Parenting with Compassion: Remembering the Caretaker

This is the second week in a 3-week series on parenting observations. Week one is based on gentle parenting, week two is about parenting with compassion, and week three is about parenting with a disability.

These posts are based on my personal experiences as a parent and are not meant in any way to judge other parenting styles or decisions. I am offering my personal research and conclusions as possible suggestions for others out there, therefore these posts will be as objective as possible. When it comes to parenting: provided the method isn’t abusive, there really isn’t a wrong way to parent your child. Be secure and do what works best for you and your family and ignore outside judgement.

This week isn’t based on any parenting style, it’s about remembering the importance of incorporating compassion in day-to-day parenting. It’s easy to forget being kind to ourselves when having a particularly rough day, but by keeping it in the back of our minds each day we can combat any unwarranted judgements we make.

Incorporating compassion in the daily routine won’t alleviate all the stress from parenting, but it will help make the more stressful moments easier to handle and remind ourselves of our humanity. We are imperfect beings and tend to be the hardest on ourselves when we feel that we aren’t living up to our expectations. Yet, it is important to remember that the person most deserving of compassion is yourself.

Nota bene: This post will be using the universal “you/second person” pronouns throughout, so while it may not speak to your experience directly, it may apply to someone else you know.

Embracing our Flaws

Humans aren’t perfect.

I feel like that is worthy of a “well, duh” response. But perfectionists need constant reminders that they aren’t perfect. Perfectionists try so hard to get everything right, everything in place, everything “just so” that they forget they are attempting to achieve the impossible: humans cannot be perfect and anyone who attempts to do so will be doomed to fall short of expectations.

Again, all of this is pretty obvious.

That desire for perfection can transfer over to parenting. For myself, I want to make sure I do everything just right for Jai so he is well-rounded, well-adjusted, and a happy human being. But the thing is, in my desire to be perfect, I am setting him up to fail.

The best thing I could for Jai is show him my failings as a person and as a parent. It humanizes me to him, but more importantly, it provides a healthy example of an adult making mistakes, owning up to them, and handling them in a mature way.

How I handle my imperfections is important. When I mess up, I need to show him that it’s okay and to apologize either to him or in front of him. Sit down and explain that I have flaws and how we handle those flaws are important. I want him to see how I grow from my mistakes so he knows that mistakes aren’t a bad thing, but a chance to become a better person.

That’s all easy to say in theory, but in practice, it’s one of the hardest things a parent can do. There’s always that fear of undermining ourselves in front of our children. I am not sure if that will entirely be the case. I suspect it will allow them to have a deeper respect, and therefore more likely to listen to us, than cause them to misbehave and not listen.

When we do something that we don’t like, when we have that moment of imperfection, it is important to be mindful of what it is about that moment that upsets and frustrates us. Understand that we are doing the best we can given the circumstances and figure out what would be better tools to use in the future.

By embracing flaws and acknowledging them as part of our humanity, we can free ourselves from our personal judgement. There will be moments when the judgement comes through and we may be frustrated with ourselves, but by being mindful in those moments can help refocus us to what we are capable of doing for our children.

Works in Progress

Life is a journey and not a destination.

We are works in progress from the day we are born. As much as I’d like to admit that I started off this way: fully formed and ready to go, it took a lot of input from my parents, relatives, and peers to get me to this point in life.

Looking at a child it is easier to see that progression. Children are so green and eager, we can see how they are learning and growing. There’s more patience with children when they make mistakes because we know that they don’t know better and need to teach them how to handle certain situations.

Yet, we are less forgiving with ourselves because we think we should know better. We are as deserving of the patience that we give our little ones.

Patience is hard. It’s really hard for me because I was never a patient child. I remember getting frustrated time and again because something wasn’t moving fast enough for my liking. I still get frustrated at the speed in which something might be going, both literally and figuratively.

The idea of being patient with myself and acknowledging my progress can be overwhelming, but I’ve begun to acknowledge that I cannot be a perfect person and therefore, I cannot be a perfect parent.

Beginning to see the importance of patience is the first step to being kind and compassionate with yourself.

Being Kind to Yourself

What is being kind to ourselves? How does that actually look?

More and more therapists, nursing students, and teachers are encouraged to incorporate self-compassion in their sessions, towards patients, and in dealing with students. Each of these instances and the countless other examples out there are all focused on one thing: preventing burn-out.

Being a parent is the ultimate recipe for burn-out.

There are times that can last from minutes to weeks where we are frustrated with ourselves, our parenting abilities, and our children and have no clue how to appropriately cope with that. By being mindful of those moments and practicing self-compassion we can mitigate the internal struggle and prevent exacerbating an already tense situation.

But what is self-compassion?

It is allowing yourself to take a moment and recognize that you are as deserving of kindness as your friend who might be going through a difficult time. It’s easy to say to your friend that they should take an easy on themselves, have a spa day, comfort themselves with a favorite movie, etc., but we don’t often say those things to ourselves when we are in the same situation.

