Don’t I want better than okay for my children?
- If I am willing to dismiss research and doctrine because of my own biases, am I really as okay as I think?
Before I go further, I need to offer two important disclaimers. First, I believe that the majority of parents love their children completely and second, they are doing their very best with what they know. I believe that’s true for both you and your parents.
Conscious & Unconscious Traditions
In her book For Your Own Good, the psychoanalyst, Dr. Alice Miller observed: “Many people continue to pass on [false ideas, unhealthy attitudes and parenting practices] to which they were subjects as children, so that they can continue to idealize their parents.”
She goes on to say that we have a powerful, unconscious need to believe that everything our parents did to us was based in love, informed, and in our best interest. We often use the same parenting strategies with our kids to ensure the truth of our assumptions.
However, there are traditions and are based in truth and their are false traditions based in habit.
Case in point:
The Power of the Anecdote
Another barrier to accepting truth is the almighty power of the anecdote or personal experience. In the documentary Minds of Our Own, recent electrical engineering graduates of an Ivy League school could not solve a basic electrical problem in trying to light a light bulb. The reason is simple: their personal experiences and assumptions had overridden 4 years of training. They were ultimately unwilling—consciously or not—to let go of those assumptions.
Frankly, I get a little tired of debating with students who reject research simply because it doesn’t fit into their personal experiences. Even more frankly, although this seems to be part of human nature it can be somewhat egotistical.
When the opinions others conflict with our own, we often assume that the other person is misinformed, crazy, or even purposefully trying to deceive. We fail to consider the possibility that their ideas could actually be useful! Unfortunately, this tendency can spread to all areas of our lives—anywhere from sports to family relationships.
Now you may be asking, “Dr. Tim, aren’t you egotistical because you think that you have the truth and most parents don’t?” Although I’m passionate about learning and living truth, I am also flawed and human. I have to constantly work through my own misconceptions!
If we really want to improve as parents, we have to be willing to throw out tradition or personal experiences that aren’t evidence-based. That is the challenge!
Truly we can resist the change that we need most without even being aware of it. So I have to ask a question. Are we causing unnecessary problems and pain because we fail to see our parenting biases clearly?
Doctor, is There a Cure?
I hope that none of us wait until our children are grown to be humbled by our false beliefs about parenting. Just like our food choices, let us go after healthy sources for our parenting nourishment.
May each of us have the heart and the courage to change what is necessary. Let our traditions, upbringing, and experiences be held to the candle of what is best and proven rather than what is automatic and comfortable. I know this is within the reach of every parent because this is the most important work you will ever do.
While it may be uncomfortable, carefully examining your parenting practices can make all the difference. After all, your kids deserve to turn out better than just “okay.”