We think that parenting tips are supposed to work magic. But what should we really be seeing from our efforts?
“What is wrong with me, why can’t I get the hang of parenting?”
“I’ve told my child again and again, why isn’t he getting the message?”
“I went to parenting classes and read books. Everything sounded so perfect, why isn’t it working?”
But what does it mean when something is “working” or “not working?” Working means getting closer to our goal. A strategy that works means a strategy that consistently moves us closer to reaching our goals. A strategy that works better brings us to our goal quicker than one that doesn’t work as well.
The fundamental question that we must answer, however, is “What is our goal as parents?” I think that at least on a subconscious level we perceive our goal to be very short term.
My child is fighting—get him to stop. She is not listening—get her to listen. He is acting fresh—get him to act appropriately. She doesn’t appreciate—get her to appreciate. Our perception of our goal conditions our parenting. Our child is fighting—we try to get him to stop in whatever way possible. If we succeed then we feel mildly successful—only mildly due to the emotional strain it took to get there. Until it happens again. If we are not successful, then we feel frustrated and unsuccessful. We feel the same feelings when it happens again, and more acutely if we thought we were successful in the first place. Now that perception of success feels upended.
Why We Get Frustrated
The reason for these feelings of failure is primarily due to having the wrong goal in the first place. Imagine a child that dreams of being a major league baseball player. He goes out to his backyard, takes a bat, and hits the baseball as hard and as far as he is able. He literally put his all into that swing. His arms are aching and he is breathing heavily, but it is all worth it. Until he looks up. He sees the ball and it is lying 200 feet away. All of a sudden, his exhilaration vanishes, his good mood disappears and he starts feeling very sad. He thinks, “A major league baseball player has to be able to hit a ball at least 300 feet and I only hit it 200.”
His mistake lies in the fact that he is expecting himself to already be on the level of a major league baseball player, however, his actual success would lie with him progressing every day so that when he is older, he will be able to bat 300 feet. He should be taking pride in his progression which comes from his constant practicing rather than feeling sad that he is not there already.
The same is true with our parenting. When our goal is that our child should stop doing certain things or start doing certain things NOW, then we are bound to feel disappointment and feelings of failure when that doesn’t happen. Much like the child who can’t hit the ball 300 feet. Our true goal—from a Torah perspective of chinuch-—is to train the child during his very young years so that by the time the child is a teenager he is more respectful on his own, doesn’t fight on his own initiative, etc.
What Should Our Real Expectations Be?
Success is measured in progress, with the immediate goal being the small steps forward, towards a larger long-term goal. Every child trains differently, and for every behavior, there is a different training. As long as we can see progress then we know we are on the right track. Progress is measured in a decrease in either duration or frequency of negative behaviors, and an increase in either frequency or duration of positive behaviors. If a child was getting into fights 3 times a day, and now he is getting into fights only 2 times a day, that’s progress. If the fights used to last 10 minutes and now they only last 5 that’s progress.
Now we are no longer getting frustrated that our child still fights, rather we are happy that he fights less. When we shift our perspective to see our child and ourselves in a better light, through the progress perspective, then we are actually able to parent more effectively. Now we can use the parenting strategies that we have, with confidence, because we can check for progress. This perspective also allows us to be calmer because it takes off the pressure to get them to STOP! When we are calmer, we are usually able to strategize better, and thereby actually use better practices. Children also respond to us better when we are calmer.
Measure Progress in Small Steps
This perspective should dramatically shift your whole parenting experience; however, it requires a lot of review. You should constantly tell it to yourself, to your spouse, your best friend, or whoever else will listen. You want to engrain it into your psyche to such an extent that even when your child commits the most horrendous of offenses you are able to respond in a clear level headed way because the feeling “how could he?!” will not surface.
With regard to actual parenting practices, that requires an individualized approach as each child, circumstance, and parent is unique. However, this perspective should give you a basis upon which to base all parenting practices that you engage in and help guide you in determining which is best for your family.