We all know the “perfect” parent, right? Perfect parents are a socially determined ideal, who never gets things wrong. Also known as “good” mothers and “good” fathers, they are pervasive in parenting ideology. Good mothers, through self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-control, will have happy children who will go on to lead happy fulfilled lives. Good fathers are breadwinners. They don’t need to know how to parent well, because that’s what good mothers are for. If your child doesn’t behave “properly”, then y’all not trying hard enough as parents. We all know these parents: they live in text books, social media, and advertising. Psssst! The perfect parent isn’t real.
How did we get here? It’s been a long and well ingrained socialisation process. I could actually write a thesis on this topic. Wait! I did…. So I’ll try to summarise. At the start of the twentieth century, there was a rise in the number of “experts” who dictated how to be the perfect parent. We got an influx of parenting books that gave us (especially mothers) sometimes conflicting advice on how to be the perfect parent. Or at least a “good” parent. Media such as television, movies, and advertising only served to reinforce these myths. Think about the Brady Bunch. You might thing we’ve come a long way since then, but no. Mothers in Television Land control the domestic front, even if they are in paid employment. For example, while Modern Family broke so many stereotypes (and good for them), there’s Claire, right in the middle of things, sorting everything out while looking fabulous. Other television mums who control the family: Marg Simpson, Marie Barone, probably every television family you can think of. It’s subtle, it’s almost subliminal, it’s pervasive.
By the end of the twentieth century, and with the 21st century marching on, there was definitely a “right” way to parent. The problem is, the “experts” seem to disagree on what this looks like, and just as you think you’ve got the hang of it, the goal posts move. It gets worse when your instinct and/or parenting style conflicts with the “experts” and/or other parents. Beaten down by a combination of hormones, tiredness, and second guessing – after all, if everyone else is doing it that way, surely they can’t all be wrong? – parents succumb to self doubt, and the ideals of the “perfect” parent are reinforced.
The fun part (#NotFun) comes when you realise it’s not just experts, family and friends who apparently know the right way to parent, but also strangers. Almost every parent I have spoken to (literally thousands when you consider my personal contacts, my research, and social media) has received unsolicited parenting advice from strangers. If you don’t believe me, go to a shopping centre and watch what happens when a toddler throws a tantrum, a child starts squealing, or a parent starts shouting.
So, there is definitely a link between being a good parent and how the child behaves, and if the child doesn’t achieve whatever it is they are supposed to achieve, well, the parents didn’t try hard enough. Being the Perfect Parent is an impossible ideal. Why? First of all, because you’re not a perfect person. Parents all make mistakes. And that’s okay! It’s not the mistake itself that’s important, it’s how you deal with it. How you deal with your imperfect parenting is modelling behaviour for your child. Secondly, the ideals are not clearly cut. I’ll give you an example. We all know “breast is best” right? This of course, means women who are unable to breastfeed have already failed Mothering 101. There’s heaps of research that supports the benefits of breastfeeding, and I’m not arguing that. I’m just pointing out that for women who can’t breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed, that’s there’s heaps of research that shows feeding your baby is beneficial too. Okay, so we agree that breast is best. Except in public. And only until the child is [insert random age here]. Then it’s not best. See how confusing the simple act of feeding your baby is?
So here are my top tips. Firstly, hello, social media is not real. Social media allows people to project the image they want you to see. You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. I don’t care who you are, nobody has a perfect life. So stop trying to keep up. Which leads me to the next point. It’s not a competition. I see this happening all the time. One mother will say her child slept for eight hours, and you can almost see the other parents trying to figure this out. Are they supposed to say their own child slept for six hours or ten hours to win the competition? Okay, so parenting is not a competition. If you keep making it a competition, nobody wins. Lastly, it’s the big picture that counts. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Kids remember the general feel of childhood. They remember feeling loved, and happy, and secure, and safe. They don’t remember that on [insert random date] mum or dad lost their temper and started yelling. Live in the moment. Enjoy today. Enjoy your child’s enjoyment and wonder at the world. Maybe just stop and look at the water with him.
So, in short, you’re never going to be a perfect parent, so please stop trying. And the parents next to you? They’re not going to be perfect parents either, so please stop judging.