Performance parenting

Also known as Parenting in front of others… We’ve all done it before or witnessed it happening. But the question is, why do we do it?

Does this sound familiar: You’re at the doctor’s office and your toddler decides it’s time to START USING HER OUTSIDE VOICE. You don’t want to appear stern, so you ask her, “Sweetie, would you mind whispering please?” She looks at you blankly – you’re normally never this polite when you’re angry.

Or, what about this scenario: you’re at the check-out and, suddenly you find yourself self-conscious that the shoppers in the line behind you notice you’re buying candy for your kid; worse, half of the candy is now in your child’s mouth – and all over his face. Hastily, you explain to your child, (and anyone else within earshot) “This is not normally what we eat, is it? We actually never eat candy! And we don’t get this messy!”

Satisfied that you’ve explained yourself to everyone in the supermarket, you grab your child’s chocolatey hand and get out of there as quickly as you can.

Perhaps you’re visiting your own parents when you notice you’re coaxing your son to give Grandma a kiss, even though you’d know he’d rather eat a frog. What if it’s your parents-in-law? Well, the performance you’re demanding of yourself and your child just became Oscar-worthy.

You’re not an insecure person. You’re aware that, while you make mistakes, and have your neuroses, you have this parenting thing pretty much locked down. It’s only that sometimes, the judgement of others feels so overwhelming, so vexing, that you end up putting on a show with your child. Put simply, you’re performing for others how you parent.

A generation ago, everyone was on the same page and children were “seen and not heard”.  A child misbehaves, she gets a smack. But as parenting expert and author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, Naomi Aldort points out, “Parents today depart more sharply from their elders’ approach.”

In 2016, there are a myriad of ways to raise a child. You do what works for you. That is, until, you perceive other people’s judgment. “In the old days grandma was a mentor”, says Aldort. “Today she is an apprentice at best and often a constant critic.”

But there is a way through. Performance parenting, explains Aldort, stems from an unspoken need for approval from loved ones, friends and even strangers. This may be coupled with what Aldort calls an “imprisoning need to please your parents.” Put simply, it’s baggage from the past coming up — but there is a way through.

“Once a parent is not emotionally dependent on approval, she is able to be the parent she really wants to be”, says Aldort. “The confident parent does not feel threatened by criticism from a relative, because listening kindly doesn’t mean that she does what they say.”

“In my work, parents investigate the thoughts that drive them to contradict their loving ways due to external pressures,” says Aldort. “We explore thoughts like, ‘My child should hug my mom,’ ‘I can’t do this because my mom will be upset,” “My dad will get angry… or not come to visit,” “I need my parents’ (or others’) approval.”

But wait! You think to yourself, “I’ve never said I needed my parents’ approval!”  Says Aldort, “Although we don’t usually say these words to ourselves, it is a core unspoken inner drive that we can be slaves to, often at the expense of the child.”

“The inner work starts with getting under these thoughts and bringing our true loving self out from under the self-imposed pressure.” Ah! Self-imposed! So those people in the doctor’s surgery probably didn’t notice my child, much less my special polite voice? So when I worry what other shoppers think of me, it’s my own stuff? Pretty much.

“When a parent becomes rooted in herself” says Aldort, “She feels good about standing first and foremost for her child — without shame or guilt.”