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I would hazard a wild guess that we all feel like we’re failing at parenting from time to time. Maybe even a bit more regularly than ‘time to time’.
There are days when I can’t quite believe I’ve been put in charge of four kids – and not in a good way.
I look at the hot mess I’ve made of my parenting that day, and think, Who would ever trust me to care for kids? These sweet kids, who don’t deserve my irritability, my exhaustion, my impatience, my snappiness?
They say that the more you know, the more you don’t know – and it seems to be that the longer I’m a parent, the more I have no freakin’ clue what I’m doing.
“I feel like a failure as a parent”
I know I’m not alone in my feelings of ineptitude.
Just Google ‘I feel like a failure as a parent’ or ‘failing at parenting’, and you’ll find numerous very sad threads from Mums – yes, all Mums – who genuinely feel like their kids would be better off without them.
I shout at my kids.
I can’t keep the house clean for them.
I don’t plan enough fun activities to do together.
How many of us have heard these kinds of statements running through our heads?
I’m too fussy about things which aren’t a big deal.
I’m in too much of a hurry to get them off to bed.
I pretend to listen to them but my mind is elsewhere.
It starts as guilt, then turns into something much more sinister: a perceived notion that we’re failing at parenting, that our kids are going to be scarred for life, that they’d be better off without us.
I made her feel like she didn’t meet my approval.
I made fun of his geeky hobby.
I didn’t remember that vital piece of information they were counting on me to remember.
We can start to wonder why God gave us children at all, if He knew we were going to be so rubbish at it.
You don’t need me to tell you that social media is the spawn of Satan when it comes to social comparison. On the one hand, we can’t get enough of this legal drug – on the other, it’s killing our minds, filling them with unrealistic ideas of what parenting should look like.
Yes, I fall down in many ways as a parent. But some of the areas in which I perceive that I’m failing at parenting are only bad when matched up to the impossible standards set by the smiling photos on Instagram. Thirty years ago, what I now consider to be ‘bad parenting’ was run-of-the-mill, everyday stuff.
Take shouting, for example. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was pretty common to hear parents shout at their kids.
Yet the underlying current of 21st-century parenting – fuelled by super-happy Instagram posts, parenting memes and blogs – is that no one should be shouting at their kids.
And if you do, you feel you must be failing at parenting, because so-and-so would never speak to their children like we just spoke to ours.
Shouting is just one example – but others could include not playing enough with our kids, not taking them on enough days out, not enrolling them in enough activities, not keeping a good enough routine with them, not enabling them to do all their homework.
These are perceived failings – things we might feel make us terrible parents, just because we think others are doing parenting better in these areas.
But, more often than not, these actions are not actually failing our children.
Psychology and the parenting experts
The damage of social media is not just in seeing what other families are up to, it’s also the binge-sharing of parenting articles, memes and advice which distort any notion of what realistic parenting should look like.
One article tells you that your child can potty-train in a week, while another says you should be using elimination technique from day one.
One expert tells you to put your child on the naughty step, while another will tell you to avoid any such ‘shaming’ strategies.
One blog post tells you the benefits of co-sleeping, while another warns of the long-term damage it will do.
Is it any wonder we feel like we’re failing at parenting with this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ culture?
Common sense is thrown out of the window, parenting becomes a life goal rather than a journey, and we’re led to believe that making mistakes will screw up our children for life. Perhaps every time I yell, I should put 50p in a savings tin for my children’s therapy.
We’re living in an age where we’ve never had so much parenting information available to us, yet are so lacking in confidence when it comes to raising our young.
Psychological advances are not the enemy here. Speaking as an adoptive mum, I’m delighted with the amount of understanding about early life trauma which has developed over the last couple of decades.
But we need to put the psychology in the context of regular, everyday parenting. We are not perfect, and neither are our children.
Psychology helps us understand the human brain and give suggestions for how to effectively communicate with, and relate to, each other. But it can’t predict the myriad different situations we’ll find ourselves in with our families.
These situations will require us to filter everything we’ve ever heard or read in a split second, in order to respond appropriately. And if we make a mistake? We feel like a failure as a parent.
Confidence and empowerment
In Sue Gerhardt’s excellent book Why Love Matters, she comes to the conclusion (spoiler alert – sorry, Sue, you may lose a few sales here) that our lack of intuitive understanding about parenting is a direct result of families becoming more fragmented in recent decades.
