- Jacob Bøtter/Flickr
The prospect of parenting is terrifying for reasons that are too many to list here, but one that I’ve personally heard multiple times is this: I’m terrified of making the same mistakes that my parents made.
It’s a legitimate fear – raising kids is hard, and it’s a lot easier to say you won’t be hyper-critical than it is to actually accept that your kid is a B student.
But when I asked Carl Pickhardt – a psychologist who’s published multiple books about parenting, including, most recently, “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” – about the best way to avoid repeating your parents’ screw-ups, he told it to me straight.
“Avoiding mistakes is not a really great goal for parenting,” he said. “It makes decision-making very scary and it injects a lot of anxiety into the process.”
You’ll definitely make mistakes, he added, whether they’re new or the same ones your parents made. The sooner you can abandon the hope that you’ll be a perfect parent, the better.
So here’s a more realistic question to ask yourself before you become a parent: What positive things did my parents give me that I want to give my kids?
If that sounds too obvious, it’s not really. It’s a lot easier to dwell on the negative parts of your childhood than it is to recall the positive.
“Identifying what were the good things that you want to carry forward is a good thing to happen,” Pickhardt said. “In most cases, people entering parenthood can identify some of those things.”
Maybe your parents were always open to talking about things that bothered you; or maybe they generally made time to play with you after school. Whatever it is, focus on being that kind of parent in the future.
One “trap” to avoid? Pickhardt said a lot of parents try to go to the opposite extreme – if their parents were hypercritical, for example, they’ll be totally lax with their own kids. That strategy tends to backfire.
When the kid hits adolescence and starts chafing against parental restrictions, “now all of a sudden, this parent has a real challenge on their hands: How are they going to rein this kid in?” Pickhardt said. “What happens is very often they find themselves resorting to tactics or expression that they never wanted to. All of a sudden, now the parent becomes critical … just the way their parents were.”
One key thing to remember, Pickhardt said, is that your parenting style isn’t necessarily constrained by your parents’ behavior – it doesn’t have to be the same or the opposite. It can be unique to you.
A good question to ponder is: “How do I want to parent my child and adolescent in a way that feels positive to me?”
Another key thing to remember: Raising a kid is kind of a learn-as-you-go process. You can’t plan your parenting strategy before your kid arrives, or grows up.
“Parenting is a clumsy, groping process,” Pickhardt said. “It’s founded on the parent being in a position to get to know the child and then use that knowledge as best they can to help that kid develop themselves.”