Parenting: The Basics, Revisited in 2012 – Be

Be who you are.

I can almost see you wrinkle your forehead in perplexity. “Be who you are?” What could I possibly mean by that? I mean, who else could you be but yourself?

But there are so many times when you don’t let yourself be who you are. Here’s what I mean:

1. You hide your real emotions – Maybe you are feeling upset because of something your child did or did not do (forget to wish you for an important date, ignore your request that she keep quiet because you are unwell, say hurtful things to get back at you for not being ‘nice’…). Do you hide that you are upset? When your child asks you if you’re okay, do you manufacture and flash a false smile at her to signify you’re alright?

Or do you tell her you’re not feeling so good and need a little time and space to recover? (This is very different from telling her: “I’m upset because you misbehaved with me.” When you say this, you are telling her that she is responsible for how you are feeling. She will learn not to be responsible for her own feelings. You are also trying to influence her behavior, which will encourage her to manipulate others and be manipulated by them.  But letting her know that you are feeling not-so-good is neither manipulative nor false.)

2. You are afraid that you will not live up to the image of the ideal parent – If you have an image in your head of how an ideal parent should behave, you try to be as close to that image in real life as possible. But you are not that image – and so, you end up being who you are not.

You may believe you are not attractive, not attentive, not loving, not educated, not rich, not talented, not smart – in short, you may believe that in some way or other you are not a ‘good’ parent. To reduce the pain of not being ‘good enough’, you deny your natural instincts, ruthlessly suppress your nature and personality, and set out to be the image of what you believe is the ‘perfect’ parent.

A friend of mine had an obsessive-compulsive mother. If a single t-shirt in her closet was out of place in the pile, the mom would pull out everything from the closet. No, I’m not exaggerating. At the end of a few minutes, the closet would be empty, and everything in it would be strewn all over the floor. My friend would then be asked to rearrange every single article of clothing back into the closet, making sure to get it right with no folds or creases, no clothes folded ‘out of line’, and all folded clothes arranged in perfectly ordered piles.

When she told me this, I smiled and remarked that she must have spent a lot of her childhood (re)arranging closets. She said she’d sworn then that her kids could be as messy as they liked and she wouldn’t utter one word of reproach. I stayed with her a few years ago. Her son was then a boisterous 7, and I was impressed to see how clean his room was. As he showed me his new toy and replaced it before going out to play, my friend called out to him: “Come and put your car back properly in the pile of toys. The way you’ve done it now, the box is tilting off the pile.” 🙂

I reminded her of her childhood decision (it had almost been in the nature of a vow) to let her kids be messy. “Oh! I’m nothing like my mom. When my son sits on the bed and the sheets get creased, I don’t throw down the bedclothes and ask him to make the bed again. He keeps sitting or reading or playing. All I ask is that when he gets up, he should straighten the bedclothes. But I have to ask him to keep the closet neat, or how will he find his toys?” There wasn’t any point telling her that the difference she was trying to point out was so negligible as to hardly exist.

Over the weekend that I stayed with her, I watched her seesaw between letting her child ‘be messy’ (!) and straighten up obsessively after him. As for the boy, he was afraid to move a muscle in his own house lest he disarrange something. What a terrible way to live!

So – whenever you next catch yourself living up to some ‘good’ or ‘approved of’ or ‘ideal’ notion, do yourself and your child a favor. Drop it. Flawed as you are (and we are all flawed 🙂 ), you are of infinitely greater value just as you are, than pretending to be someone you are not. Your pretence will increase your anxiety and confusion, bewilder your child, and encourage her to be who she is not. Why perpetuate the misery?

Set yourself – and your child – free. Free to be who you are. This is the only way you will ever have a real and meaningful relationship with your child.

You may be convinced that you are not ‘good’, but the truth is that you are ‘good enough’. And that’s enough. Now all you need to do is believe it and carry on from there.

***

As Ingrid Bergman said, “Be yourself. The world worships the original.”

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