50 shades of grey: Parenting is not all black & white

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One of my bug-bears regarding mainstream advice for parents is the extreme focus on “Dos and Don’ts”. Having been asked to write a few articles for mainstream media, I often sigh when I am asked to produce a list of my top ‘dos and don’ts of parenting’.

Incidentally, it would be the following:

DO:

  • Use sunscreen on your children
  • Vaccinate your children

DON’T:

  • Sexually abuse your children
  • Physically abuse your children
  • Emotionally abuse your children
  • Physically or emotionally neglect your children

But this isn’t usually what people are after.

I know what people are after: Don’t allow your children on social media/ Don’t allow your children to watch TV/ Don’t tell your daughters that they are beautiful/ Don’t praise your children for being intelligent/ Do praise your children for effort/ Do encourage exercise/ Do read with your children/ Don’t push your children to achieve/ Do push your children to achieve.

The advice may be catchy and ‘sound’ sensible and I could even throw in a few science sounding sound bites to support my case, but really – it is meaningless and often based on fluff and anecdote rather than hard science. The reality is that in the words of Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” and like most things, parenting does not exist in the black and white, but 50 shades of grey.

“Black and white thinking” is often an undesirable symptom of conditions such as depression, personality disorder and autism spectrum disorder. In depression for example people can feel that making a small mistake is a disaster because in the binary world of ‘black and white’ or ‘perfection and imperfection’, small mistakes necessitate categorisation in the ‘imperfect’ pile. People with personality disorder may tend to classify people as “good or bad”, those who are good are put on a pedestal, but if they cause even minor offence, they then become enemy number 1 – because there are no in-between options. In autism spectrum disorder, there is much frustration, anger and a sense of injustice with queue-jumpers and rule infringers, because often there is only “right and wrong”. In all cases, black and white thinking is a negative: it does not reflect reality, discourages adaptability and perceptions of nuance and as such causes unnecessary distress.

So why does the media wish to encourage its audience to think in such maladaptive ways? And how can we protect ourselves from binary thinking?

In cognitive behavioural therapy for children with black and white thinking, one of the purposes of therapy is to challenge black and white thinking: to map out every shade of grey and to consider every caveat.

I think we parents could also do with some of this in our lives to stop our own binary thinking regarding how we parent:

Mapping out Shades of Grey:

(If black is no and white is yes)

Does looking like a hot mess mean I am a bad parent? Black

Does having a messy house mean I am a bad parent? Slate

Does doing the school run in my PJs mean I’m a bad parent? Ash

Does shouting at my child in anger mean I am a bad parent? Pigeon

Does physically abusing my child mean I am a bad parent? Snow

Caveats:

If I give my children ready meals am I a bad parent?

  • What if it is not every night?
  • What if I am a time poor working parent?
  • What if I am a time poor single parent?
  • What if it allows me to spend more quality time with my child?
  • What if it allows me to help my child with their homework?
  • What if I have 4 children?
  • What if I have a new baby?
  • What if it is a hipster vegan and gluten free ready-meal?

I know that binary parenting advice is an easy-to-understand way of delivering information, but I think that it is about time that we trusted the intelligence and judgement of parents a little more. The focus should be on providing good quality information and education and not on sound bites to be dogmatically followed. I hope that my blogs and book reflect this ethos. I don’t want people to ‘do as I do’ or ‘do as I say’ but to reflect on their own parenting and find their own path with a clear understanding of the implications of compromises that we must all make. And to embrace grey in their lives like they would Jamie Dornan if they got the chance…!

 

 

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