The Muscle Memory involved in Parenting

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When writer Loren Stow launched the Practica blog back in 2010, we decided to call it “Practically Speaking” and to sign off each post with Maya Angelou’s famous words: “Parents who know better, do better”. I loved the idea and I still do.

The reason why I’m mentioning this is because I recently stumbled upon a piece of writing posted by Tess Lyons on her parenting blog in 2006, in which she shared her thoughts on Maya Angelou’s statement. Tess is the mother of four children, a single child plus a set of triplets. Judging on the pictures of her children at that time, all of them were younger than 5 years old when she wrote the post. Oh, how I empathize with how busy her life must have been at that stage!

Tess described in her post how unsettled she felt at times when she knew what to do, but ended up not doing it, simply because she ran out of energy. Here’s what she said:

I am constantly surprised by the guesswork involved in parenting. And the responsibility. And how each day I can get up and say, “I am going to do the best I can do”, and console myself that my best can be better tomorrow. And sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

Do our kids remember that we tried hard?  Does that count?  Do I just remember that my parents tried hard because I feel that they “succeeded” in being good and loving parents?

Oprah and Maya Angelou say, “Parents who know better, do better.” Is that true? It is a terribly empowering rah rah statement, that is catchy and yay, but I don’t know if it is true. Sometimes I am too tired to follow through on my parenting. I hear a scuffle, and I don’t get up and investigate. Sometimes even though I have uttered, “The next time you (insert sin here), I will (insert punishment here)” and I don’t. I pretend I didn’t hear the crime, or see it. I suspect I am not the only one who does this, but does this put me in the category of person who doesn’t know better? Can’t I be a person who as often as she has the energy, does better? Because that’s where I fit.

Although very few of us are as attuned to our own thoughts and emotions as Tess Lyons seems to be, I believe every person alive feels and reacts like this from time to time – even in areas of our lives that are not related to parenting. We learn something new, it raises the bar on our own expectations and instead of “doing better” we end up “feeling worse”.

We launched the Practica Programme in 1993 and since then we have literally spoken to thousands of parents about how they can benefit from learning more and equipping themselves with well researched ideas and activities that are aimed at helping their children to develop to their fullest potential. I have always wondered why parents react so differently to our message.  Tess Lyons’s words shed some light on the issue.

Without generalizing, I believe some parents are more open to learning and applying new ideas and techniques because they are less afraid of dealing with failure. They understand that, when it comes to parenting, making mistakes and doing exactly the opposite of what you know to be best from time to time as you proceed from one challenging episode to the next, is simply inevitable. Knowing better should theoretically help a parent to fair better, but parents are people first, and people tend to fall back into a “default” state when they’re under pressure. There’s no sense in beating yourself up about it.

Learning to be the kind of parent that you really want to be doesn’t happen without a certain level of commitment and effort.

In reality, learning to be a great parent is a lot like learning to play golf. For those who are interested to learn, making mistakes is part of the process. When you start off, most of your actions feel unnatural. You have to consider the way you stand, the position of every finger, the position of your head, the angle of your back, the tension in your muscles as you lift the club, and so forth. To put it simply, you have to concentrate really hard and you have to be patient with yourself as you will undoubtedly make many mistakes. In fact, just as you get one thing right, something else seems to go wrong. But the more you practise, the better (and luckier!) you get. Before you know it, you have internalized the instructions and the advice that your instructor has given you. Physically speaking, pathways have formed in your brain between the various regions that work together to enable you to coordinate all your body parts and hit that ball just right. You have developed “muscle memory”.

The same goes for parenting. The more you practise, the easier it becomes. And before you know it, reacting in a better way is wired into your brain. The new, better behaviour pops up without you even thinking about it anymore.  It has become your “default reaction”. Your courage is paying off.

From time to time, when you’re dog tired or emotionally drained you may make a bad decision or simply sit the round out. There will always be better days and not-so-good days. That’s fine. You will have another opportunity to make the right decision and get back on ‘course’.
Written by Lizette van Huyssteen
Parents who know better, do better …

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