The keynote speaker at my son’s graduation ceremony emphasized principles that are currently trendy in business and psychology: the importance of failure and the courage to take risks. He asserted that essential emotional growth happens when we learn from failure and get out of our comfort zone.
I thought about these principles as I listened to a mom of four-year-old fraternal twin daughters talk about her parenting challenges. Neither of the girls sleeps through the night. One, whom I’ll call Riley, has difficulty separating from her mother at preschool. Once she settles down, Riley has trouble focusing, sitting still, or soothing herself. She only feels better when her sister is at her side. Understandably, her sister very much resents Riley’s neediness and complains bitterly about how she is burdened by her sister’s behavior. The mother resents how much control Riley exacts both in and outside of the house. For example, if the family goes on an outing, Riley whines and complains that she wants to go home as soon as they arrive.
The mom realizes that she has difficulty setting boundaries and enforcing consistent limits. In fact, when we arranged for the consultation, she presumed that I would evaluate the children rather than speak with her. I do not feel comfortable seeing children in the initial consultation because so much can be gleaned from the parents’ subjective perspectives and their histories with their own parents. The mother told me that both she and her husband had lost their fathers—her husband’s dad died when he was a young child, and her dad passed away about six years prior. She cried when she recalled the death of her father; the loss still evokes tremendous grief and pain for her.
This mom is a well-educated woman and understands that adequate sleep and a healthy diet are integral to a child’s well-being. Nonetheless, she has acclimated to her girls’ disruptive nocturnal routine. She feels a sense of failure and shame when other mothers remark that their children are sleeping well. Although she admits that she and the girls are sleep deprived, both she and her husband are uncomfortable with letting the girls cry. The parents rock the twins to sleep, the girls wake up multiple times in the middle of the night, and the parents allow the twins into the adults’ bed after a few failed attempts to make the girls go back to sleep.
The speech at my son’s graduation, delivered by a high-ranking CEO, impressed upon the audience that if we never get out of our comfort zone, we will miss out on tremendous personal growth and creativity. Along the same lines, persisting with parenting practices that are unhealthy for us and our children can pose serious difficulties. Many of us are reluctant to try new routines for fear of creating more chaos, especially since new strategies are no guarantees of success. Nonetheless, trying new approaches and possibly failing are precisely the issues we need to confront. Since parenting is so much about finding a balance between love and limits, the wisest course is to face our fears, adopt new practices, and figure out what works for our families.