Parent educator Vicki Hoefle: Don’t get trapped in the perfect parenting myth

The thing I want parents to understand is this: you are doing the best you can with the information you have. There’s no room for judgement or criticism. You have made the best use of the information you have to raise really great kids and people.

Vicki Hoefle is a popular parent educator, speaker and author of Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids and her new book The Straight Talk on Parenting: A No Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grownup. She’s also  contributor to Parent.co. Learn more about Vicki on her active blog and connect with her on social media via VickiHoefle.com.


Parent Co: I’m wondering if you can offer any advice for parents who read your books, really connect with the material, and then find themselves stuck at the implementation point.

Vicki Hoefle: I wish truthfully that I had a magic pill that I could give parents that would just allow them, for a week, to experience what it’s like to trust themselves first. But I don’t, so I’m always trying to figure out what to say to convince them to give this a go and to trust themselves.

What I know to be true after 25 years is that the real experts in the house are by far the children. They have all the information we need to parent them in a way that brings out their best but we use them as our last resource. I also know that parents have a keen sense of intuition about what will work with their kids, what won’t work with their kids, kinds of rhythms their children establish when they’re young, and yet they trust a book, an expert, a blogger, a podcaster, long before they’ll take that intuitive nugget and test it.

If you have a gut sense, an intuitive sense, about what will work for your child, before you talk to anybody about it, before you get confirmation that it might be a good idea, test it for a week and don’t tell anybody. You’ll know if you’ve hit the mark because you’ll see your children’s eyes begin to dart around curiously. They’ll know that you have tapped into something bigger and deeper and more honest than the latest strategy that you brought home that you’ve slapped onto the refrigerator.

This lovely dance gets started between the parent and the child. The parent starts to test their ideas and they see the response in the child’s eyes. There’s a new connection made between Mom and the kids, or Dad and the kids. If a parent’s confidence starts to go up, and the kids begin to resonate with what Mom or Dad is doing, it creates this momentum in the house.

Once that momentum gets started, it’s pretty easy to keep it going. You get this sense as a parent that you’ve tapped into something deeper than just the latest trendy strategy and that’s what I’m always encouraging parents to do. I feel like my work is a little bit of a launching off pad. It isn’t the whole nut, it’s just the launching of it. It points you towards where you want to be moving or what might be helpful, but it isn’t the map.

What do you think stops parents from trusting themselves to begin with?

I think they have this idea that they should be perfect, that they should understand their child right from the get-go. Instead of looking at it like it’s a new dance and so you’re going to step on some toes and you’re going to drop somebody once in a while and the turn won’t work, as being a normal part of the early stages of parenting, we lose confidence very quickly. The propensity is to go ask our mom, ask our mother-in-law, ask our older sister, ask our best friend, and once you get into that habit, it’s hard to go back to trusting yourself. I think part of it happens so early on in the parenting journey that it then becomes a way of life. ‘Oh, ask other people first, then trust yourself second because you made some blunders early on in the game.’

I’m curious about your new book and maybe some of the topics covered, or area that you’re covering that wasn’t covered in the book “Duct Tape Parenting”.

Okay, so, “Duct Tape Parenting” was the overarching theory that I relied on heavily as a new mom. These kind of five tenets that I used to guide my parenting decisions. They really encompass the whole … you just do less. Here are five areas where you can do less and you can start to see the benefits. It was really just an invitation to consider going in the opposite direction of micromanaging and helicoptering.

“The Straight Talk on Parenting” really focuses in on my big a-ha moment as a very, very young mom. That was this idea that parenting is not about what happens for a kid between zero and 18. It’s what happens for them between 18 and 80. I knew when I had that thought that I was not going to get trapped into the perfect parenting myth.

I knew that a sloppy three year old, and a rude five year old, and a forgetful seven year old, and a snarky thirteen year old – I was just not going to concern myself with that because I already understood that the goal was not to have a perfectly behaved kiddo. My life was very easy because I knew what the end game was.

My parenting decisions were always about reconciling this idea that I’m living with a toddler, but I’m raising a future adult. How am I going to make my decision to get through this moment with the child without making it worse and to then build skills, help develop skills and character traits in this child that will help him or her when she’s 23, but that also might make my life easier while I’m living with them.

For instance, self control. If you have a child who tends to bop their little brother on the head as a solution, you could try and discipline that solution out of the kid, but the character trait that’s underdeveloped is self-restraint. Well, it’s a character trait that all adults have to use on a daily basis, so I thought, ‘I wonder if I put my focus into helping my child develop self-control, self-restraint, if I might see immediate benefits and also know that I was getting them ready for life beyond my threshold,’ and it worked.

It became a really exciting, interesting, and energizing journey into parenting. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t discouraged. I wasn’t going to the next blogger to find out what I should do. It’s just like, ‘Oh, there’s a character trait I need to develop. I can do that, that’s fine. If I see some progress in six months, then I’ll know that I’ve hit on something.’

