Keeping it real is as good for our kids as it is for us—this researcher says
Does she resist the temptation to flee or grab earplugs? Or does she just plaster on a smile and spit out an enthusiastic, “Sounds great, kiddo!”? Chances are, she goes for the fake smile because…isn’t that what being a parent is all about—cheering our kids’ every effort?
Uh, maybe not, say psychologists at the University of Toronto. They took a look at what happens when parents suppress negative emotions and amp up positive ones, and turned up some interesting insights. Like: There are times when it makes sense to give those mom or dad pompoms a break—or to shake them a little less enthusiastically.
Keeping it (mostly) real in our relationships with our kids, it turns out, is good for them and us. Among all the traits we want our kids to learn from us, authenticity should rate pretty high on the list.
What does it mean to be “authentic” anyway?
It means minimizing the gap between our outward behaviors and our inner feelings, values, and beliefs, says psychologist Bonnie M. Le, the study’s lead author.
Let’s say I’m having fun playing at the park with my kids—so much fun, in fact, that I’m pretty much doubled over laughing. You could say I’m being authentic: My feelings match my behavior.
But what if I’m not having a great time—say, because I have a headache and my child has been whining for ice cream from the moment we stepped foot in the park? If I’m trying to pretend that I’m having a great time because, hey, I don’t want to spoil my child’s enjoyment of the day, then I’m not being authentic.
Mind the (authenticity) gap!
That’s where we run into trouble, Le told me—when there’s a big gap between how we’re acting (super happy!) and how we’re actually feeling (not happy at all!)
We experience the fallout in two ways:
On a personal level: It’s hard work trying to feign an emotion we’re not actually feeling. We’re likely to feel stressed and drained by the effort. That, in turn, makes it even harder for us to be the patient and loving parent we want to be. We wind up…crankier.
With others: As we burn through our stores of parenting patience by faking emotions, we have little left to give our kids. Faking our emotions leads to distance. “It’s hard to forge a sense of intimacy or closeness with someone who is not being authentic,” Le says.
We don’t always notice it, but even very young children are constantly (and subconsciously) reading our emotions—and they can sense it when we’re not being real, she told me. They’re not going to say, “Hey Mom, you seem a little disingenuous today!” But they can tell when a fake smile doesn’t match the frown in our eyes because they know us. They pick up on the vibe that something’s a little off—and are left feeling a little confused about the mixed messages they’re receiving—or even worried because they don’t know how to make sense of our mommy zombie behavior.Sure, we have some pretty good reasons for faking it:
1) We do it out of social pressure: Let’s face it; parenting has lots of boring and maddening bits. There are many situations where we express an emotion other than what we’re genuinely feeling because we believe it’s how we’re supposed to act. We put on a happy face and smile through an endless awards ceremony or recital because we think it’s “what good parents do.”
2) We fake it because we think it’s in our kids’ best interest: We may not be thrilled with the taste of the peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich our child prepared for us (and the mess in the kitchen that followed), but we want to acknowledge and encourage the underlying act of kindness—so we muster a “yum!” and “thanks!” Other times we act different from how we truly feel just to show support or boost morale.
Part of the art of being a parent is deciding when it’s important to be completely authentic with our kids and when it makes more sense to mask our true feelings.
Finding our authenticity sweet spot
Le has a few suggestions on how to find the right balance:
Realize that some amount of playing along goes with the territory. Often, as parents, when we do this kind of cost-benefit analysis, we choose to take the psychological hit ourselves. Example: Grinning and bearing it during an excruciating recorder practice as opposed to saying or doing something that could be hurtful, like shouting for a permanent Let It Go cease and desist.
Probably a good call. Biting the bullet is part of parenting—at least, in small doses.
But don’t feel like you have to wear a happy face all the time. How we react is situational, Le points out. We might have one reaction today but another tomorrow, under different circumstances. It’s easier to feel more upbeat about a screechy recorder practice after a much-needed cup of coffee, say, or when we’re not trying to do our taxes at the same time. And that’s okay. We’re all human.
It’s flat out not healthy, though, to live in permanent martyr mode. In fact, another recent study showed that consistently pushing our own feelings aside in order to meet our child’s needs can raise chronic inflammation, taking a toll on our physical health.
Sure, parenthood is all about making sacrifices, but nobody worth listening to says we have to do it 24/7. In fact, feeling like you have to put on a smiley-face mask every single day is a pretty good sign that it’s time to change things up—like getting more sleep or scheduling more “me” time. Or both!
Fortunately, this authenticity thing isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. We can find ways to be true to our emotions under circumstances that are less than ideal—without confusing or upsetting our kids. We can even do it in ways that actually help our kids.
Try this: Shift your thinking about an annoying (or boring or frustrating) situation so that you’re able to respond in ways that work for, not against, you. Psychologists call this mental trick cognitive reappraisal.
Let’s go back to that recorder practice. You could frame the situation in a way that focuses on your suffering (“I can’t stand the way that recorder squeaks and squeals!”). Or you could reframe it to focus on how practice time is benefitting your child (“Wow, how cool that you’re so committed to mastering that song that you’re willing to practice for hours. Talk about perseverance!”)
The trick is to find something in the situation that you can honestly feel good about. That simple mental shift changes everything.
Now you’re better able to react to recorder practice in a way that’s both positive and genuine: “Great job hitting that last note!”
You’ve shifted from what psychologists refer to as surface acting (merely playing the part of the happy and supportive parent when you’re actually feeling anything but happy inside) to what they describe as deep acting (shifting your thinking about the situation so much that you begin to experience genuinely positive feelings about even the dreckier moments of parenting).
Start the reframing any time you sense that need to fake it coming on. Here’s something else cool about this kind of parenting magic: You can prime your emotional pump ahead of time. If you know that you’re going to be faced with a challenging situation (hosting the end-of-year pizza party for your child’s entire class), you can make a conscious effort to look for the silver lining (perhaps by focusing on the fact that end-of-year parties only happen once a year, so you’re off the hook for another 365 days).
It’s all about looking at it from another angle, Le told me—focusing more on what you value as a parent instead of what’s a burden. Less pretending about what you don’t love and more feeling good about what you do love.
Keeping it real
Here’s a confession: I’m the world’s worst hockey mom. When my kids were playing hockey, I found it absolutely tortuous to feign even low-level interest in their hockey games. I always felt like I should care…but I never was able to muster up much enthusiasm.
Talking to Le about her study made me realize that I had actually managed to stumble upon a parenting workaround that was healthy for all of us: I was able to encourage playing, because I know it’s great exercise and makes my kids happy. But I could also give myself permission to read novels at their practices—to be physically there (I’m here for you!) but not so much mentally. And I was able to be up front with my kids. “Look,” I was able to say, “I’m just not a hockey parent. But your dad is, 100 percent.” And when it came to other things, like signing up for swimming lessons or hitting the library, I was all in.
Here’s why it matters
We all want kids who are confident and happy, whether it’s with a hockey stick or a recorder or whatever they choose. We don’t want them to feel like they have to fake who they are.
That authenticity starts with us.
—Contributing editor Ann Douglas is a mom of four and the author of numerous books about parenting, including Parenting Through the Storm (a guide to parenting a child who is struggling).
Photos from top: 8-year-old girl playing recorder/YouTube, Clarke Renard/Flickr, James Emery/Flickr (1), James Emery/Flickr (2)