Parents are always concerned with doing what’s right for their children. There is a striving for perfection, a conscientious diligence, a longing to help our children through influence and mold a better future for them. We do so with the knowledge that our children will shape a future that we might never know and is all their own. But does this search for the ideal have inherent consequences?
Recently, we had the pleasure of being with a mother of 17 month old twins on the first day they went to daycare. We were sitting watching them interact with the daycare workers, the other children and their parents. One of the girls was playing happily with three of her mates and the other was playing with a teacher in a very quiet and focused way. It was a lovely scene. The children were poised. The teachers were experienced. The mother, however, was anxious.
We chatted. She told us she saw one child as being too social and dependent. The other twin was too shy, too isolated, and not friendly enough. We truly felt the mother’s concern. She worried that the twins were not balanced…not perfect. She wondered what she did wrong and what she could do better. These considerations haunted her. The thought bubble above our heads held an unspoken idea…perhaps the mother believed that if the twins merged, they would form the perfect child.
All parents have some ideal, often fantasized, image of their “wished for” child—the child that emerged and was first envisioned during the later months of pregnancy. This ideal child that forms comes from a parents’ own family history – their idealized perfect older cousin, their loving aunt, the perfected amalgam of many. But nowadays, a new wrinkle raises the bar: the overload of information on how children “should be.” This information is instantly available and feeds this fantasy.
Expert prescriptions about motor milestones, activity levels, socialness, language, sleep, eating…are all at parents’ fingertips, and all with the implication that a child not meeting one of the “shoulds” signals that something is wrong with the child and their future. The stakes are high.
It is no wonder that parents are so anxious. Parents do not know how to get this idealized child. For the mother of twins, neither child matched her idealized child and consequently had double the usual anxiety.
We believe that the way out of this anxiety is to know the child you have, your actual child. It is easy to do…sort of. Instead of helping your child to aim for what they should do and give him or her space to show you who he or she is and what he or she wants to do. Stop labeling the shape and colors (likely now on your iPad) and see what your child does with them and notice how fabulous they are when they do. Then join in. Don’t worry about naming or pointing, but just relax into play with your child. Give up your implicit educational or characterological goal, but keep the goal of having fun and being together. Fear not. Your child will learn plenty just by playing with you, especially when the two of you can be together, free of anxiety but filled with pleasure. Playfully being together is an ideal and it is one within reach.
What are your thoughts?…