School is out, and parents are taking to social media to express their amazement at the work of teachers. “I just spent a whole day with my kids and I don’t know how their teachers do it!” is the common refrain. I make my living studying how their teachers do it, and I have two important takeaways:
- Great teachers are made, not born. They are constantly learning, constantly working to improve their practice, and constantly building on their successes.
- Great parents are the same.
As a mom, I am highly attuned to the narrative of good parent/bad parent that pervades our popular discourse (more frequently it’s good mom/bad mom, but I’ll stick with parent for the sake of encouraging the important message that dads are –and should be – equals in the work of parenting). A non-exhaustive list of the ways in which this can pop up includes: You are a good parent if your kids breastfeed/you are a bad parent if they drink formula. You are a good parent if your kids are sleep trained/you are a bad parent if they don’t sleep through the night in their beds. Or, conversely, you are a good parent if your child co-sleeps/you’re a bad parent if you sleep train. You are a good parent if your kids eat organic foods/you are a bad parents if your kids eat refined sugar. You are a good parent (mom!) if you stay home with your kids/ You are a bad parent (mom!) if you work outside the home. You are a good parent/bad parent at many different levels of screen time. You are a good parent/bad parent if your kids go to public school, private school, charter school, or are homeschooled. And on and on.
But here’s the thing: it’s all ridiculous. Unless your unvaccinated kid is living in her own apartment, mainlining Mountain Dew and shrugging off school in favor of spending 24 hours a day playing Minecraft, you’re probably fine.
This whole sorry conversation is – like many conversations around good teaching/bad teaching – built on absolutes. It also entirely disregards the child, assuming instead that what works for one kid will work for all kids. And it strips the adult in the situation of agency and individual judgment. With the exception of the few things that are actively harmful for kids, there are nuanced conversations to be had about best practice in any given situation.
And so, I am eager to redefine what it means to be a good parent. Let’s try to move away from thinking about making the “right” choice from (mostly binary) options, and towards the concept of a learning stance, which favors studying an issue and finding the resources and information you need to (hopefully) make the right decision in that moment. At my organization, Center for Inspired Teaching, we use Martha Graham’s concept of “divine dissatisfaction” to describe this mindset. Teachers with this mindset are always learning. They seek out resources, they talk to peers, they sign up for courses; they have an inexhaustible hunger not just to make their practice better but to ensure that the needs and skills and personalities and expertise of the students themselves are at the center of the classroom experience.
Like good teachers, good parents practice divine dissatisfaction. They are reflective, thoughtful, constantly searching for new strategies to improve their practice. When something is not going well, they find every resource they can to fix it. When something is going well, they observe and delight in it, learn from it, and try to build on it in new ways. They mesh their observations and their knowledge of their own particular children with new information they gather. And when their kids are struggling or acting out, they own the struggle instead of shrugging it off or blaming outside forces or the kids themselves. That's the heart of good parenting: agency, ownership, and action, all in service to parenting the child as an individual.
I haven’t always gotten this right, but I’ve learned so much from trying. My first parenting resource experience was a flop: I managed to work myself into such a frenzy from the dire warnings in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, that my husband, after weeks of hearing that I was certain I was in pre-term labor, made the book vanish. (I haven’t seen it since!) At some point though, and after more missteps, we found T. Berry Brazelton and his Touchpoint books (he is affectionately known in our house as T. Berry). And those books guided us through some questions to answers that felt right. And then we found Heather Shumaker. And Ross Greene. And we began to amass a toolbox of ideas that made sense to us. We’re still looking for new resources, but we aren’t scrambling when something new comes up; we’re at a point where we can combine what we’ve learned in 8+ years of parenting with the texts we’ve found most useful, and we can find a good path through. It might feel daunting, but having a learning stance has been the best way I’ve found both to find solutions to that challenges that parenting raises, and to avoid the feeling of guilt that any one simple decision marks the difference between success and failure for us as parents.
And so I look forward to a day when we can move past the shallow and unhelpful conversations of the past, with their rigid distinctions and judgmental conclusions, and move towards an appreciation the ongoing, challenging, sometimes mistaken, always developing, vital, learning work of great parents and great teachers.