I don’t know about you, but around this time of year I start to gear up for school. Yes, school supplies are a part of it, but mostly the preparation is mental. I start thinking about summer homework and whether it has been completed, school schedules and extracurriculars, carpools, doctors’ appointments, and which teachers my kids will have this year.
In short, I go into super-competent-mom mode. My calendar gets filled, emails are sent, and phone calls are made. Then, I talk to the kids. I tell them what’s coming around the corner and advise them to make sure they are on top of their preparations, reminding them that their assignments will count for part of their grade and that the work is due the night before school starts.
And then, I stop. “What am I doing?” I ask myself. I am taking on my kids’ impending return to school as if it is my own, despite having vowed long ago that I would never go through school again. I know that I am not alone.
What are we doing when we become overly involved in managing our kids’ lives? Several things. First, we are fulfilling our self-defined role of “good parent.” When we provide for our kids, we feel like we are taking care of our responsibilities. We provide and manage so they won’t be left behind other kids in school. We congratulate ourselves on “getting everyone organized.” We feel fulfilled and gratified and, most importantly, not guilty.
That guilt can come from a belief that attention to ourselves should only come, if at all, after the needs and desires of our kids are completely taken care of. In this sense, we might actually use involvement in their life to distract us from our own. In the name of taking care of them, we don’t look too closely at what isn’t working in our own lives that may need some attention. We minimize ourselves and the importance of self-care.
In focusing on our kids’ issues, we are also managing our own fears. We worry that our kids won’t start off the year on a good foot, will fall behind, will miss some critical date or assignment, will get the wrong teacher, or be with the wrong classmates. So, we reason, we must take control. After all, we are just making sure that they are on track. Just.
The problem with these lines of reasoning is that they eliminate the possibility of learning, both for us and our children. As I’ve discussed in prior columns, when we take over, we deprive our kids of the opportunity to organize, self-advocate, and work for themselves.
In addition, we deprive ourselves as parents of an opportunity to learn. We use our control of the situation to manage our own feelings of anxiety. We think, rightly so, that if we handle the situation, our need to make sure that things go as we think they ought to will be satisfied. We expect our kids to do their work and follow our lead so that we don’t feel anxious anymore, but that makes our kids responsible for our feelings. We need to seek other ways to soothe our fears without stepping in front of our kids.
These moments are opportunities for us to discover deeper reserves within ourselves. They give us a chance to figure out what we need and how to take care of it — emotionally, spiritually or physically. It behooves us to do that because we never do our best parenting, or anything else for that matter, when we are scared. It clouds our judgment and doesn’t bring out the best in us.
But, letting go of control doesn’t mean the end of parenting our kids. It just means that we need to back up and make space for them. In order to do that effectively, and with confidence in them and ourselves, we need to pull out another tool. That tool is personal example. The beauty of this tool is that it places control exactly where it naturally fits — over ourselves. When we demonstrate our own organization, responsibility, hard work, courage, caring, integrity, commitment, self-care, emotional regulation, and any other value that we embrace, we model for our children what it looks like to live a life with those values. We show them the struggles and the benefits that go along with that kind of life. When we do it joyfully, we add to the likelihood that they will want to emulate it.
While there is certainly more to parenting than just setting an example, it is the most powerful tool in our parenting tool box. It comes from a place of authenticity, which speaks to children at an intuitive level. Children will make their own choices, but we can have confidence that we are being the best parents we can be because we are the best us that we can be.
By Laura Goldman