How do I know I’m doing a good job as a parent? It’s the question many parents want to know the answer to. You don’t get a lot of feedback as a parent but Warren Cann, CEO of Parenting Research Centre and a director of the Raising Children Network, says there isn’t a true objective measure of what a good parent actually is. “Science can’t measure it and say these are the top ten ingredients of good parenting,” says Cann. “It depends on the circumstances and it changes over time.”
Adopt a learning attitude
Most mothers and fathers feel completely unprepared for parenting. After all, it’s not something you can learn prior to experiencing. “Along with the feeling of being unprepared, come the feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and self-doubt”, explains Cann. However, a level of uncertainty, rather than confidence, is a normal and healthy state for parents, he says. “Accepting the uncertainty is a good starting to point to develop as parents. It shows that you are paying attention and trying to learn.”
Being open to learning is significant in developing as a parent. Rather than asking yourself if you are a ‘good’ parent, Cann says there are more helpful questions such as: What could I be doing better? What could be more effective? How could I improve this situation? “No one is ever going to be a perfect parent, but if you focus on learning, you focus on developing and that’s where you can see change,” explains Cann. “Instead of looking to fit the criteria of a good parent, accept that you’re a flawed human being.”
Look after yourself too
A lot of information about how to be a better parent focuses on techniques for changing a child’s behavior. But research has shown that the one thing a person can do to be a better parent is to focus on developing him or herself. There are many reasons to look inward to be a more effective parent. Being healthy and happy in yourself as a parent has direct benefits for your children, explains Cann. “To do best, children need warm, loving, engaged parenting but they also benefit when they’ve got a mum and dad who are doing well.”
A lot of parents put everything into their kids and don’t pay adequate attention to themselves, says Cann. He says the idea that a ‘good’ parent always puts their child’s needs ahead of their own, is one of the many myths around parenting. “Everyone’s needs are important in a family and not one person’s needs are more important than anyone else’s,” he adds.
It is also vital that couples prioritise their relationship, says Cann. “The quality of the couple’s relationship sets the emotional tenor for the household,” he explains. Whilst it doesn’t have to be perfect, Cann points out, couples need to communicate well and solve problems together. “Research shows that exposure to high levels of unresolved conflict amongst their parents can be damaging to a child’s development,” he says. Cann suggests that as much as possible parents protect children from adult conflict.
Lower your expectations
It can be helpful for parents to try to lower their expectations of themselves, suggests Cann.
“In our society we have this idealistic view of parenthood,” he says. “We set these unrealistic expectations and we fail them constantly and then we get upset with ourselves when we do,” says Cann. “Forget trying to work out whether you’re doing a good job. Instead, adopt an openness about how you might do things differently.”
The best approach to self-evaluation, Cann says, is thoughtful reflection without judgement. The thinking parent asks: What did I learn today? What worked for me as a parent? What am I going to try and do differently tomorrow? “Resist making self-judgments,” says Cann. “Instead, focus on what you can learn from a situation and celebrate the small breakthroughs and achievements.”
The essential ingredients
So, what are the most important things a parent can give a child in the early years? Cann says it’s about making the most of everyday moments by filling them with simple things like warmth and attention. “Nobody needs a degree in how to give attention and affection,” he says. The moments that matter are when you are psychologically available to your child and really paying attention. “Gentleness is another effective parenting practice; it’s about dealing with kids calmly even when you are correcting them. They don’t learn well when they’re dealing with high adult negative emotion.” And it’s about talking and listening - having a meaningful interaction with your child.
The good news, Cann says, is every parent can do these things; they’re not technically hard and they don’t have to be scheduled. “The key is to do them as frequently as you can as part of your everyday activities and routines. The more words a child hears, the better; the more warmth and affection they receive, the better,” he says, adding that people can achieve the same thing but in different ways. “We know that warmth and affection is good for kids, but there are there are lots of ways that warmth and affection can be expressed.”
How much does parenting matter?
“The stakes are high,” says Cann. “Parenting matters a lot and there are no guaranteed outcomes - its inherently uncertain.” However, he does offer some assurance. “Parenting is not rocket science. It’s tough work but in the end the bits that are important are not difficult,” he says.
According to Cann, parents are in a far better position to tackle the challenges of parenthood if they are not so hard on themselves. “It’s about letting go of the judgement and giving yourself the leeway to learn,” he says. “Parenting is a learning journey and you develop as a parent just as your child is developing.”