Learning to be Unimportant – My Tribute to Imperfect Parents Raising Average, Unremarkable Kids

A parent's hardest job is watching your kid struggle and not intervening.

“Wow… good for you!”  our family doctor said, looking shocked.  I was taken aback.  I hadn’t actually done anything.  My little J had been doing his usual climbling in the doctor’s office and his body was all twisted up as he tried to make his way down off a chair.  My instinct was to move in and catch him before he fell.  Better safe than sorry.  But instead, I took a deep breath, and told myself, “He’s got this.”  This simple check on myself is something I do one hundred times a day.

The doctor went on to congratulate me on not intervening with J.  He told me how rare it is that he sees a parent let her child take a risk like that without stepping in.  He said seeing a child in action helps him evaluate the child’s motor skills, something he used to do all the time earlier in his career, before parents began to monitor their kids’ every move.  I had come to a conclusion that my kids needed the experience of mastery that comes from trying things and realizing you have a capability you didn’t know you had.  I also knew my kids would fail.  I figured they would need to learn their own limits, rather than assume I knew their limits, and take those on as their own.  I had been down that road with my parents, and subsequently spent my twenties figuring out what I really could and couldn’t do.

A few months ago we were on the playground.  J walked over to the edge of the jungle gym.  I was right behind him.  I had that urge to move him away from the edge, but I reminded myself that neither he nor O have ever jumped off.  J proceeded to jump off.  It was a good number of feet down, and he was pretty shaken up, although not hurt.  I did a lot of soul-searching that day.  I was standing right there.  I should have stopped that from happening!  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about all the amazing things my kids had learned they could do on that playground without getting hurt.  To prevent that one fall, I would have had to deny them all those experiences.

There are a lot of messages out there about how attentive we “should” be to our kids. When I see other parents, I almost always end up questioning whether I’m monitoring my kids enough.  Literally every time we are at the neighborhood playground, I get comments from other parents who seem confused about why I’m not monitoring my 18 month-old toddlers more closely.  “Your son is near the edge.”  “Your daughter took my daughter’s doll.”  “You son is eating wood chips.”  “Your daughter hit her head.”  And?  I don’t know how to tell them that it’s not that I don’t know what my kids are doing, it’s that I’ve made a conscious choice to allow them to have those experiences.

My kids have climbed up, rolled down, slid, squirmed through tunnels, been carried around awkwardly by older kids who basically saw them as big dolls, chased after older kids, snorted in dog’s faces, sat in the laps of random strangers, climbed on and off benches, eaten various plant materials, fallen, and gotten back up.  My kids don’t have the experience of knowing that nothing bad is going to happen to them.  I don’t believe we can ever know that, as humans.  But they do have the experience of knowing when something bad happens they can be okay, and that mama is always, always there if they need me.  I feel like even my barely verbal 18 month-olds tell me when they need me.  But the truth is, they don’t need me all that much.

I can completely understand how that conclusion could make a parent feel somewhat unimportant.  I feel that way myself sometimes.  I actually feel envious when I see other kids who seem to need a parent involved in their every move.  If I’m honest with myself, getting those messages from other parents is also really hard.  I get the feeling that the expectation on the playground, and everywhere really, is that we all show each other how closely we are monitoring our kids, correcting their behavior, steering them away from danger, and micromanaging their social interactions.  Sometimes I find myself monitoring my kids more in public.  I wonder sometimes if I’m trying to tell myself, look how important I am to my kids, and look how much mothering I’m doing!

But ultimately, I would argue trying not to mother so actively is actually tremendously important, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.  It sends a child the message that you believe they can do it themselves.  It shows them that in order for them to have an experience, you are willing to manage your own fear and anxiety and potentially be rendered almost completely useless.  I think that’s really what parenting is – becoming less and less crucial everyday.  I’m amazed how much independence my kids have already gained at 18 months.  It makes me sad sometimes, but not enough so that I’m willing to go about convincing them they need me more than they do.

