Feel like a failure as a parent? You may be doing everything exactly right.

The other day, in the midst of the Worst Head Cold Ever (turned out to be a sinus infection, during which I’ve still shuttled and cleaned and fed my kids — there are no sick days in parenting, but I digress), I interviewed a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City for a magazine story I’m working on. Writers will know just what I’m talking about: Sometimes you do interviews, get the stuff you need, and move on. Other times, much rarer, your brain is firing like mad the whole time you’re talking. Sure, you’re getting what you need for the story at hand, but you’re also getting a million other ideas, and things you felt like you already knew, deep in your sinus-infection-addled brain, were True.

That’s how I felt talking to this expert. She told me about a famous (now deceased) British psychologist, named D.W. Winnicott, the guy who came up with the concept of the good-enough mother. Another of his core beliefs, this doc told me, because it was germaine to our conversation, is that to be a good parent, you have to gradually and minutely fail your child.

Ding!

She explained further: It’s not that you should Fail your child with a capital F (not feed them, not hug them, not pick them up from soccer practice, you get the idea). But you are doing it right when you execute these teeny-tiny failures. Like, when they’re infants, you let them cry on the fourth hour of colic so you can take a shower, presuming the baby’s safe. Like, when you need to get out for a date night, you leave your 8-month-old, even though she’s deep in her separation-anxiety phase, with her grandmother or trusted sitter. Or like when you don’t lobby the first-grade teacher for a better grade on the spelling test because if she doesn’t turn that 90% into 100%, your child is ruined forever. That last one may be a joke, but only slightly–because if you take this line of thought to its logical conclusions, you end up either a hovering “helicopter parent,” or you don’t. Don’t is what Winnicott was talking about, decades before anyone coined the term helicopter parenting. Don’t is what I’m talking about there.

It’s hard sometimes. And it’s in those tough spots that we learn–us and our kids.

The failures–those teeny, tiny failures–are, the psychologist I talked to explained, stresses on your child’s growing brain. Good stresses. The kind of stresses that compel and propel them to stretch and grow. To learn that there are ways to soothe yourself out of a crying gag; to learn that grandma’s nice to stay with, and mom always comes back; to learn that if you write n’s that look like h’s, you’re going to get a 90% on the spelling test.

I love this concept. I love the idea that when I let my son glue the parts of the snowman all over the construction paper at that first library Mommy & Me class, I was doing him a solid, as compared to the other moms that dotted the pieces with glue, and guided their children’s hands to create perfectly proportioned snowmen.

At the time, I was thinking I had better things to do than create a snowman in the basement of the library. But watching my son struggle and get glue on the wrong side and paste the poor snowman’s head to the table instead of the paper was the best thing I could have done. Minute failures.

Have you failed your kid today?

20 responses to “Feel like a failure as a parent? You may be doing everything exactly right.”

  1. Charity

    Love this. Much needed in the mom world. I see too many moms making things perfect for their kids – and guess what? The world is not perfect. Kids need to learn that now. I used to feel sub-par when their construction paper and glitter projects weren’t Smithsonian worthy. But after 4 kids, I relax and let them have fun. And learn. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Melody

    I love this too. Sometimes I worry that someone’s a nicer mom than me, or more fun, or more patient, or whatever. But I figure that dealing with my imperfections makes them more resilient and flexible in the long run — and maybe will help them deal with their own imperfections too.

  3. Jen Singer

    <>

    Fantastic post, Denise. I’ve long said we need to raise our kids to leave us. What you’ve written exactly what mothers need to hear: Fail your kids in small ways now and then, as that’s how they’ll learn.

    Very well put! I’m going to share this post.

  4. Heather C

    I agree completely, great post. I can remember once I thought something like “I want to be there for my kids forever” and this thought popped into my head that then they’d never be adults… at some point I’d have to let go. I mean, at the time my oldest was under a year, so adulthood was a fair ways off… but it was a great reminder.

  5. Dara Chadwick

    Great post, Denise, and great blog!

    Let’s not forget, too, the value of teaching our kids that there’s no such thing as perfect…you, them, others, the world at large. Learning to compromise and adapt is one of the best things we can teach our kids.

  6. Jackie Dishner

    I’d like to say that my adult children won’t ever need the help of a therapist, but I’d be lying.

