The key to good parenting

I was recently asked what makes a good parent. You can fill a library – a thousand libraries – with the possible answers, so I could have gone on about patience, tolerance, a sense of humour, imposing boundaries, being consistent, enjoying the moment, and all those other nuggets of wisdom, if I wasn’t sure that most people already know these things.

Instead, to save you the time and the eye-strain, I can sum up what makes a good parent in just two words: emotional resilience. Everything else stems from that.

I think that society is very confused about what a good parent looks like. The parent with the perfectly behaved, adorable little angel of a child is lauded as ‘good’, while that with the bratty, obnoxious little oik they have to drag out of the supermarket because they’re screaming is judged as ‘bad’. I know, because I have done this myself, inferring the relative merits of the parent from a brief glimpse at the behaviour of their child.

But this is, in fact, a very unreliable method of gauging an individual’s parenting ability, because all kids are different – some are easy, most are a mixture of tranquil and testing, and some are right little bastards who, in an earlier generation, would have been destined for birch and borstal. It’s not so much the behaviour of the child but the behaviour of the parent that reveals their abilities or otherwise.

You see, being a good parent isn’t about succeeding when things are going well, the toddler’s perfectly happy and everything is hunky-dory – those are the times to sit back, relax and bask in the glow of strangers who deem you the very model of a perfect parent.

No, the real test of your parenting prowess is what you do, and how well you cope, when things are going horribly, horribly wrong, the little one is screaming fit to burst her lungs, and you want nothing more than to run away, find a dark place where you can curl into a ball, and hide away as you ride out the storm. That’s when you discover whether you’re a good parent or not, and that’s when you find whether you have the strength to rise up in the face of adversity – or not, as the case may be.

Being a parent, you’re tested every day. What your toddler loves to eat on Monday she decides is vomit on Tuesday, no matter how long it took you to make. At home on Wednesday she’s as good as gold while on Thursday at the restaurant she behaves so badly you have to leave early in defeat. And on Friday she’s using the potty like a pro, but on Saturday pisses on the sofa and then craps on your shoe, and she’s so upset, you break your heart trying to console her.

The hours of crying, the thrown toys, the irritating whining, the tiredness, the dressing and redressing, the bathing and washing, the repetitive game playing, the incessant highs and lows and successes and failures, the constant battle of wills and the endless sacrificing of your own hunger, thirst, wants, needs, dreams – it is so difficult not to be affected by all that, not to get run down.

That’s what I mean by emotional resilience. If you want to be a good parent, want to keep going in the same calm, controlled, reliable fashion you’ve done from the start, you have to find a way of protecting your emotions, shutting off a part of yourself, so as not to become overwhelmed. If you let things get to you, if they weigh heavy on your heart, you’re never going to make it.

As I said before, emotional resilience is pretty much all you need to be a good parent, because it is the foundation of everything. Nobody sets out to be a bad parent – nobody decides they want to lose their temper at their kids, shout at them, hit them, make them cry; nobody thinks one day they’ll start to ignore their child, sit them in front of the TV, dump them with family and child minders and start hiding at work; nobody plans to simply give up and overlook their child’s bad behaviour because they can’t deal with it, or give them the chocolate bar because it’s easier than arguing, or leave them in nappies till they’re five because it’s just too hard – but I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of these behaviours.

Hell, I went to a fair yesterday, and I saw most of them – parents losing control and swearing at their kids, parents looking the other way as their kids misbehaved, parents buying things for the kids to stop them whining – anything for an easy life. I don’t believe these parents started out this way. I don’t believe they ever thought they’d be like this. But somewhere along the way, they’ve become so run down by being parents that they’re just trying to survive – and good parenting has gone out the window.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if your child is well behaved or not. In the grand scheme of things, all your mistakes as a parent, all your failures, aren’t anywhere near as important as you think they are. What’s important is that you never stop trying to be a good parent; that you persevere, no matter how difficult; and that despite wanting to run away, or give in, or give up, you don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s the only way you can be a good parent. And ultimately, your child will be all the better for it.

 

Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?