A Humble Note To Helicopter Parents And Hyperpaternity Dads: We're Born To Fail
One thing's for sure, whether you have children or not: You are bound to make mistakes, experience frustration and learn things the hard way. The key is to gradually understand how to live with it.
"Whatever you do, you won't do it well". Sentences like that tend to feel like a relief as a father (and in life in general). Sometimes I think I worry (obsess?) too much about being the best parent I can be.
I also end up spending too much time caring about what others think about me as a father — be it my children, my partner or a random person in the park.
That initial sentence is all the more calming considering it was uttered by someone who really knows what they're talking about: the mother of Spanish artists David and Fernando Trueba, a woman who raised six more kids to boot.
In fact, I came across this sentence via an article about hyperpaternity* in Spain’s El Periódico, which helped me think more about how to raise children.
"We are having fewer children, and we are having them later. Children are thus ever precious beings. [...] A status symbol, a reflection of their parents. Raising children, which is something natural and instinctive, has professionalised. We plan each second of our lives around our kids," says journalist Eva Millet.
Suffering is part of life
The author of books including Hyperpaternity and Hyperkids, Millet says that we have never been as dedicated to our children:
"The current context, with its immense offerings of educational and recreational activities for children pushes you to become a hypermother. There's social pressure around it. We are all a little hyperparenty, since it's something that's contagious."
Happiness is not absence of frustration.
The article also mentions various issues which I found interesting:
The excessive attention around children, the importance of giving them wings to fly (which implies taking risks and confronting your own fears), excessive self-indulgence, overprotectiveness, obsession over your child's happiness, and as a result, the excessive worry about avoiding them experiencing any suffering at all.
"Happiness is not absence of frustration. Our children have to be frustrated because life is lightness and also darkness, and suffering is part of life," says child psychologist Elisa López.
A child climbs on a tree.
Each home is unique
I'm not preaching about paternity here — but the article I read had me questioning whether I was a helicopter parent or not. It also made me question how much other parents’ parenting influences my decisions. For example, what to do when two children start fighting?
There's no magic formula to raising children because each home is unique. We all face different challenges and difficulties — we have more or less money, more or less support around.
You also have to take into account the child's personality, since they're not all the same. In comparison to other children aged just under five, like Lorenzo, my eldest is restless, very active, very physical.
When Lorenzo is outside or with friends, life is easier and he is able to entertain himself.
However, when he is stuck inside because he is sick, because of the weather, or whatever, he starts to climb the walls, becoming demanding.
When we are outside I have to allay my fears (are we too high? what if he dies?), let alone deal with a judgmental look or unwanted commentary from other adults.
To give you a picture, Lorenzo likes climbing, be it up trees or games in the playground. He seems to have inherited this Argentine gene of climbing to the highest spot in celebration — although in his case it's not for a World Cup, but for everyday life.
More than once, I’ve had another adult run over, or seen a wave of alarm visibly come over them when they see Lorenzo hanging from a toy metal bar or a games pipe. Often, I'll get a look or a comment ("watch out, he could hurt himself"), as if I weren't looking after my son properly.
It's logical that this happens, since every parent’s head is full of ideas, doubts, insecurities and gaps in understanding. There are situations we can prepare for (bring tupperwares full of food, nappies, etc) and the vast majority of others, which are out of our control.
Accepting this, in my case, is fundamental to having a better time: if he gets dirty, he’ll have a shower later. If he trips, he will scratch his knee. If he falls, he will hurt himself. (Do I need to add that I do make sure his life is not at risk?!)
Limits and frustrations
A huge part of raising kids is deciding what the limits and rules are: how far can I let Lorenzo and León go? The decision becomes more complicated with other children around. I am sure that often those around me are convinced that I am doing it wrong. It feels I am constantly being told that I am either too relaxed, or too strict. Which is it?!
One of those complicated moments in which you have to make an executive parental decision comes when you become the intermediary between children’s interactions. I’m talking about conflicts, especially when there is a ball involved, or an argument about invaded space.
My style is to let the kids work it out — meaning conflicts and friction will exist — but other adults tend to get involved the moment the air gets frosty.
Sometimes I’ll throw in a little “I’m not getting involved unless I see blood”, to illuminate that I am in fact watching the situation.
This gets a bit more tricky when I don’t know a parent, at a playground for example. Once, a father told me: “you’re not getting involved unless there’s blood, right?” I took that as a chastisement, since he went on to separate the children and he took his child to another game in another corner of the park. I smiled, as I often do when I don’t want to have a confrontation, either because I don’t feel like it, or because I want to avoid a discussion.
Nor could I have told that father that, for me, the situation will always be intertwined in some shade of conflict: whether it’s between the children or the adults on their peripheries. And while I of course don’t want to leave my child defenceless, my intention is not to overprotect him either.
Little by little, I want my kids to know about what the real world is like, where they’ll need to manage a range of situations which won’t always be pleasant; that someone will cut in front of them in the queue at the supermarket; that someone will bump them with their car; that someone will steal their phone, or that whenever he will be playing with others, there will probably be times when he loses more than he wins.
Nor was I going to tell the good gentleman who saved his child that children often end up fighting because they are trying to get the attention of the adults, who to them are referees or judges (and easily biased or unfair).
It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but it is important to teach children about frustration and autonomy.
At home the situations can be much more manageable, when Lorenzo can fight with a friend over a toy and I’ll be able to dish out the line my own mother used on me: “If you can’t play calmly together with the ball, then you can’t play with the ball at all”.
It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but I think it is important to teach children — even babies — about frustration and autonomy.
One way of giving them tools, independence and space to develop is to let them experiment from the top of a tree or to let them suffer because another child won’t let them play with their ball. I can’t control or intervene in every moment (and create the impression that life has no obstacles), but of course we can talk about it all: How did you feel when you couldn’t play happily together?
To be clear, I want to be there alongside my child and look after him, but I don’t want him to depend on me when eventually he could be managing the situation on his own (and learn to make mistakes too).
A little boy is angry about the playground being closed.
The other problem
“When you’re 20, you care about what everything thinks about you. When you’re 40 you stop caring about what others think about you. When you’re 60, you realise no one is thinking about you”.
The “spotlight effect” of this is the tendency to think that we are paid more attention to than we actually are.
In an article (in Spanish) about the spotlight effect in La Tercera, Débora Moraga, a clinical psychologist and anxiety specialist, links this back to the constant, permanent tendency of feeling judged. It creates a significant malaise in which one constantly doubts themselves about how they should behave, or what they should say or feel to fit in and feel like they belong. It originates in the brain, per Moraga.
As I am very aware of my many downsides, insecurities, limitations and fears, I tend to think these are also obvious to anyone else around me. It’s an egocentric idea of course, but it hardly ever occurs to me that other people are thinking about me from my internal perspective: logically, they’re busy with their own issues, or, at the very least, being victims of their own spotlight effect, thinking about what other people are thinking about them.
I get that this can be freeing because it clears the path to being more authentic. This applies to paternity, but also to other areas of personal or work life. It is also an exercise I do each time I send out this newsletter: I expose my thoughts, I don’t obsess about what people are going to think about me or how you readers might react. In the end, I am trying to share something which I think is worth sharing, in the best way I can at that moment.
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