What we often do, instead, is berate ourselves and get frustrated with how we handled a situation: yelling at a child, mad at how we answered a pediatrician’s question, or frustrated because our child is behind developmentally.

Taking a few moments to be kind to ourselves, recognizing our lack of perfection, seeing there are things completely out of our control, and figuring out how we could have handled a situation differently are all part of being compassionate to ourselves. At no point is self-compassion about pitying, indulging, or about self-esteem, but it is about loving kindness to ourselves in a way that might be foreign to us.

If we can demonstrate self-care and self-kindness to ourselves in front of our children, we can teach them, even passively, how to be kind and care for themselves. This will help them develop the tools needed to handle life’s ups-and-downs.

Next time something happens that causes you to get frustrated with yourself and your parenting, take a few moments to ask yourself a series of questions:

  • Why am I frustrated with myself?
  • How can I rectify this situation without compromising my personal integrity?
  • What could I have done differently? Would that have been possible?
  • What was I feeling in that moment? Where does that feeling stem from?
  • Does extensively thinking about this add anything positive to my life?
  • Is this really worth spending a lot of time thinking about?
  • What can I do in the future if this happens again? What lessons have I learned from this situation?
  • What do I need to do to let this go mentally? How can I continue to let it go if it pops into my head again?
  • How can I soothe myself if this happens or I think about it again?

By answering these questions, you can begin the process of being kind to yourself. You may find that you have better questions to ask yourself that change from situation-to-situation. Feel free to add those in the comments below.

An example: your little one does something and you yell at them. Not just a quick yell, but a really unreasonable blow-up over the situation. They are in their room and you are sitting in the kitchen feeling upset with how you handled that situation. Even in this moment you are deserving of self-compassion. You ask those questions as you sit and berate yourself:

I am frustrated that I yelled at my little one even though they didn’t know better. What I need to do is go in and apologize to them and explain why I got upset in the situation. I could have reacted different, but I was so frustrated over how I was treated in the office today that it was only a matter of time before I did something. Maybe I should do some mental exercises in the car on my way home to help alleviate that frustration I was feeling all afternoon? Thinking about this situation is only compounding my frustration, so I should probably let it go. But what if this happens again? Maybe taking a few minutes to breathe before saying anything to the little one would help. I may be still upset with them, but I want to watch how I express that frustration because it doesn’t make me feel good afterwards.  I need to recognize that I messed up, apologize, and move on because this doesn’t add anything positive to my life. If this happens again, I will recognize my imperfections, apologize, and find some fun activity to engage my little one in for bonding.

As you can see, you don’t let yourself off the hook, but you do explore how to handle the situation in the present and in the future. It’s about engaging with yourself and understanding why you do what you do.

For more on the matter of self-compassion, I cannot recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self Compassion* enough. Reading her book is one of the main reasons why I wanted to write this series: I found my need to be self-compassionate increased once I became a parent. I was always hard on myself, but adding a little one to the mix increased my chances of being unfair of my personal expectations. I recognized that the advice she gave regarding mindfulness and self-compassion could be applied to my parenting techniques and my daily life with minimal effort on my part. This book is well worth the read.

*Compensated link.

There’s no Comparison

Social media can put a serious cramp in any sort of compassion we attempt to feel for ourselves. Most people have specially curated profiles that put their best face forward. Perfect lives, jobs that they love, children that are angels, seeing these profile make it hard to remember that they have the same issues you do behind closed doors.

The key for you is to stop giving into that desire to compare with others, particularly with parenting. Time and again studies come out saying that by comparing with others we are doing ourselves more harm than good.

It’s okay to look at another person’s life and admire how well off or happy they are. And your friends may  be contented with their life and that is wonderful. If they are a friend, we do want what’s best for them because we do want to see everyone succeed.

But, and there’s always that “but,” we want to remember that we cannot compare ourselves to others and what they have going on in their lives. Think of it like apples and oranges – what you have going on may not be equal in any way to what’s going on with them.

Especially with parenting: how they parent their child is going to be different than how you parent your child. What works for their child’s individual personality, isn’t necessarily going to work for yours. Their little one may be reading and speaking a second language by two, but that’s okay. Yours does not need to do the same exact thing, or may have absolutely no interest.

In the moments when you find yourself comparing your child and parenting abilities to others, take an additional moment to practice self-compassion for yourself. Be gentle and understanding that you may not have the same means as another. You may have more but choose not to do the same with it. That is okay. You are no less of a parent if you don’t provide in the same way as another or if your child does not behave the same way.

Remember this: to your child, you are enough.

Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or annoyed at how you stack up to other parents, take a few moments to practice self-compassion for yourself. Remember, it isn’t a pity party or being self-indulgent. It’s about taking the time to say that you matter and that you deserve to treat yourself kindly as a means of providing an example to your child.

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