How should we raise our children? It should be a simple enough question to answer but in fact it is an intimidating and complex one. We often address it either by doing exactly what our parents did, or by doing just the opposite. We decide to either be strict or lax, modern or traditional. Then, second guessing our first impulse, we decide to rely on a cocktail of love and instinct, hoping that that will be enough to overcome the difficulties ahead.
The fact that parenting doesn’t work that way shouldn’t be surprising; far from having much free will, we are all under the influence. The child still within us confuses, influences or contradicts all our parenting aspirations, and drives us to reproduce the upbringing we received from our own parents. This conditioned response would terrify anyone who was in any way damaged during their childhood. Moreover, since we feel it is not in our control, we assume it is inevitable. So we chase it out of our mind, for lack of something better. And we find ourselves forced to accept that, regardless of all our good intentions and the incredible energy we devote to our children’s upbringing, our behavior often lacks judgment or reason and its effect on our children doesn’t produce the intended results.
Like so many others, I had to face that reality: the deep feeling that my very own baggage was sabotaging my parenting choices. And since the advice given in guidebooks, as good as they may have been, never raised this question, I came to the dispiriting conclusion that successful parenting is an impossible task and that no reasonable human being could claim to be a good parent.
This was my belief for many years, but overtime I came to realize that we cannot raise our children without coming to terms with our childhood. There is nothing new or surprising about this notion; most people wouldn’t deny the influence of the unconscious mind on virtually all aspects of our being, but we rarely apply this insight to our parenting abilities in a concrete way. The very notion of the unconscious seems so irreconcilable with the maturity and discernment required to be a parent that acknowledging its influence is deeply unsettling. Nervous parents seeking reassurance will generally avoid the question altogether. And yet it only takes a minute’s reflection to understand that it would be unreasonable to overlook this part of ourselves that keeps us from being consistent in our own parenting practices, and worse still, leads us to unintentionally hurt our children. However, as I’ve since learned, it is possible to let go of our childhood and our past. Indeed, putting our past behind us is essential if we hope to acquire the skills to become a good parent.
This is the whole point of this book—to share what I have learned from my own experience, as well as from conversations with therapists who agreed to give me information about actual cases from their practice involving parents of children of all ages. They entrusted me with their ideas about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to parenting.
I was initially hesitant to write this book. As a novelist, I don’t know enough about the history of these ideas to retrace them exhaustively and rigorously from their sources, nor am I able to explain how they have evolved and changed from one theorist or therapist to the next. I am not offering an academic overview of parenting theories. Rather, I am offering a book that grew out of a painful but important personal insight.
I nearly missed out on the joys of being a parent and the job of raising my children. I was a bad mother for long enough to realize the impact it was having on them and to feel the despair and the guilt that came with it. I had to take real steps to do something about it, change my ways, and allow my children to become who they are: three individuals I would love to meet even if they weren’t my children.
The ideas that came to me over the past fifteen years completely transformed my relationship with my children. Here, I thought to present them simply, using concrete examples drawn from the experiences of parents and children amongst friends and acquaintances, case studies from therapists who trusted me with delicate information, and works of fiction and pop cultural phenomena relating to this topic. The result is a book I wish I had had when I began raising my children: a reality-based guide to parenting.
Although written for a general audience, this book is aimed in particular at all parents under the influence, as I was, and sometimes still am. Indeed, I believe we are all under the influence when we don’t acknowledge the impact our childhood has on our parenting style, and when we haven’t developed the habit of questioning ourselves and setting the right priorities for our children. My hope is that this will help parents reflect, and change the behavior of those convinced by my argument. And I also hope that those who cannot make such changes on their own will seek help and succeed, as the way we raise our children sets a template which, for better or for worse, stays with them for the rest of their lives.