Your Kids Are Going to Need Therapy (and it’s okay)
On the imperfectability of parenting
Before reading this week’s essay, I have a simple poll:
Despite all your efforts to be a perfect parent, your kids will need therapy.
Few topics in our society are given more attention than raising children. Collectively, we devote enormous resources to the subject. And why wouldn’t we? When future generations’ psychological and emotional wellbeing is at stake, wouldn’t we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the task?
Child rearing is not just a societal concern. Every parent desperately wants their children to have the best chance for a “successful” life. We work hard and worry endlessly about doing all that we can and should be doing for our children. We want them to thrive emotionally, socially, intellectually, and financially and to be psychologically and emotionally well-adjusted. Or at least not fall back down the socioeconomic ladder.
To be the best possible parent, we dive into books, newsletters like The New Fatherhood, podcasts, and blog posts and attend seminars and workshops. Soon we discover that parenting is like nutrition—well-meaning advice is everywhere, but it is changing continually. With so many opinions and so few truths, we debate with our spouses, partners, friends, and anyone else willing to engage with us. One therapist recently confided that he and his wife read so many books on parenting and argued so often that his kids would eventually surrender and say, “Fine, we’ll just do it to get you to stop kvetching.”
There is No Holy Grail
If we’re not careful, we can treat parenting the same way we treat diet and exercise—a quest to find the Holy Grail, the perfect methodology, the one framework that will show us exactly the what, how, and when of parenting. Lo, the seductive promise of perfection.
When I was younger, I read books on nutrition and weightlifting, believing that if I could eat the right foods and do the right exercises in the right way and the right amount, then I could magically transform my ectomorph frame into looking like Arnold. After two years of religious, systematic effort, I still looked like a Giacometti statue. I did put on fifteen pounds, but you get the point.
After searching for answers, we’re excited to put our new-found ideas into practice. We feed our children nutritious meals and ensure they get enough sleep. We listen and ask questions and read to them before bed. We watch movies together and talk about them afterward. We hug our kids, encourage physical activity and support their curiosity. We respect their innate wisdom and autonomy. We don’t physically punish or verbally abuse them. And in the areas where experts disagree, we choose sides and hope for the best.
But despite all our diligent, tireless effort, our children eventually struggle, as is the case with all children. Perhaps they are socially withdrawn or have difficulty organizing themselves around schoolwork. Or they may spend all their free time on TikTok and YouTube and play video games to distract themselves from uncomfortable emotions.
Our immediate reaction is to worry and wonder if it’s our fault. Was I too hard on them or too soft? Did I miss too many soccer games? Was I too hands-on or too hands-off with their homework? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter because parenting has no magic formula.
Parenting Is Imperfect
No matter what parenting framework you follow, how diligently you follow it, or how strictly you adhere to a no-spanking policy, your kids will need therapy. Every kid will need counseling, so it’s not a question of if but how much.
One reason is that the first couple of years is arguably the most critical for childhood development. It is precisely then that children need their parents to be at their emotional best while parents are often at their worst due to lack of sleep and sufficient downtime.
In an increasingly complex world, countless ways to harm a child exist. Some are within our control, but most are not. You missed a few soccer games because your boss required you to work late. You once made an off-hand comment about too much materialism in the world while shopping with your daughter on Black Friday. Your son watched porn with his friends when he was eight. Your daughter’s birth necessitated a cesarean delivery.
Before your children were born, it was written in the story that they would experience psychological and emotional distress, regardless of your efforts. That’s because parenting is impossible, allowing no possibility of getting it exactly right. Parenting today is too complex, too dynamic, and too messy to be otherwise.
Here’s how Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master, described this idea:
“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa. “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table, and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
~ From Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein
Good Enough Is Enough
Blaming and prosecuting yourself isn’t helping anyone, least of all your children. Instead of concerning yourself with perfection, recognize that good enough is good enough.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything. You set your intentions and prioritize your son’s play. You incorporate new ideas into your parenting (when confirmed by intuition). You continually reflect and make adjustments as needed. You do your best every day. The rest is up to your kids and the universe.
Reflecting on your own life, was your life over when you realized that your parents messed you up? You may not have achieved everything you wanted, but does that mean your life has been wasted? Hardly.
Naturally, saying this as a stepdad is easier than if I were my stepkids’ biological father or mother. Being a stepdad affords me more objectivity, and society puts significantly more pressure on women than on men. At the same time, we all have the opportunity to stop striving for perfection and start working toward parenting that’s good enough and learning to forgive ourselves for any of our shortcomings or failings.
Am I Doing My Best?
Parenting is an ongoing process of creating conditions for children to learn to thrive in the practical and spiritual realms while minimizing psychological damage.
Sometimes I’m adequate, and other times I’m unintentionally harming my stepkids due to the imperfectability of parenting. And, of course, I still worry most days, knowing I don’t know what I’m doing. Am I spending enough time with them? Am I listening in a way that they feel seen, heard, and understood? Am I being vulnerable? But then I remember what my brother said: “Worry is a toxic form of showing that we care.”
In the end, I ask myself, “Am I doing my best?” And then I keep parenting.
P.S. Happy 2023. May you make meaningful progress on your dreams this year while enjoying the process.
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