I became a parent at the tender age of 25. I look back with fondness at the delusional optimism I had about parenthood, which undoubtedly came from long, restful nights of sleep and an abundance of time to pursue hobbies and personal interests. In the years that have passed since that time, I’ve learned a few things about parenthood, both from my own experience as a parent, as well as through my interactions with my therapy clients, many of whom are young adults who are venturing out into the world on their own for the first time.
Cielle and I have quite a few friends who are parents, and I’ve often heard them express worry about how they parent their children. I’ve heard many different variants of this fear; parents often worry about making sure they do things the right way with their kids. By making the “right” parenting decisions, we hope to create an optimistic future for our children, and prevent pain and suffering. And so we try to parent in such a way that our children will follow the law, treat others with respect, do well in school, find meaningful work, become “well rounded,” perform better than average at something, have good social skills, and be liked by their peers. The thought of our child not having some of these things is anxiety-provoking for parents, and we deal with that anxiety by trying to parent in the best possible way.
So great and so prevalent is this concern, it seems, that literally hundreds of thousands of books, blogs, and products have arisen about “how to parent” since the 1980’s. A recent Amazon search on parenting books yielded over 300,000 results – parenting advice has come to represent over a billion dollar industry annually.
Seated within this concern is the unstated fear that parents have of doing lasting damage to their child, if they make the “wrong” parenting decisions. What if I’m too permissive? Too strict? What if I allow them to participate in activities where they could get hurt? What if I don’t allow them to do the things they want to do, even if they’re dangerous? Should I be teaching them about what I believe, or is that brainwashing them?
I believe that these questions actually cause parents to miss the mark, and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety around parenting. I don’t think that trying to help our children learn certain behaviors or values is wrong; I do think that a parent can easily, needlessly, drive themselves crazy trying to do everything right. Children are remarkably resilient to the vast majority of “mistakes” parents make; I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who earnestly and confidently says that they did everything “right;” nor have I met a person who believes that of their own parents. Very few of the “mistakes” parents make have the power to cause lasting harm in a child’s life. There is, however, one type of parenting mistake that I believe is correlated with certain problems in my therapy clients. This type of mistake happens when a child is left with unresolved ambiguity in their relationship with their parent. Here’s why:
Humans have an innate need to live in a world that makes sense. Our brains are constantly engaging in processes intended to reduce ambiguity that results from our experiences. Obviously, different ways of resolving ambiguity in our minds have very different consequences, and we’re likely to select explanations that are consistent with our past knowledge and experience. Until we’re able to come up with a reasonable solution for ambiguity, we’ll experience some degree of psychological discomfort. Social psychologist Leon Festinger called the psychological discomfort that we experience when something doesn’t make sense cognitive dissonance.
According to cognitive dissonance theory, people will think and behave in ways that reduce the psychological discomfort associated with ambiguity. The particulars of how we resolve this ambiguity in any given situation varies from person to person, and is again dependent on their previous experience. If I tend to feel down on myself and feel like a lot of people have rejected me in the past, I might be likely to interpret my friend not texting me back as them not wanting a relationship anymore. However, if I’m feeling confident in myself and secure in my relationships, I may be more likely to attribute it to them being busy, or not having access to the message I sent them.
Young children’s lives are replete with ambiguity, because they lack a foundation of experiences that inform them about “how the world works.” As a result, they are constantly resolving ambiguity with whatever information they have access to, which is limited. This information is limited not just because of a lack of experience, but also because young children lack the cognitive skills to take others’ perspectives or incorporate nuance into their thought processes.
When we allow our children to resolve ambiguity on their own, they’re likely to resolve this ambiguity using one of the few things they do have access to – the self. When an irritable, grumpy parent at the end of a long, stressful day treats their child coldly, that child is then given an opportunity to internalize their parent’s behavior and feel like a “bad kid,” or like they’ve done something wrong. It’s confusing why mom or dad is treating them poorly, so they have to come up with some explanation, even if it doesn’t make logical sense to a rational adult. The child may then have to find something wrong that they’ve done, to resolve the cognitive dissonance brought on by their guilt. As the child continues to engage in this thought pattern, without an alternative explanation for the ambiguity, there is obvious potential for long-term consequences – poor self-esteem, mistrust of others, or behavioral problems.
If a parent helps the child resolve the ambiguity in a different way, say, by apologizing and telling the child that they feel upset about other things, then the child is less likely to use unhealthy, more damaging explanations that have potential long-term consequences. The more quickly this happens, the less time the child has to use internalizing explanations that they could then apply to understand other ambiguous situations.
If the irritable, grumpy parent at the end of their long, stressful day approaches their child that they’ve treated coldly, and helps them resolve the ambiguity of the situation in a healthy way, that child is less likely to suffer as a result of the situation. This resolution occurs when a parent says something like, “I wasn’t as nice as I should have been tonight, and that wasn’t your fault. I had a hard day and I took it out on you. I’m sorry.” The parent owns up to what happened, and the child is then able to allow the problem to be their parent’s, rather than their own. This promotes the building of trust and fosters healthy self-perception.
I believe that the key to not “messing up” as a parent revolves around helping our children resolve ambiguity in our relationship with them in a healthy way. As I once put it to Cielle, “the only real way to mess up as a parent is to take your crap out on your kids, and then never own up to it.”
Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive Dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106.
Paul, P. (2009). Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children. Henry Holt & Company: New York.