The Problem With Trying To Be The ‘Perfect’ Dad
It’s not easy being a perfect parent but good enough is OK, writes Rich Hathway.
I’ll be honest, the thought of spending a day at a family visitor attraction is not top of my wish list. Sure, it’s great for the kid, but it’s a deeply stressful thing for me.
Firstly, there’s no way of knowing if it’s going to be any good. Every website or pamphlet stuffed into those ‘things to do’ displays proudly proclaims that its particular attraction is the best day out ever. Pictures of laughing children, long lists of everything to do, and cartoony maps of no discernible scale are de rigueur for these places. It’s impossible to know if the ticket price will justify the experience. We recently went to a place that asked, ‘Can you do it all in one day?!’ Turns out we could.
There are good places, great places, decidedly average places, and downright awful places. I’m as apathetically outraged by war and famine as the next middle-class bloke but I think there should be a special place in hell reserved for purveyors of bad family visitor attractions. My son doesn’t deserve to have me muttering under my breath all day about £3.50 for a bloody hot dog. So while yarn bombing for peace or some such endeavour seems like a desperately ineffectual way to spend your time, why not put your effort into chaining yourself to the gates of a muddy Christmas village or that ‘wildlife’ park that had three rabbits and a decrepit llama?
Also Read: How I Learned To Love Camping Like A Dad
Even if I happen to pick a decent tourist attraction, I then have to deal with the biggest stress of the day. You see, the real reason I hate those places isn’t the money or the food or the gift shops (that’s another article all of its own), it’s the other people.
I don’t like crowds, I can’t abide queuing and I’m no good at making small talk with strangers because I just don’t care. I’m not interested in how long it took you to get here, how many kids you’ve got, or what you’ve done so far and are planning to do next. I’m not going to tell you where I’m from or what I think about the weather or if I think the sugary crap your kids are shoving into their faces is too expensive here. I’m solely focused on making sure my son is OK.
I know I’m coming off a bit intolerant here, so let me be clear: it’s my issue. I have deep-seated anxieties about getting parenting right. I’m terrified of putting my child in situations that will harm him some way, either physically or psychologically. The problem with crowds, with other people, other children, is that I cannot control the experience to the Nth degree. I see danger everywhere. I know that people are generally decent and that there’s no real threat to life. I know I should relax and embrace the chaos. I know all that but I can’t help it. I find myself judging everyone really harshly. That one has a stupid hat, the one over there looks like a vegan, best keep an eye my bag around that one.
I judge the kids as well. Too fat, too thin, weird hair, probably home schooled. No-one is safe, especially OAPs with no grandkids, what the hell is that about? If I’m visiting a dinosaur park without my grandkids when I’m 75 you have permission to section me there and then.
And why are people so loud? Somebody explain the logic behind shouting across a playground to tell your kid to think about other people’s feelings. Everyone has their own way of parenting and that’s fine. I’m not really judging people when I silently judge them, I’m holding myself up against their standards and judging myself. Like a parental optician I ask myself, “Am I better, worse or about the same?” The reason I tell you this is because a few days ago I had an epiphany: it doesn’t matter.
In the isolation of the home I can easily feel like a bad dad. Getting annoyed with my boy when he breaks the Lego car I’ve spent half an hour building him, constantly having to tell him to sit still when he’s eating, muttering about him not listening to instructions when we’re playing on the Xbox. All these things and more can leave me thinking I’m not the best parent in the world. The problem with seeking perfection is the blame that comes with failure. Parenting is the perfect breeding ground for blame. Throw a rock in a room full of parents and you’ll hit ten people with ten different opinions. There is no perfect algorithm for raising a child, I know that, but I wish there was.
Maybe it’s even worse for dads. We are not seen as natural caregivers and sometimes our exasperation or stress can be viewed more harshly than that of mothers, who may be seen as more justifiably harassed. Maybe it’s my deeper voice, or the fact I’m bigger than my partner, but I sometimes feel like I’m the bad guy, even when our parenting method is exactly the same. Or maybe that’s my own insecurity. The point is, I rarely feel like the best dad in the world.
A family day out shows me I’m not the worst. I’m not the guy swearing at his two-year-old for dropping his ice cream (though I probably have been at some point) or the one who hasn’t bothered with sun cream or a hat (I’ve definitely been that guy).
I’m not the best parent on display today, but I’m not the worst. And maybe that’s what makes me the best kind of dad, at least.
Children learn from every experience, good or bad. The trick is to give them just enough of each. It’s what psychologists sometimes refer to as the Goldilocks Principle. Children don’t need too much of one or the other, they need the life that’s just right. That utopia without danger, where you never have to tell your kid off, never have to punish them, never have to console them after they’ve been bullied at school or fallen out of a tree isn’t a utopia at all. It’s the land of the Eloi where all their needs are met and life seems great but they’re terrified of the dark because they have no defence against the Morlocks.
So, I’ve decided to give myself a break. Maybe I expect too much from my kid. Maybe not enough. I spoil him some days, others I’m a bit of a tyrant. There are days when I feel like I’m properly winning at dad-hood, some days I’m happy if we’re all still alive at the end of it.
I make mistakes but not any really big ones. My son learns to cope with adversity without being kidnapped, he learns to follow rules without being beaten if he doesn’t do so. He gets presents but not everything he wants. We take him on days out and holidays but we don’t indulge his every fantasy.
The next time we go out for the day I’m going to try to embrace the chaos. Maybe I’ll learn as much from it as my son will. Maybe it won’t be all good or all bad but just right.
Either way I’m going to try not to judge myself too harshly. I’m good enough – and that probably is good enough overall.