No matter how deep our love, parenting can often feel like a tightrope walk over land mines. We do our best to balance constant—and often competing—demands on our time and energy, knowing that at any moment our attention will be diverted to the latest chaotic episode. Added to that burden is the constant message that our children’s happiness is the barometer of our success.
At the Seleni Institute, we work with parents every day who find themselves stuck in this struggle. The exhaustion of juggling everything is too often compounded by a fear of failure. Add in judgmental stares when your child has a meltdown, and it’s no wonder so many of us feel like we’re not succeeding. Within this kind of chaos, it’s easy to lose sight of the true task of parenting: working to raise competent, resilient children who are able to cope with adversity and solve problems with independence and creativity.
Here’s our secret: It’s not through happiness.
When we focus exclusively on a child’s happiness, two things happen. First, children miss out on the opportunity to learn the critical skills they’ll need throughout childhood and adulthood to cope with (and work through) their own disillusionment, boredom and discontent. Second, we are perpetually exhausted as we work to stave off the next tantrum or tearful negotiation. And ultimately, parenting becomes so much more stressful.
A solution? Know that it’s normal for children to test limits. Boundaries tell a child that they’re safe. A child’s job is to test those boundaries to see if what they hope for is true: that you’re in charge. Children are so sensitive and clever; they know what we feel and how we perceive things, and they are constantly watching how we behave. They also know when we are tired and vulnerable and will often push harder for what they want. It’s in those moments that we are tested the most.
Also recognize that being unhappy is just as important as being happy, and that there are powerful lessons to be learned through contrast and working through obstacles. Your best parenting may be when you hold firm, even with the tantrum. In that moment you’re providing your child with essential skills—even if it feels like every judgmental eye in the city has turned toward your child’s sidewalk meltdown.
Finally, and we know this is easier said than done: Don’t let your child’s emotions spin you out of control or fill you with self-doubt. Your child’s discontent says nothing about any deficit in your parenting. Instead, use it as a sign that you are setting appropriate limits and boundaries, and that they are, in turn, appropriately testing. And if you find that you are unable to withstand your children’s negative emotions, take a moment to analyze how you feel and maybe talk through strategies with a professional.
Effective parenting is often found in the messiest moments, so don’t apologize for doing your job. Instead, take heart next time you’re faced with an epic tantrum, and know that you’re providing true structure and tools your child needs to succeed.