Let’s face it, parenting is hard in the best of circumstances… and really, really tough in the worst.
The lives of countless families – particularly those whose kids don’t follow the path the other 85 percent seem to do with ease – run counter to the social and mass media images of fabulous family-dom. So what better way to support other parents than to be kind, nonjudgmental and empathic and, by word and deed, teach our children to do the same?
Sadly, it doesn’t always happen that way. Consider these true-to-life tales:
One mom of an 11-year-old boy has had other parents tell her (to her face, I’m sad to report): “Your kid is a nightmare.” And “Your kid is ruining the class.” Stunned by such comments, they often go unaddressed, although certainly not un-felt.
Another mother, now in her 50s, recalls in vivid detail when her 2-year-old, already exhibiting signs of the physical and emotional syndromes to come, was screaming in tantrum – once again and in public. A woman came up to her and said, “You must have done something really terrible to your daughter for her to be acting this way.” Mortified and filled with shame, the mom never forgot the incident.
Smartly, though, each of these women built a tribe of trusted peers and professionals with whom she could share her parenting challenges – and bear witness to those of others.
They faced early on what virtually every one of us eventually comes to know: No parent gets through life without their children having some sort of problem – whether major or minor.
In all my years of being an educational therapist, parenting my own children and helping others do the same through coaching, I have yet to meet a single parent who didn’t struggle with parenting decisions and profoundly benefit from the understanding of another mom or dad.
Given this indisputable fact, the expectation is that parents would really be there for one another. What tends to happen some times, is that parents of “normative” kids fear their children’s lives and educations will be impacted in a negative way by children deemed troubled or different. Problems arise when the former reflexively react to advantage their kid over the “other.”
The competition that ensues from such a worldview perpetuates a dog-eat-dog family culture, when what we need is one where compassion, cooperation and collaboration produce the best hope for our collective future.
I’ll give you that the world can seem big and scary for parents today. And there’s plenty of societal pressure to compel you to leverage every advantage for your offspring.
But when the parental MO is to hunker down in family insularity and isolation and, in some cases, compete with other families, every family loses.
After all, they really aren’t “my” kids and “your” kids. All kids matter. In the blink of an eye, they’ll be running the world. Unless we teach them, they will not learn to factor kindness, empathy and mindfulness about the diversity of human experience into their adult decisions.
Teaching it doesn’t take all that much, by the way. Mindful words and thoughtful actions – modeled in front of our kids – can truly make the world a better place. Even Sesame Street climbed on the “let’s be kind and tolerant of otherness” bandwagon in a big way when it introduced Julia, a girl with autism, into the family of characters loved by generations. (And if it’s good enough for Sesame Street...)
That’s why I’m putting out the call to every parent to let kindness and tolerance be your touchstones from here on out. Here are my 8 suggestions. If you have additional suggestions for how we can “share the love” with other parents, please email me directly or share them with my followers on Facebook and Twitter.
1. Practice empathy. Don’t judge or assume the worst about the parents when a child is having a tantrum or acting in a manner you think is inappropriate. Reframe “what” you see by considering “why” the child may be acting that way.
2. Model acceptance for your children. If a classmate or playmate is having a meltdown, saying, “Johnny really seems to be having a tough day” versus “Johnny is bad,” lets your child know that every kid gets overwhelmed sometimes. When inappropriate behavior requires intervention, by all means step in, but be sure to model empathy. Avoid equating a child’s actions with their character. Saying, “You seem upset Susie, but in our house we don’t hit one another” lets her know her behavior isn’t acceptable, but it doesn’t make her any less valuable or lovable.
3. Err on the side of inclusion rather than homogeneity. Especially during the early years when you have more control over friends and play dates, consider how you can enhance your child’s intersection with kids from a range of economic, racial, religious and ethnic groups. Inclusion also refers to sharing information about team sign-ups, class registration, scholarships or special programs with all the parents in your kid’s class, rather than only with your inner circle.
4. Remember your early parenting days. If you’re an experienced parent, be especially kind and thoughtful toward moms and dads struggling with unruly young children on buses or airplanes, in stores or at school. Even if there’s nothing you can do to help, you can share a smile that says, “I understand. I’ve been there, too. Everything will be okay.”
5. Avoid appearing competitive – especially on social media. Of course, you’re proud of your child’s straight As or sports achievements; you deserve to be! Trumpet the good news, but with sensitivity – especially online. Some of your friends-followers may have kids who struggle in those endeavors. Plus, remember that social media’s omnipresence requires us as parents to be particularly sensitive to our children’s exposure. On the other hand, always be upbeat and congratulatory about another child’s good fortune.
6. Maintain perspective – and gratitude. Today your kids may be healthy and happy, but we never know what is around the corner. I’m not saying I keep the other shoe in ready-to-drop position, but I sure do respect its presence.
7. Make sure your kids see you treat everyone you meet with dignity. It may sound obvious, but our kids need to see us model respect for everyone, regardless of appearance or circumstance.
8. Be honest with other moms and dads about your struggles. It’s incredibly helpful to talk about the challenges our kids are facing and the resulting trials as parents. It helps all of us see behind the curtain – and feel more seen ourselves.
If you are really struggling and just can’t get the support you need from friends, there are professional and peer resources you can turn to.
Join a parent support group, some of which are geared to parents of children with specific disabilities. Read about “the unplanned journey” of having a child with special needs. Work with a parenting coach. See a developmental specialist or child therapist. In my book, seeking the help we need is a sign of superior parenting.