Because we no longer grow up in multi-generational households and communities, we don’t grow up caring for the siblings, cousins and neighbours that we might have done in a previous era. Smaller nuclear families mean that most of us won’t have living memories of watching our parents care for younger siblings, modelling how to do it. And, when we become parents, not all of us are doing it within a close-knit community of other parents, sharing advice and tips freely.
In other words, we don’t have as many opportunities to see parenting modelled before we have to do it ourselves. We don’t always get to see a gloriously rich diversity in how different families raise their kids differently.
All this leads to a catastrophic lack of confidence when it comes to our abilities as a parent. And, where there is an absence of confidence, something has to fill the gap.
Whether it’s the psychology of early childhood, the perfect pictures of a happy family bike ride that someone’s just posted on Facebook, or the latest celebrity parent sharing some impossibly-perfect strategy for getting your children to eat vegetables, we are at risk of trusting the wrong measuring stick.
Parenting is a relationship, and you’re the person who knows your child best. You can parent them well, because you know them well – and, if you feel you don’t know them, now’s the time to change that. These external influences can be helpful sources of information – but the buck stops with you.
You can find your own inner parenting confidence – but how?
Practical strategies when you feel like you’re failing at parenting
I know how this feels – because I regularly succumb to feeling I’m doing a terrible job as a parent. Here’s what helps me to shift my mindset:
- Recognise what is making you feel like a failure as a parent. Is it something you’ve seen on social media, or an idea you’ve absorbed from an article? It may well be a mixture of factors making you feel down on yourself – but by eliminating the unrealistic parenting expectations, you can at least start to eliminate part of the problem.
- List what you have done well. Did you feed your children today? Did you get them to school or nursery? Did you put them to bed when they were tired? Did you wash their clothes or tidy their room or make their bed? Make a list of all the positive things you did today for your children, however small they seem. Man, you just kept your kids alive for another day! That’s no mean feat.
- Watch your children. Are they happy? Are they healthy? Are they engaged in something they enjoy? Do they have some positive relationships – with friends, siblings or wider family? Perhaps however you feel you’ve let them down is not as big a deal to them as it is to you. I have said terrible things to my daughter before – yet she still, of her own will, writes me lovely notes to tell me how much I mean to her.
- Remember God chose you to parent your children. It is not a mistake! He gave them to you to care for – but also to learn from. This means that you are the right person to bring them up. But you can’t do it without His help. Commit your family and your parenting to Him daily – or as often as you feel negative thoughts coming into your head.
- Allow humility to rule. If you have said or done something to your child which you regret, say sorry. Model to them how we get things wrong, but God is always quick to forgive us, abounding in love and grace for the times we fail. King Ahab murdered Naboth when Naboth wouldn’t give him his vineyard – yet still God had mercy and forgave Ahab when he repented (1 Kings 21). There is nothing you can do to your child that God cannot forgive you for.
- Ask God to refine you. God gave us our children, not only because we are right for them, but because they are right for us. He has given us children who will provoke the areas of our character that most need refining. I am impatient and quick to anger, so God has called us to adopt and to deal with the very many attachment issues that present themselves daily, all of which need huge swathes of patience. Is God refining my character through this? Yes – although I’m a slow learner!
‘Failing at parenting’ no more
You are not alone in feeling sometimes (or much of the time) as if you can’t be a good parent. Even if no one else feels it, I do – so that’s two of us at least. But actually I would be surprised if any parent hadn’t felt, at one time or another, that they were doing a terrible job.
However, there is hope. We don’t need to remain in a state of despair. We can recognise this feeling for what it is: just a feeling, a thought pattern, that God is able to change in us.
By changing our mindset, focusing on how our children are doing, and seeking their forgiveness (and God’s) when we’ve wronged them (as we will do, because it happens in any human relationship), we can start to see a way out, a more positive future for ourselves and our kids.
If this is something you would appreciate more help with, I encourage you to seek prayer from a mature Christian who you trust.
And if you feel that this is an area in which you need some more professional support and guidance, do check out a family counsellor local to you, or enrol on a parenting course. If you are an adopting family, I can’t recommend the Enhancing Adoptive Parenting course highly enough.