If you are a parent, you know that the experience of parenting is different than you could have imagined, and each child you parent is their own unique and amazing human. No matter your individual blend of genetic, environmental, and experiential factors that together make you who you are—how you were parented, whether you carry trauma from childhood, what type of parenting you subscribe to, or your educational background, for example—you cannot know what you do not know until you are in it. No matter how intentional you were before entering “the most common miracle” that exists, and no matter how many resources you have access to, you relinquish some modicum of control the day your child is born.
I am not suggesting we should skip things like reading to our kiddos from early on (why bother if I am not in control, right?). Large quantities of data confirm the relationship between a child’s language acquisition and whether they were read to and exposed to a range of words before they attended school. We should still be intentional and strive to do our best. But there are no such things as perfection or universal right choices, and there are many things that are not within our control as parents.
By way of example, we are not prepared when a child is born with a physical difference or when an aspect of neurodiversity is detected in grade school. These are things we cannot predict, nor can we predict the feelings that come along with them. And if we tried to imagine what might be, the exact picture would be impossible to conjure because humans are unique creatures (the combinations are infinite), and because neuroplasticity works throughout the lifespan in each of us. We are never static. Furthermore, our environments help shape who we are and who we are, in turn, helps to shape our environments. Predicting this stuff and then holding tight to the expectations we create, is like spitting in the wind. Yet we as humans seem oblivious to this reality. I for one, demonstrated an early aptitude for generating outsized and untethered expectations when parenthood began (woohoo!), and I learned that oftentimes it is in these misguided expectations or in our unwillingness to see when we are not in control, where the psychological distress emerges. We may experience this as anxiety. This tension between what we hoped would be and what is, only serves to further challenge our senses of self, and cloud our judgements.
However, while we do not get to dictate how things will go, we do get to choose how we will respond when things come up. We can “white knuckle it” and bare down with all our power. This will likely cause distress and shame because holding the line tighter, maybe through avoidance or toxic optimism or self-flagellation (sound familiar?) will not erase the child’s apparent challenge or their way of being or acting that perturbs or scares us. And though we know we are not superhuman, in our heart of hearts we still thought we were bigger than said challenge, and in fact, in control. So, a certain amount of self-doubt or frustration tends to creep in, if we let it. We can instead roll up our sleeves and adapt, figure out what we need to know and where we can learn it, lean on social support including friends and professionals who may know something we do not, explore different perspectives, release expectations, and importantly, remember to consult our child for their own experiences with this thing, whatever “the thing” may be. We can take a meta-moment, as Marc Brackett calls it, and “hit the pause button” before delivering our otherwise automated responses, predictably and on cue. We can strive to be open to what is and what might be. We can practice patience and restraint. These are choices of self-compassion, and they will always be there for us when parenting gets hard, if we can learn to find and embrace them. These are the behaviors that might just get us closer to the superhuman we strive to be.
Aside from mindset, our individual circumstances leave some parents with a wider range of resources for dealing with these “curveballs.” To further complicate things, parenting choices we make can be protective factors or risk factors for each child. Indeed, something that may be protective for one child under certain circumstance, may be riskier for another child or in different contexts. Human-ing (and parenting!) do not happen in a vacuum. And as my dad always said when I was growing up, [they] “don’t come with a manual!”
These truths therefore require that we extend grace to ourselves and those around us…and that we embrace our own imperfections and experimentation! Now that is a scary word when referring to parenting, right?! In the end, that is what we are already doing anyway though, but without awareness. We are experimenting under the veil of self-assured control. We are striving for non-existent perfection, and we are measuring our own choices—and those of others—by our own personally tailored (self-protective?) yardsticks and without the benefits of hindsight, whether we want to admit it or not.
I propose that we are vulnerable to a grand experiment, each of us in our own households and with our own bells and whistles (err, realties). So I say: Let’s take control of THAT idea. We get to control our responses even if we cannot stop the ground from moving beneath us, and we get to direct—if not control—our own experiments with holistic consideration. In doing these things we make room for trying, and revising, our plans. We make space to change our minds. We need not dig our heals in or double down when a colleague or neighbor picks a different school or chooses a contrasting solution to a similar problem. Maybe their idea is worth consideration, in fact. Am I a better parent for moving with authority and then holding my ground in the face of relative failure, or for being wrong, owning my mistake, and pivoting? And what kind of example is set for my Lilliputians by each model?! Experimentation includes analysis of what is needed (the problem) and reflection around how to serve the need. It features a hypothesis as to the outcome, and a method for carrying out a proposed plan to see whether the prediction was correct; factors that may impact or complicate the results and suggestions for future study, expected and unexpected findings. We use what we learn to inform the next experiment...and there is always something to learn! It is sort of like parenting by the scientific method. What do you think?
And because in the rereading of this piece I realized that these things are much easier said than done, even when we ARE aware of them—who am I kidding, I am quite aware that I am on an island of teenagers and surrounded by all male humans at my house—I will leave you with a “yardstick” of reminders for your journey of experimentation. Measure yourself by this yardstick or create your own. And please, share your feedback and challenge my assumptions where they do not work for you!
Your choices are not one-sized-fits-all
Ask for help
Dare to challenge your expectations
Invite other perspectives
Cultivate compassion for all beings and their experiences, including your own
Know when you are and are not in control
Be well and Happy New Year!
Danielle Batchelor is a mind, brain, and education (MBE) researcher, educator, and coach. She serves on the faculty for The Neuroscience of Learning: An Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health and Education at the Harvard University Division of Continuing Education, and maintains a website designed to deliver MBE resources and services to parents and educators at www.neuroflourish.com. She holds a master’s degree from Harvard, a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, and is a Certified Health and Wellness Coach with a focus in Lifestyle Medicine.