What even is 'good parenting'?*
*It's a trick question if truth be told.
I was driving my children home from school recently, preoccupied and a bit nazzy. Why? Because my 10 year old had been pulled up on talking too much in class. Nothing particularly to get in a huff about, but it niggled me and I launched into the classic "When I was your age, I respected my elders" diatribe that I lift off a psychological shelf somewhere in the recesses of my mind when the kids are pushing their luck. I was irritable.
The response from the 10 year old (not barbed on this occasion, but direct and straightforward) came with a sigh and a plea to some deeper place in me "Mum, the thing is I'm not you. I don't behave like you did. I'm not really a goody two shoes." He's not wrong.
I'm not about to launch into an advisory piece about distinctions between good and bad behaviour, to uphold specific parenting approaches (as well-researched as they might be). I'm no expert. The opposite in fact. A novice. Kinda winging it and somehow managing to keep two children alive.
I had mentally popped this conversation back on the shelf, but it had definitely stirred something in me. All that conditioning as a child, and the heavy weight of inherited beliefs I upheld about 'being a good student' was tightly packed in an undercurrent of people pleasing, of adhering to rules and seeking praise from those in positions of seniority. None of that is explicitly right or wrong but the uncomfortable pull came from a sense of identity shaped around 'this is how I had to be'.
And right there on that nazzy car journey, something had been loosened, questioned and brought into daylight.
Weeks later I casually tuned into the calm tones of Clare Dimond (coach) talking about 'Parenting, values, beliefs and rules for living'** (again a bit of a trick title) which unearthed a revelation that we all carry unquestioned beliefs, a tangled mass of our own and historic conditioning, around what it means to be a good parent. And while this wasn't an invitation to sweep into denial, to be oblivious to all rules and let the kids run feral (but hey, who's judging?), it was an opportunity to get curious about these concepts and un-examined ideas in our minds.
And this isn't about 'fixing' behaviour or providing a 10-step fail-safe guide to parenting (that's just more thinking to layer on what's already there)..it's seeing the subjective nature of our beliefs and their often arbitrary roots. And here's the thing, rather than scrutinise some hypothetical conditioning theoretically and getting lost down mental cul-de-sacs, it's much more experiential. Every time we experience a jolt, a constriction in the stomach, a deeply emotional blow, it's jarring with some conditioning at play. This might show up as anything from 'children must always be kind' to the Victorian connotations of 'be seen and not heard' or 'make sure you're a good girl for the teacher'. They may come from good intention but can end up being prescriptive and limiting.
Those constrictions that prompt vulnerability, irritation, embarrassment or anger in us as parents are inevitably underpinned by an idea that children's behaviour is inextricably linked to our potential to be a good parent or not. Our identity seems to hang in the balance and it feels precarious. And it will, because this identity is just a collection of beliefs, some of which are held so closely that they are entirely invisible to us and loiter in the depths of the unconscious.
And so there is lightening and loosening of the tightly coiled beliefs we hold and inadvertently pass on to our children in the meeting in the moment of these realisations. And the less we live through the prism of rigid beliefs, the more likely we show up in a loving place and are totally present with our kids. Don't get me wrong, it's not a neat, linear exploration...on the contrary the internal deep dive is often messy, raw and deeply uncomfortable. And it's a work in progress with no finite destination.
We're just here, winging it. Sometimes unable to see beyond the dull residue of conditioning, sometimes hanging out right here in the heartspace.
** Clare Dimond's Podcast episode (Nov 16th, 2020) https://www.buzzsprout.com/968092/6382048-parenting-values-beliefs-and-rules-for-living