Parenting is a relentless, difficult and almost completely hopeless thwarting of our personal plans. This is the sentiment that Breeders and a host of recent parenting sitcoms exploit, because any honest parent will admit to bouts of anger, dejection and feelings of inadequacy.
Raising kids brings out our personal flaws, just as an oversupply of nutrients in water causes an algae bloom. In nature a mini-bloom benefits nearby organisms. Similarly, parents benefit their family by recognizing their own shortcomings (impatience, disorganization, self-centredness) and taking concrete steps to effect positive change.
On the other hand, we can let the bloom (our personal flaws) grow unchecked and thus cause damage to the very ecosystem in which our family lives.
Breeders does just that. Based on his own experience, Martin Freeman develops the idea of fatherhood as a series of frustrating, anger-inducing incidents in which mom and dad try to guide their children. In the end, anything they do is futile.
I personally love a good comedy on parenting. Child-rearing has endless comedic potential and it helps us to laugh about the tough times. But in order to profit from the endless difficulties, we need the balm of hope and meaning. This needn’t be corny or excessive, but if it is absent the show becomes at best a waste of time, at worst damaging to society.
Where Breeders succeeds is in holding up a mirror to the periodic chaos that occurs in parenting. This underscores our common humanity and reassures us that we aren’t alone in this struggle. That is important. However, to promote the message that parenting is primarily chaos would produce an imbalance in our lives. To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, while we have one foot in chaos, the other should be in order.
With their story lines, popularity, and even their titles (there’s Catastrophe and Outnumbered as well) these shows point to the fact that we are in the midst of a parenting crisis. The reasons for this crisis have puzzled me ever since my children were little. There are many factors, but two stand out for me.
First of all, the culture has changed. The introduction of the internet and proliferation of all things digital (starting 1983, but really taking off 1990 onwards), has caused a dramatic shift that has affected society as a whole and has formed the way our children think.
When we were children, our minds were fed mainly by our parents and other close adult family members. Children now live in a constant stream of information and ideas from all quarters. Unless limits are imposed (and often even if they are), a parent’s voice simply is not as loud as was that of parents a generation ago.
Of the voices our children are exposed to, most damaging are those peddling messages of perfectionism and instant gratification. Both are pervasive and lead to lack of self confidence and dissatisfaction with pretty much all areas of life. This is what our children base their world view upon and is what makes it hard for us to relate to them. We parents tend to think, “I would never have acted that way,” and are often baffled by our children’s behaviour.
True, there is always a generation gap, but this one is larger. We can’t turn to our parents for help with many current issues simply because they also have no experience with them. Even parents with children in their mid-20s can’t relate because their world was more like the one of our childhood.
I’ve spoken with moms who have both an adult child in their late 20s and one who is a teenager. Their main feedback? Because of technology, parenting now is very different than 10 years ago – and much harder, with a faster, almost frenetic pace. Think Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Life’s speed has increased, leaving us rushing, often mindlessly.
In my family, we have been watching some TV shows and movies from the 1970s and 1980s. There is a big difference in the pace of the older shows, with more room for relaxing and still being aware of one’s surroundings rather than being swept downstream in the hold of the physical stimulation so common in many movies.
Secondly, parents lack the skills needed for a truly happy family life. I know I did, and still do to some degree. In North America, my generation has grown up in relative comfort, with little experience of suffering or privations. The result in many cases is that we did not learn effective coping mechanisms. This has rendered many of us unable to deal with both large and small issues.
Add to this the denigration of the role of the father, the greater accumulation of personal debt resulting from an instant gratification mentality, and the exalted value of individuality leading to a lesser support network, and our job as parents gets that much harder.
The skill set parents need has various components:
Practical skills in home management such as cooking and cleaning. Why not learn to clean the bathroom properly in 15 minutes rather than take 30 to do a mediocre job?
Time management. This means setting priorities and developing a flexible and truly workable schedule that includes sleep, exercise and relaxation. Lisa Canning is a great authority on this subject.
A positive attitude. This might sound trite, but it is essential. Positive thinking entails digging deep into the fundamentals. It takes courage and common sense. We have to answer such questions as: What does it mean to be a parent? Do I have the right to expect my children to undertake certain tasks or even attitudes? How can I guide them firmly but with kindness?
There is a softness in parents that excuses bad behaviour in the belief that a parent may not have the right to expect anything of their children. We may rebel against the overly strict stereotype of the past, and we need to use our imagination to see that there is a middle ground.
One of my teens recently told me that when she has kids she is not going to intervene in any sibling fights. True, sometimes the children can work it out among themselves, but when a parent sees that is not possible, they then choose how they will intervene.
It’s not only a choice between screaming our heads off or running away from the problem. The middle ground may be harder, messier and inconvenient – we have to control our emotions and give up our time and energy. But that’s where real growth, for us and for them, happens.
Life is a process. That is a good motto, I think, if we want to achieve. Our imaginations are amazing – we can picture in our mind the ideal life/world/body/(insert anything). Our imaginations are a tool to help us improve ourselves and our world, but our life will never be perfect and it will always be a process.
An internet search gives me this definition of process: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. We need to decide what those steps will be. If we remain in survival mode, we may achieve an end that we did not want by default. In parenting, my end is to assist my children in discovering who they are and their unique role in and contribution to society. We have to be focussed on problem-solving for the future.
A word also needs to be said about hope. There is a harmful, underlying defeatist attitude in shows like Breeders; but it is possible to change. We can re-evaluate, revise our process, tell our kids that we’ve done things badly in the past, but this is how it’s going to be now.
For that, we need to treat parenting as a professional responsibility. We need to read good books and articles, listen to podcasts, discuss with friends, mentors and counsellors if needed. We need training in many areas from managing the laundry to managing our emotions, comprehending our self-worth and realizing that parenting is a tough, but lofty calling.
The first step in all of this is to put time in our schedule to think about where our family needs to grow. We need to schedule a first session with ourselves to determine our priorities and to make some resolutions. A good exercise is to write down every activity our family is involved in and evaluate the list. Examine whether the children’s pastimes reflect their talents and interests.
Help the kids explore on their own or with the family things of beauty and import – nature, art, music, literature, history, true friendship and love. In this way, they can naturally mature into solid, happy people who do not deny the chaos of this life but embrace it as a path to growth and fulfillment.