Whatever you think of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, Federline’s recent release of since-deleted video clips on Instagram of Spears yelling at the children they share when the boys were preteens highlights a basic fact of life today: parenting is no longer a private activity.
Federline apparently wanted to show that Spears had been a bad mom, and that is what has caused a strain in her relationship with their now 15- and 16-year-old boys. But what did he actually prove? That no parent is perfect.
And the attention to these videos captures a conundrum of contemporary parenting: While we know that no parent can ever be perfect, we live in a world where being imperfect (that is, human) is viewed as being a failure.
The attention to these videos captures a conundrum of contemporary parenting.
The truth is that despite all the messages that becoming a parent is a miraculous, wonderful, brilliant part of life, parenting itself can be confusing, painful and filled with conflicting emotions. I imagine that there are very few parents who have not had a meltdown at some point or another.
Yet between public judgment and the sense that imperfection is synonymous with inadequacy, as Brené Brown puts it in “The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting,” many parents struggle with concerns. One of my psychotherapy clients recently expressed it perfectly: “I feel like I never get it right. I’m always worrying if I’m doing a terrible job as a parent.”
The pendulum has swung from the days when the mental health world blamed an individual’s problems on their internal psychological conflicts. Today it seems that everything is the parents’ fault.
To be clear, we must recognize the role of parenting in a child’s development and acknowledge the terrible consequences of abuse or maltreatment by parents and the fact that it continues to be a serious problem worldwide. Yelling, name-calling and hurtful words can do psychological damage. But there are also some instances in which parents do not need to worry that yelling has damaged their kids. For example, when it is an unusual occurrence and when there’s space for the genuine repair of the rupture between parent and child.
And for people already anxious about their performance as parents, the knowledge that others are watching and judging them can create more problems. Parenting coach and author of numerous books on parenting, Laura Markham put the feeling this way in her Psychology Today blog: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s grandparents judging us as Permissive and Spoiling, or supermarket cashiers judging us as Lazy or Mean. If we were good parents, our child wouldn’t be acting up to begin with. Right?”
For people already anxious about their performance as parents, the knowledge that others are watching and judging them can create more problems.
Public figures like Spears constantly deal with having their imperfections flaunted to the world. But when parents become self-conscious about their behaviors, they sometimes cannot behave in the ways that would be most beneficial to their children.
While Federline’s Instagram post claimed that “this isn’t even the worst of it,” many of the responses seemed to side with Spears. And what the public did see and hear point to another part of the parenting conundrum: Abuse is not as easily identified as it might seem, in part, at least, because a single moment in time is not necessarily a good indication of what really goes on in any family or any situation.
Although a mutual meltdown — between a defiant toddler or teen and a parent at the end of her rope — can be a sign of bad parenting, it does not always represent abuse. An occasional bout of bad parenting is a normal part of life. And perhaps even more significantly, both children and parents can learn from these moments of imperfection. Learning that their parents are human, with all the flaws and blemishes that go along with the condition is a crucial part of a child’s developmental process.
Many child development specialists follow the teaching of the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who coined the phrase “good enough mother“ to capture the idea that children can actually benefit from some parenting fails. The general rule of thumb is that a parent’s ability to recognize and honestly take responsibility for their mistakes is far more important than attempting to live a life without ever making a mistake.
As a psychotherapist, I often feel that I learn more from my clients than they do from me. One of those learning moments came shortly after I had a very public “parenting fail” with my pre-adolescent son. After an argument, which I knew I could not win, I flounced off as though I were a teenager myself, tossing my head and muttering, “Just do what you want. You will anyway.” I was fortunate in that my son has always been a reasonable person, and when we were both calmer, we apologized and sorted out our differences. But as I walked away from our argument, I felt embarrassed that some of my neighbors might have overheard the shouting and thought to themselves that “as a psychotherapist, Diane should have known how to handle the situation better.”
A few weeks after the incident, I received an email from a woman asking to see me for therapy. “I heard you speak at a conference,” she said, “so I knew who you were when I saw you in my neighborhood, arguing with a teen who I assume is your son, the other day. You listened to him, but you also let him know what you thought. You were both mad, but neither one of you was mean. I want to learn how to argue like that.” From her perspective, it wasn’t about being a good or a bad mother. It was about being able to be honest without being hurtful. And it was about being able to listen to someone else express feelings. Later, I also learned that it was about my being able to set a limit on our argument without pulling rank or acting like I knew everything. In fact, she said, “I think you lost that argument.”
In our world of snap opinions, public judgments and lack of willingness to acknowledge nuances, it is increasingly difficult to be honest with our feelings. It’s even harder to find ways to be honest without doing damage. On the surface, the videos that Federline posted on Instagram seemed relatively innocuous. I have no idea if Spears was being honest with her sons and whether or not she was doing damage to the kids. But I do know that a snapshot of a single moment in time is not enough to make that decision.