Ever get that nagging feeling that you’re bungling this whole parenting thing- or are about to? You’re right! Any definition of parenting should include some mention of the fact that it is an impossible job. Most parents feel that a child’s failures could have been avoided if only they had parented differently. If one day your beloved Richie blows up the playground or hacks his way into the Pentagon, thus upsetting national security, deep down you won’t be blaming Richie, but yourself. If your child “fails” in a far less glorious fashion—by not ending up with the highly happy and productive life you dream of– you will push rewind and carefully analyze every second of your interaction with your offspring to determine where you went wrong as a parent. All of this is a destructive and pathetic waste of time, but parents tend to do it anyway.
To help you avoid this dead-end, here are two important secrets about being a parent. The first is that from the moment of birth you fail your child. You don’t always know why he is crying. When he’s a toddler, you are sitting on a playground bench trading childbirth war stories with the other new moms. You hear, “Is this your child?” and look up to see your tearful two-year-old in the grip of a good Samaritan who found him wandering and crying out for you. As if that’s not bad enough, when he goes to preschool you pick him up so late one day that his teacher has already left and he’s been bequeathed to the office secretary who is teaching him how to illegally download music.
When you fail your child he may look up at you with j’accuse written all over his face. And he has every right to be upset. But the second secret of parenting is that what matters most is what happens after you screw up. Children don’t just learn about you and the world when you do things right. They learn at least as much from studying what happens when things go wrong. They learn when you pick up your crying baby, hold your terrified toddler, hug and apologize to your preschooler.
There are developmental psychologists who spend their days analyzing videotapes of mothers and babies. They watch closely to see what happens when the baby is disappointed by Mom because, say, he smiles and she doesn’t notice and smile back. Often he will fret or cry to get her attention. It’s good news for the baby’s future if the mom then smiles or coos or somehow tells the baby that everything is ok. Misconstruing or just missing each other’s needs and then repairing the “miss” is the standard dance that occurs between all humans who love each other. It is a constant and endless process. This doesn’t mean that all you have to say is “sorry” and you get to write off a horrible mistake. You certainly can screw up children by being an awful parent. But you can’t ruin them by being an imperfect one.