There is a movement brewing called Free Range Parenting meant to free our children from becoming the victims of our (often irrational) anxiety.  This great site allows folks to write in with their experiences of societal pressure to be an overbearing, overly safety-oriented parent at the expense of kids.  It points out the hypocrisy and irrationality of actions like not allowing children independent play due to fear of abduction, but driving children in cars where they are astronomically more likely to die.

I think we need to free our kids, but it’s not for the reasons we hear most of the time.  Yes, kids need to grow up feeling equipped to make choices, take risks and manage the consequences, and have realistic expectations.  I do believe those parents who are micromanaging me on the playground may one day find themselves arguing with a college professor about a 19 year-old “child’s” grade.

But what about us?  I would like to see parents free themselves for our own sakes. Feeling responsible to prevent a child from experiencing pain and ensuring they only ever succeed and never fail is a heavy load to bear.  So is one day feeling responsible when we look at our adult offspring and have to face the ways in which we’ve robbed them of those experiences of mastery as well as the chance to learn to self-soothe and manage defeat and failure.  We all have talents and limitations, and only our kids can determine for themselves what those are.  We need to model that as parents.  Every parent has talents and limitations.

I often wonder if one of the reasons studies keep showing parenting doesn’t make us happier, and may even make us less happy, is that we are trying so very hard, and our expectations for ourselves are so unattainable.  If I expect to be able to shield my child from physical and emotional pain, all the while equipping her with experiences that will allow her to become a highly ambitious, talented, remarkable person, I am bound to end up feeling stressed.  There is going to be pain.  All we can do is be there.  The truth is, while all special in their own ways, most of our kids aren’t going to be that remarkable.  It’s like we’ve all bought into this idea that if we do all the right things, from breastfeeding to Mandarin lessons, our kids will have perfect lives.

We seem to have convinced ourselves that we are in control.  But we’re not.  No wonder we’re unhappy.  What happened to facing the fact that as parents, we have almost no control?  Signing on to parent is like signing up to spend the rest of your life holding your breath.  We can’t do it for them.  What we can do, and should do, is live our own lives, and in doing so, model how to live.  Our kids are looking at us and getting the message that the way to live life is to try to be perfect, while avoiding mistakes and other unpleasantries.  If you aren’t succeeding, you’re not doing it right.

What about modeling having personal limits and boundaries?  What about modeling what to do when you aren’t good at something, when you feel regret or disappointment?  What about modeling what to do when you are faced with the very human experience of not being in control?  What about  modeling being happy while being unremarkable?  

So next time your kid is about to take a risk, remind yourself they might need that experience, if you have to.  But even more importantly, remind yourself that you aren’t perfect.  You’re not supposed to be.  Let your mind wander.  Take out a book.  Schedule your own yoga class during Junior’s judo lesson.  Put your kids outside, tell them to play, and shut the door, leaving them to tolerate boredom and use their imaginations.  Take out a bottle of wine and put your feet up.  Our kids aren’t making us unhappy, we are.  The simple truth is the more we feel like we are responsible for our children’s lives, the more money we are willing to spend to get it right.  And that’s what they want.  They want us policing each other, and making ourselves crazy.  So put away your wallet, and refuse to play the game.  Set out to raise an average, relatively content kid.  Take it from a therapist, just doing that is remarkable enough.

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6 thoughts on “Learning to be Unimportant – My Tribute to Imperfect Parents Raising Average, Unremarkable Kids

  1. Great article, great reminder. It’s funny that I feel I have to ‘forgive’ myself when I just let the kids play and kick back with a glass of wine…. it’s like I constantly have to tell the ‘society’ that’s infiltrated my head that it’s ok. Go away society and leave my parenting alone! Ha ha.

