I never aspired to be a perfect parent. I had no idea what this meant, having grown up in a less traditional family dynamic where my brother and I were raised by a single mother. My father, conversely, was married six times with eight biological and three adopted children scattered amongst them. Though I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, we moved from there to Lagos, Nigeria, where we lived until the divorce. After a brief stint in Skibbereen, Ireland, we moved to Denton, Texas, where we lived with the support of my mother’s parents.
Needless to say, sitcoms were weird for my brother and me, though, being Gen X, we were surrounded by both reruns of whitewashed classics such as “Father Knows Best” and “The Brady Bunch” as well as the not-at-all-controversial-at-the-time “Cosby Show,” our favorite. These shows educated us on this weird concept of “normal” that always seemed a joke itself.
Then came the “bad” parenting shows. “The Simpsons” rocked our world and to this day, I’m a little creeped out about having laughed so hard at “Itchy and Scratchy” and Homer physically assaulting Bart when Bart faked his way into a gifted school because he wanted a little more attention from Homer. Seriously heartbreaking stuff, all the more so for the embedded humor. And don’t get me started on “Married with Children.”
A mountain of research has shown humor and laughter have unique abilities to help us cope with pain, stress, and trauma. These shows point to the insidious nature of our desire for a “normal” family, one that fits squarely in the paradigm WandaVision’s Wanda creates from the devastating loss of everyone she loved. Just like her, on some level we all know our “understanding” of how to parent and what a family system looks like is totally whack.
Because it is, and some of the myths we tell ourselves and perpetuate within our families do more harm than good to our children and thus, our communities.
Myth #1: You’re brilliant!
I can’t count the number of times in a day I tell my daughter she’s smart, or answer her questions about whether I, “like her outfit,” with an affirmative or, “you look great,” without having glanced at her. I praise her all the time, I’m a praise junkie, and I do this with my stepdaughter, too. What’s doubly hard about this is that they’re always succeeding at things, top of the class and adored by their teachers. I must be doing something right. Right?
At Columbia University, Carol Dweck (now with Stanford), conducted a series of experiments on fifth graders using a series of nonverbal IQ tests. The startling findings included an indication that students praised for an intelligence integral to who they are fundamentally, as opposed to how much effort they put into a task cared more about how they performed in comparison to how much they learned. In other words, telling them they were born smart drove a desire to appear to work well, rather than an urge to learn for learnings’ sake.
It gets worse.
The students praised for inherent intelligence and ability also displayed less interest in persisting in challenging tasks, didn’t enjoy doing tasks as much, and overall worse performance in the task requirements and goals. Students praised for effort exceeded the performance of this group in all areas of the study.
Dweck found that children praised for intelligence viewed this as a fixed trait, something you are either born with or without, versus the students praised for effort, who believed the tasks can be subject to improvement. This led directly to further research on what she coined “growth mindset,” which she discusses at length in her seminal work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
This book dives deep into the fact that learning and growth are not static and the fallacy that some people are capable while others aren’t. Rather, anyone can grow and become capable, given the effort and willingness to dive into what educator James Nottingham dubbed, The Learning Pit, basically a reimagining of Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development,” which helped us understand learning happens when we are pushed to uncomfortable places beyond what we know, but not so far as to create the anxiety that stops learning altogether.
Don’t stop praising your kids, but make sure it’s for honestly challenging themselves when they’ve actually struggled and persevered, not for static things like being “smart.” Push them to challenge themselves, too, that failure is okay and part of the whole process, help them understand the joy of doing so and fostering their own growth mindset.
Myth #2: Good Parenting Involves a Lot of Supervision and Organized Activities
It’s no surprise dystopian satirist George Orwell was the one to ponder how, “every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” Those sitcoms discussed earlier were rife with scenes of disgruntled fathers and put-upon mothers claiming time and again how well the kids have it, how none of them had to walk a hundred miles in the snow just to get to school, how spoiled the next generation always is.
Turns out, none of these assumptions are scientifically based, and much of the opposite are. Alfie Kohn, in “The Myth of the Spoiled Child,” notes the, “generalizations one chooses to apply to the younger generation seem to depend mostly on the worldview of the person doing the generalizing. Older people have always insisted that children are unusually spoiled, or that young adults are usually egocentric or entitled.” However, his research concludes, “one can make the opposite case — that today’s youth are more tolerant than their parents were and admirably committed to making the world a better place.”
It isn’t over-indulgence that harms our children so much as being overly controlling. Kohn dives into research looking at two similar styles of parenting, much like Ann Hulbert discusses in “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.” Basically, the two theorists examine conservative, parent-centered child-rearing, and the more liberal, child-centered brand. The problem with this black and white view of options lies in the constantly changing landscape of our world. We can’t even let our kids walk around the block anymore, even though crime is lower today than it was in our parents’ time. This dichotomy points much more to the control-centered parenting style versus the free-range, kid-centered approach, and, according to Kohn, far more disruptive to the developing mind for the host of psychiatric issues it can lead to, alongside effects like less happiness and overall well-being.
Myth #3: Shame on You
Shame is one of the most toxic and powerful driving forces in history. In “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” John Bradshaw distinguishes the difference between healthy and toxic shame. Shame in and of itself, he argues, is an inherent part of being human, and that we must have shame in order to understand we do not know everything. As a Christian, he further views shame as the way we know we are not God, that we, “can and will make mistakes.” For Bradshaw, “healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. It is the source of spirituality.”
The problem is not shame, then, but rather the experience that occurs when shame is taken on as an identity, when it becomes what Bradshaw calls, “toxic shame.” When this happens, it is not based on the knowledge that one can’t know everything, or that one will make mistakes, but rather that one is fundamentally flawed as a person, that who we are, rather than what we do, is condemnable, unloveable. This shame becomes, “unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self which is not defective and flawed.” In other words, one has to put on a false identity, pretend to be someone they’re not, because the shame is so unbearable they cannot move within the world as their true self.
How does this happen?
Sources of shame are bound up in societal views and expectations surrounding things like sexuality, religion, and gender roles. Much of this shame can be healthy and can help children learn things like good boundaries for their own and others bodies, respect for other people, and awe. The healthy shame becomes toxic, when turned inward as a source of self-punishment or loathing. An example provided by Bradshaw asks us to imagine a young boy discovering how to operate a new toy, then bringing that new awareness to his parents and some of their visiting friends, who shower him with praise and are pleased to see his learning and growth. This fills the child with joy and teaches him it’s safe to share new learnings with his parents and others.
Then, while a member of the parent’s religious organization is visiting for tea, the boy decides to share with all of them another new discovery: his penis. The parents are mortified and later punish the boy, teaching him not to show his “naughty parts” to others. The boy learns the lesson that he is to blame and is bad because of who he is, rather than what he has done. The lesson is one of toxic shame, rather than one rooted in helping the child understand healthy body boundaries.
The moral of Bradshaw’s lesson in this book is to separate one’s own, learned, toxic shame from what they teach their children, which should be rooted in helping them understand the healthy boundaries that can come from acknowledging that, as humans, we are inherently flawed, do not know everything, and that both are okay.
As parents, we need to understand it’s okay that we don’t know everything, and that we are not always perfect. Sitcoms attempting to portray normalcy do so for entertainment, not education, and we need to understand the entire concept of “normal” is a fallacy.
We must question our assumptions about parenting, as well as the myths we learn through a society rooted in toxic shame and expectation.