Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is parenting more art than science?

During twelve years of parenting there have been more days than I care to admit where I felt I had failed, often going to bed with a heavy heart and a silent promise to do better tomorrow. And as I inch ever closer towards the murky waters of parenting an adolescent I definitely feel that I have more questions than answers when it comes to this parenting gig.

I don’t think I am unique in finding that each time we have things sorted, the game changes. One child finally sleeps through the night, another commences wetting the bed. One child finds their social niche at school, another spends a year without a birthday party invite. The level of difficulty increases with multiple children, as each child adds ever more complex variables and the interaction between these variables has what seems like infinite outcomes.

My poor youngest child is beating on the door of a mother who has seen some version of it all before. Not that he isn’t unique (he certainly is) or hasn’t come up with new challenges for me to ponder (he certainly has) but I am less likely to run to the nearest bookstore (thankfully there are still some left) and frantically search out another parenting book to deal with the newest development. If I am really perplexed I may consult Dr Google and see what answers she provides. And more often than not the problem resolves itself long before I finally throw up my hands and consult a professional.

The confidence I experienced in the early years of parenting has not been sustained. Meeting the needs of a baby and toddler was for me a relatively simple affair, simple addition compared to the advanced calculus that parenting multiple children across a broad span of ages seems to be. And while I know that if I concentrate really hard I might just find the right answers or manage to apply the correct formula to the problem at hand, I doubt that a formula is what is really called for.

This is not as troubling as it sounds. I have never been one to place great faith in formulaic approaches to child rearing. My sense is that the variables are so great that rather than a simple algebraic equation what is needed is more an approach rooted in philosophy than mathematics, parenting being far more art than science.

I sometimes wish that parenting was as easy as ABC or 1,2,3. In my experience a one size fits all approach is not desirable in the long run. The confidence I had when parenting my children as babies was largely the result of having a very clear underlying philosophy, an understanding of why I was approaching an issue in a particular way even if the books or GP or lady on the street were doing everything in their power to tell me I had it wrong.

These days I often struggle to identify what exactly the underlying problem is that is the cause of unhappiness in one child or discord between siblings. But I am not going to get any closer to an answer myself, nor help my children figure out for themselves what it is that is bothering them, with a simple formula. What I might get is compliance, the parenting equivalent of a correct answer, but in the meantime the real issue may be completely missed and an opportunity for the child and parent to learn and grow lost.

Maybe I did learn something from my mother after all. A mathematics teacher who annoyed my teen self greatly by consistently refusing to tell me how to get the right answer to a mathematical problem, always more concerned that I understood what the problem actually was than that I simply get it right.


Mark said...

It saddens me when I hear a good parent talking about feeling as if they had failed at some issue or circumstance. If there is anything that 33 years of parenting has taught me it's that being a parent isn't like taking a pass/fail course. It's more like a project. You have a path you are following, and along the way you find things that work - and build on them - and then you find some things that don't work (or don't work as you had hoped) - and you make course corrections along the way. You haven't failed, you have simply found a way that doesn't work. (Apologies to Thomas Edison)

Books and advice from other parents are one source, but should not be the overriding source of guidance - even from parents with 33 years of experience. (shameless blog plug - http://marksdarkthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/04/by-book.html) You have experience and common sense on your side.

Parenting is never presiding over a static perfect household, but with moving that set of collisions and interactions ahead.

From what I have learned about you - you are doing that just fine. :-)

mamabook said...

Oh thank you Mark. I love the wisdom of a parent who is further along the journey than I am. I agree that it isn't about perfection. I don't even think that is possible. As you say "it isn't a test". I do think that self-reflection is useful but maybe beating myself up is not so much.
I will go and have a look at your shameless plug.

Dina said...

I agree with you. It's never simple. Each child needs a completely different instructions book. And that book would probably be needed to be rewritten every six months or so.

The idea I get from the parenting book market is that if we all buy and read the same books; then put them into practice, we'll all have perfectly behaved children. It just doesn't work that way.

Twitchy said...

You know those Hogwarts stairs in the Harry Potter movies? For me, parenting is a bit like those.

You may well aim to get to where you'd like to be headed, but as you look ahead suddenly the stairs have changed direction again without warning. You still need to move forward, sometimes you need to pause at a landing but you constantly need to adjust your path. The more kids you have, the more players you have with you!

4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle said...

Brilliant post. I could have written this (just not as eloquently) as I feel exactly the same way. The baby years were exhausting but it's 5 -11 that has messed with my head. There have been many nights of rethinking conversations and asking myself how I could have done it better.

Thanks so much for writing this.


Maria Tedeschi (Mum's Word) said...

Oooh I can really relate to this post. It's brilliant.

Did you know that in 2007 $38 million was spent on family, health and relationship books in Australia.

Kids are born with their own personalities and given the fluid nature of circumstance there is no way a one-way approach to parenting is going to work.

Really enjoyed reading this.

Love & stuff
Mrs M

Sarah (Maya-Abeille) said...

My mum told me when I had my first baby, "There is no book written for you and your baby, because there are no other two people exactly like you." I found it frustrating at the time because I wanted to be able to be told the 'right' way, follow it, and bob's your uncle. I think maybe this is why the books are so popluar- how easy and nice would it be to be able to consult an all-seeing oracle for the perfect answer to any given dilemma regarding your child?
But as you have pointed out, it doesn't exist, and it's pretty futile to chase books for answers they can't possibly provide.
Having said that, some wisdom from some books helped me some of the time- I read something here or there that gave me a 'lightbulb' moment or even just the reassurance that it was fine to trust my own way.
I try to listen to that heavy-hearted voice telling me I could do better, think what I can learn from it and then put it to the side and move on. There is nothing like a child to hold a mirror up to the best and worst parts of ourselves!

mamabook said...

Ah, I totally agree. I am not actually anti-book at all (as you know!) but I am not keen on the books that take a v simplistic here is the answer approach. I have some very lovely books that have been my personal 'bibles' on the parenting journey, books that encourage a thinking and reflective parenting.
And I also agree that the heavy heart is not for nothing. While we shouldn't beat ourselves up pointlessly, and should treat ourselves with the kindness and compassion that we wish to show our children, we should listen to what that inner voice has to say.
Michelle xx

lovely said...

Really great post.I consider parenting is both art and science and it is both pleasure and the hardest task ever.Greetings.


Seana Smith said...

Ah yes, I do know what you mean. It's such a good plan to stop and take a close, close look at what is happening before looking or answers. All too often in our household a child is going loopy or feels unhappy because of something environmental... my husband being away a lot was a biggie, genuinely needing more 1:1 is often true for all four of them. My little five year old was just given a course of Lego Therapy i.e. building Lego with his Dad and that's ironed out many issues for him...

But sometimes I have no idea what's happening and still the issue passes...

mamabook said...

Seana, I really agree v strongly that rather than discipline what a child is begging for is time and attention. I love your lego therapy. COmpletely brilliant and free too! And actually much harder than a simple time out or similar. I think at the end of the day what kids want and what we all want is too feel connected and heard. And of course lego!

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