What if parenting is not an inbuilt instinct, but rather a set of skills that can be learnt like any other? The belief that parenting just comes naturally, is not only potentially harmful, it can also stop many of us from asking for help when we need it.
Listen to Annette Michaux and Amy Taylor-Kabbaz on Feed Play Love:
Why do we think we should just ‘know’ how to be good parents?
Annette points out that the commonly held belief that as soon as our baby is born, we should just know how to parent is untrue. “A lot of the public perceptions of parenting is that it’ll just come naturally and automatically. But in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s something that’s absolutely learnable.”
“It’s a very strong public perception that’s carried through in the media, through a lot of conversations,” says Annette. “It’s something that even professionals in the area don’t tell new parents. When you go to the early childhood nurse for the first time, they don’t tell you, ‘Don’t worry. This is a skill and you will develop it … learn on the job.’”
Parenting is a skill that is learnt, not an instinct you’re born with
Amy agrees that the pervasive message that there’s some kind of parenting intuition we all hold within us if we could just access it, is damaging for parents. “So many of the mums that I speak with [say], ‘I don’t know how to get in touch with my intuition.’
They think that the answer is inside them. And if they can’t hear that, there’s something wrong with them. And that is such a damaging idea for an overwhelmed new parent.”
“What the science is telling us,” Annette says, “And the evidence is telling us, is that parenting is actually a skill that you learn on the job.”
But what if you feel like you’re not learning on the job?
For some of us, despite trial and error, we may not feel we’re making the progress we feel we should. If we don’t have positive experiences of being parented ourselves, there’s no learnt experiences to fall back on – no ‘innate’ knowledge, so to speak.
Annette reassures,“The other really important thing that’s coming out of the science is that parenting is absolutely learnable, no matter what your previous experience is. And if you have experienced disadvantage or you’ve experienced difficulties in your life, that might set you back on the journey. There are ways that you can still develop the skills with the right help and support.”
Shame stops us from asking for help
The belief that parenting just comes naturally, is not only potentially harmful, it actually stops many of us from asking for help when we need it. Annette says there’s a lot of shame around reaching out, “It gets in the way of parents seeking help when they need it because they feel like there’s something wrong, and they’re to blame, and they should know what to do.”
The judgement is real
If we feel shame around asking for help, it’s because the messages we’ve internalised tell us we shouldn’t need to.
Amy finds that many mums turn to her for help when they can’t turn to their families because they feel like they’ve already been judged. To the outside world, Amy says, many mums, “Will just keep putting on a brave face.”
But turning to a professional like her is easier, if only because they don’t know her and don’t feel that shame. Asking for help takes vulnerability, and it’s hard to be vulnerable when you feel shame.
Why are we so hard on ourselves?
When it comes to our kids it can feel like the stakes are so high that we beat ourselves up for every little mistake we make.
“Being kinder to ourselves about mistakes is part of this learning process,” says Annette. “There’s some emerging evidence around self-compassion and being less hard on ourselves is actually going to improve how we parent. If we’re not as hard on ourselves, we’re going to let go of things a little bit more quickly.”
Failure is not only okay, it’s how we become better parents
We might not think of ‘parenting fails’ as a good thing, but if we’re able to be kinder to ourselves, we’re not only going to become better parents, we’ll teach our kids how to develop their own self-compassion.
“Being okay about failure is actually a very important part of parenting,” says Annette. “Being able to let it go and move on … if you’re really hard on yourself, you might not take risks, you might not be learning and your confidence can get really undermined and affect your problem-solving.”
For Amy, the turning point came for her when she realised that modelling self-compassion was a gift she could give her children. “I don’t want my kids to grow up and beat themselves up over every little mistake they make. I don’t want them to think that they’re bad people when they just occasionally make a bad mistake … I want them to have a beautiful sense of self. And if I want them to have that, I have to do it myself.”