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10 Things You Are (and Aren't) Responsible for as a Parent
By Sara Bean, M.Ed.
These days, we're bombarded with mixed messages about how to parent "the right way." It's easy to buy into advice from the media, relatives, and other parents and start to worry that we're doing something wrong. Part of the reason this is happening is because adults, just like kids, are over-stimulated. We're more wired and connected, which means we're receiving more outside input than ever before. We have easy access to advice (good and bad) on the web, to information about how other parents are doing things, and to each other through social networking sites. This means we're also more actively comparing ourselves to others—and getting more judgment and criticism from others as a result. We're on an informational and emotional overload, which is causing many, many parents to feel overwhelmed and confused.
On our Parental Support Line, my advice to callers was to trust your instincts as a parent—you know your child best, and in the end you're the one making the decisions about your child's future. In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman says you have to run your family like a business. You're the chief executive officer of your "family business" and as CEO you have to learn how to set emotions aside and to parent as objectively as possible. Forget how guilty you feel, forget that echo of your sister's advice in the back of your head—you need to do what is best for your business. You can ask for advice, but in the end, you know your family best.
One of the most important ways to clear through all the clutter of advice, guilt and comparisons to others is to understand what you are and aren't responsible for when it comes to raising your child.
What you are not responsible for:
- Making sure your kids are always happy. Don't get me wrong—it's good for your kids to be happy overall. But that means there will be plenty of times, especially when you're parenting responsibly, that your kids will be furious with you when you set limits or give them a consequence. That's part of your job description as the executive officer—not to make decisions based on what your kids will like, tolerate, or be okay with, but to make the decisions that are best for them and your family business, then follow through.
- Getting the approval of others. Rationally, you do not need other adults in your life to tell you that you are doing the right thing. Parenting is not a popularity contest in your family or in your community. Sure, it feels great when other adults, such as your child's teachers, tell you your child is doing something well, but it's not necessary in order for you to run your family business well.
- Controlling your children. Your children are not puppets and you are not a puppeteer. There is just no logical way that you can control every move your child makes or everything your child says, especially outside of your home. Children have their own free will and will act on their own accord—and often in self-interest. It's important to remind yourself that if your child is not doing her homework, for example, despite your best efforts to motivate her and hold her accountable, that's her problem and the poor grade she earns is hers alone. The consequence she will get from you is that you will make sure she sets aside time every evening to study, you will be in touch with her teachers more, and you will monitor her homework more thoroughly until she brings her grade up. We can't control our kids, but we can influence them by the limits we set and the consequences we give. As James Lehman says, "You can lead a horse to water, and you can't make them drink—but you can make them thirsty."
- Doing for your children what they are capable of doing for themselves. Many, many times our children will ask us to do something for them that we know they are capable of doing on their own. Your grade schooler might not make his bed perfectly the first time, but practice (and doing it imperfectly several times) is what he needs in order to get to the point where he can do it on his own. I'm not saying to stop preparing breakfast for your child once she's old enough to pour her own cereal, or to never do anything to help your kids out in a pinch. What I am saying is to let your kids struggle sometimes and try your best to balance the responsibility. Typing a child's paper for him because you type faster and it's getting close to bedtime is not striking a balance.
You do not have to be Superman, Wonder Woman, Mike Brady, or June Cleaver. These are all fictional characters that seem to do it all and do it perfectly, right? You're not one of them, nor should you strive to be. Rather than focusing on addressing every behavior issue or adhering to a perfect schedule each day, try to hit the important targets and realize that you might have to let some smaller things go each day. We call this picking your battles.
What you are responsible for:
- Making tough decisions that are not popular ones. If your child doesn't get mad at you at least once in a while, you're not doing your job. Along with this, remember that you are not required to give lengthy explanations of your decisions. "It's not safe" can be plenty of explanation when your teen asks why he can't jump off the roof and onto the trampoline. "It's your responsibility" is enough justification for telling your child it's homework time. You don't need to get into all the possible "what-ifs" and "if-thens."
- Teaching your child to function independently. One of the effective parenting roles we talk about frequently is the Trainer/Coach role. It is your job to teach your child age-appropriate skills in order to allow them to become more and more independent. There comes a time when your child needs to learn how to emotionally soothe himself, tie his shoes, write his name, and cope when someone teases him. Over time the skills he needs get more and more advanced—typing a paper, saying no to drugs, driving a car, and filling out a job application, for example.
- Holding them accountable. At the very least, this means setting some limits with your children when they are behaving inappropriately. For example, when your child is putting off their homework you might turn off the TV and say, "Watching TV isn't getting your homework done. Once your homework is done you can turn the TV back on." This could also be as simple as firmly saying, "We don't talk that way in this house" to your child and walking away. Or, of course, it can also mean providing some effective consequences for something like having missing homework assignments, such as weekend activities being placed on hold until the work is completed.
- Going along for the ride. On the rollercoaster, that is. We all know but often struggle to accept that life is full of ups and downs—and sometimes it gets turned upside down. There will be times when your child is doing well and times when he or she is really struggling. That is not a reflection on you, it just is. Don't blame yourself when this happens. Focus on finding positive ways to cope, look for something new to try to help your child effectively, or get some local support.
- Do your best. That's really all you can do sometimes. It's a perpetual balancing act—striving to find that balance between doing too much and doing too little, or giving consequences that are not too harsh but not too soft, either. Parenting can feel like a circus sometimes and there can be several balancing acts going on at one time. That's when you have to go back to picking your battles and realizing you are not, nor will you ever be, June Cleaver or Superman.
Above all else, remember that your child is unique and you know him better than anyone else on the planet. You will always get input, no matter how obvious or subtle, from the world around you as to how you should parent your child. You, however, are the expert on your child and get to make your own decisions about how to parent her in a way that teaches her to be independent and accountable while also being loving and respectful of your child and her needs. When you find yourself personalizing, remember the tips here to help you be more objective and remember what your role as a parent really is.