  2. You are so in sync with my own parenting philosophy here, and the concerns and realizations I’ve had living in what seems to be the predominant parenting culture right now. I’ve so often felt that same pressure to appear a certain way as a mother on the playground, and had to repress that anxiety of, “they must think I’m a bad mother!” and keep doing things my way. The most annoying moments are when someone else does the overprotecting for you–I’ve had other mothers pick up my daughter and soothe her when she falls before she’s even started crying! when my response would be to see what she did first, which is usually not cry and just get up and keep playing.

    The one place I disagree is that I think that this style of parenting you’re describing allows our children to be more remarkable, because we’re really allowing them to create themselves and learn how to learn at such an early age. My daughter almost always stands out as more well behaved, independent, and capable than the children around her because by giving her the space to figure things out on her own, get hurt, and struggle, we are actually showing her that we believe she is capable and strong and independent. It’s a given, not an expectation. In the present, not some future model of a perfect child.

    Thanks for writing! I’m so enjoying reading your posts. It’s been lonely and a bit disappointing finding that many aspects of my parenting philosophy seem so at odds with the those of the women I’ve been trying to connect to. You’re refreshing!

    • Tatiana, thanks so much, it’s such a comfort to know other moms are struggling with these issues as well. I find it takes a lot of energy to constantly battle those thoughts about being a bad mom and have to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. Having other parents do the overprotecting for you sounds very aggravating – I’m sure I’ll experience more of that as my kids get older. I totally hear what you’re saying about allowing kids to be more remarkable. I guess I would phrase it differently – it allows them to be more themselves if we give them that space, and if they happen to be remarkable, than they will be able to be that even more so. I guess what I would like to see is parents giving their kids that space and waiting for signs of who their child is, rather than start with the assumption that all kids can and should be so remarkable. I think that sets up a really problematic dynamic. But I’m all for responding appropriately if a child who’s been given the latitude to discover on their own is showing those signs. Sadly, for most of us that’s probably less likely to happen. But I totally agree that giving kids the ability to be independent sends the message that they are capable. I totally relate to the disappointment and loneliness out there – that’s why I’m trying to make this a space where like-minded folks can connect. Very much appreciate your comment!

  3. Yes to all of this! I think its important for my son to see me as a complex human being so that he may understand his own complexity too. That doesn’t mean I use him as a sounding board for my problems, but I do acknowledge when I’ve made a mistake, let him know when I’m sad/angry/hurt, and tell him when I’m taking a “break” and he’s going to spend more time with his dad or grandparents.
    I’m not sure about the free-range kids thing. I like the basic tenets of it and I do think some things have gotten out of hand, but some of it feels a little too extreme for me. Perhaps because my experience as the child of Mexican immigrants, living in a ghetto, just doesn’t quite jive with it… To go bike riding my mom would park the car on the street (we didn’t have sidewalks or curbs, just dirt) so we could ride in circles on the driveway, which had a chain linked fence (like all our neighbors’ houses), and was guarded by our mean-looking German Shepard. If you are fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where shootings, fights, car chases, and packs of wild dogs are not common, I suppose the idea of letting your kid walk to and from school is easier to accept than it was for my parents.
    My son is only 20 months old and we live in a significantly nicer neighborhood than I grew up in (even though its less than a mile away from my childhood home!) so perhaps by the time he is a little older, I will see it differently.

    • Michelle,

      Thanks for your comment. Your thoughts about the safety of “Free-range” parenting are well taken. Such an important point. Of course, there are places where those safety measures are in fact necessary and appropriate. I do live in a relatively safe, relatively privileged area, although it is fairly urban. I think folks around here would definitely disagree about sending kids walking to school and the park alone. You bring up some very important issues. I feel in general parents are going too far in curbing kids independence in a variety of ways. I guess I would say in general, it’s important to distinguish between appropriate response to real danger (like those it sounds like your parents had), and irrational fears about events that are extremely unlikely to occur or really not that bad, like kids getting abducted in safe neighborhoods, or skinning their knees, etc. Thanks for reading!

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