    Of course, they will.

    I tell them that all time, because I know I screwed up a billion things while parenting them to where they are now: my daughter’s 28 and married for one year; my son’s 26 and just had his first child (He is NOT married.). But I did okay. They are on their own. One finished college; the other did not. One’s more angst-ridden still (the girl) than the other. But they are both happy, and they both call me regularly to check in and just say hi.

    I think I did a good job. Could I have done better? Yeah, maybe. But my kids are respectful, thoughtful, and they try to do the best with that they have. They don’t ask me for anything, though I give them what I can, whenever I can, whenever I think about it. They don’t have any expectations from me, other than I be there when they need to talk. I do that as well as I can, too.

    I like this doc’s idea that you don’t have to perfect, that you shouldn’t, is something all parents can benefit from. Most of us need to learn to relax, and I think your post is a call for that.

    I’ll pass it on.

    Thanks!
    Jackie

  7. Meredith Resnick

    What an authentic perspective – totally cool. I see “failures” as part of being someone who is continually growing. Having kids who are now young women I’ve learned that the greatest gift is to be a model. Learning how to “fail” with grace is truly a success in my book.
    Congrats on your newest “baby!”
    Meredith

  8. Cari Noga

    I’ll join the chorus of agreement. You were on the mark with some survival advice to me (via FLX) when I had my first colicky newborn. Now with two (8 month old daughter) I think about the big picture more and this totally rings true.
    Hi to several other FLXers whose names I recognize here, and a plug for my own new blog on motherhood: http://www.matrilinealmatters.com, on my family’s dual last names – our son has my husband’s, our daughter has mine.
    I will look forward to reading more!

  9. Jennifer Fink

    “To be a good parent, you have to gradually and minutely fail your child” — I’m thinking of having that printed up and hanging it in my kitchen!

    So this means that every time I can’t quite get around to changing my youngest’s diaper as quickly as he’d like, or I forget to get Boy #3 a cup of water, I’m actually doing them a good thing…

    Very liberating, if you think about it!

    Jenny
    http://www.bloggingboutboys.blogspot.com

  10. Norine

    Great post, Denise! Thanks for getting me off the guilty mom hook! Norine
    Don’t Put Lizards In Your Ears
    http://www.norinedworkin.com/blog

  11. Norine

    PS: Thank you for adding me to your blog roll!

  12. Aprel Phelps-Downey

    Hi Denise -

    I came across your blog tonight while doing a search for parenting issues to soothe a trying day with my 3 1/2 year old daughter. This blog entry about feeling like a failure hit the nail on the head for me today. You did such a great job of expressing what we all feel as parents. Thanks so much for sharing!

  13. Confessions of a Mean Mommy » Blog Archive » Babies are smart after all! (Or, why I’m justified not having gone to Mommy & Me class)

    [...] that whole arena were a few free Mommy & Me-style classes at my local library, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I never really liked them much. The woman who ran the classes was a little too into the whole [...]

  14. dreamcatcher09

    When my daughter was in daycare, she was about 2 and a half. She had learned how to dress herself. She had her shirt on inside out, her pants on backwards also her shoes, but she was proud of herself so I let her go to school like that because it was her victory, sort of like painting the picture on the table instead of the paper. But yeah eventually her shoes were put on the right side, and and she learned how to put her clothes on the right way, Now she is sixteen and well on her way to becoming a well responsible young lady. Cool thank you for making me feel like I am ok in my decision making of being a mommy.

  15. If you have kids, why haven’t you answered? « Parents Guild Blog

    [...] Feel like a failure as a parent? You may be doing everything exactly right. by Denise Schipani at Confessions of a Mean Mommy. An excerpt, relaying a conversation with an child psychologist: …D.W. Winnicott, the guy who came up with the concept of the good-enough mother. Another of his core beliefs, this doc told me, because it was germaine to our conversation, is that to be a good parent, you have to gradually and minutely fail your child. [...]

  16. Weekend Reads 3.19.11 | Not Just Cute

    [...] Feel like a failure as a parent?  You may be doing everything exactly right. {Confessions of a Mean Mommy} [...]

  17. Anika

    I really needed this…right now, this moment..Thank you!

Leave a Reply