Yeah, I guess that’s a big part of it too, isn’t it? The patience? Understanding that it’s not going to happen as quickly as you want it to, probably.

No, and I don’t think we want it to. I think when our personal prestige gets involved, then we want to rush our kids. Because I hear parents say, ‘Oh, they’re growing up so fast. I wish he would just put away all of his clothes when I ask him the first time,’ and I think, well, what do you want? Do you want a child, or do you want a forty year old man? You can’t have both, so figure out which one you want.

The kids start to get confused, too. ‘Well you treat me like a baby, but you have these unrealistic expectations that I can behave like an adult.’ It’s accepting that you have 18 years. It’s a classroom. Take your time. Make a mess. Get the play-doh out. Finger paint. Drop all the beads on the floor. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s at eighteen when they leave, do they have what they need?

In your opinion, what is it that drives us to over-parent?

I really do think in today’s age it’s more about personal prestige than it is about safety. I think because the world is so highly connected and everybody is posting and talking and texting and capturing moments, that there is no room for messy lives. That everything is a document of how well we’re doing. We’re looking at our kids as if they’re possessions and that they’re responsible for our self-esteem. It’s just too tempting to compare your kid with somebody else.

Then we lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing. That lends itself to a micromanaging kind of hovering, ‘Oh but I care so much.’ It’s just like, for goodness sake, get off it. Nobody even believes you when you say that because we all know we’re doing it to look good, so you’re doing it to look good, too. I mean, come on!

Yeah, and as you’re saying this, I’m dissecting my own behavior because I always attribute my tendency to over-parent to various fears. I haven’t identified what you’re talking about as a fear as well: The fear of not living up to some standard that you believe has been set by your peers. I can rationalize or justify so much by telling myself that I’m being careful.

Yes.

Or that I’m teaching my kids to be careful. On the other hand, I know that’s not even necessarily a message I want them to get.

Right, welcome to my world! This is what I hear all the time. Inside of you there’s this part that’s always trying to get to the truth. It’s there, you’re just not listening to it. You’re right, it’s the fear of the judgment that overrides everything else, but if you say to a parent, another parent on the playground, ‘I just can’t let her get herself dressed. She has terrible taste and I don’t want her to be embarrassed and humiliated by her friends,’ the mother would say: ‘I know. Oh my god, of course you have to protect her from that kind of embarrassment. That’s your job!’

The truth is, you want everybody to say, ‘Oh my god. That mother, look at the great outfit her daughter’s coming to school in.’ It’s just such a hard pill to swallow that we parent for other people instead of our kids. That’s the reality. We do. We’re trying to impress each other and the kids lose.

Yeah, I mean we’ve done it our whole lives. We dress for other people. We strive for other people’s approval. It’s not surprising that it translates into parenthood.

Exactly! It’s the fact that we don’t talk about it from the get-go. If we would say to parents: ‘Listen, be on the lookout for how much you want to impress other people with how good you are.’ Nobody says that to a new mom. It doesn’t occur to us that the same things that trip us up when we’re dating or trying to impress our mother-in-law or sister, it’s going to follow us into our parenting. Before you know it, many of the decisions we’re making have nothing to do with what’s best for our kids.

That’s so true. I’ve never heard it stated that succinctly. In this moment, you are exactly right and that is a terrible thing to do and I want to change it, and at the same time I’m judging myself for it.

I was just reading a post on your website about ignoring sibling squabbles and how to get kids to fight less by not feeding into their arguments with each other. I love the line that said they’re actually fighting for their parents.

My kids are are fighting more and more, and it makes perfect sense that with just one parent home most of the time, they have to fight harder. I’m just me and I can’t give the attention of two parents. How do I ignore their fight without feeling guilty?

Everything I teach has a layering process because there isn’t just one thing. If I said ‘Oh, just ignore the fighting,’ people would say, ‘You can’t just ignore the fighting!’ But, right, you can’t. You have to build something. If we’re going to essentially take apart, dismantle the fighting, we have to construct something else, a different way of  being in relationship.

One of the things is you ignore the fighting, but you address it in different ways. For instance, you could say, ‘Hey guys, I’m going to guess that part of the reason there’s more fighting going on is because you guys can get me to stop what I’m doing, look at you, and say ‘kids knock it off. It’s a way for us to connect. So how about if we find another way to connect? How about if you come and you get me and you say, instead of starting a fight with each other over something I know you don’t care about, why don’t you both just come and get me and say “Mom, we need you for two minutes. We need you to be present with us for two minutes.” Could you do that?’

So you empower kids. It’s not a discipline problem, it’s an awareness problem. Nobody’s aware of what’s really going on. People are disconnected from the purpose of their behavior. As a parent, you can shine a spotlight on that behavior and completely transform it in the moment.

The other thing to do is to ask yourself: How do you have an appreciative environment in your home? Are there lots of opportunities for people to say nice things about each other? Other than “good job”, but to really show appreciation for the people that they live with. Because my experience is it is difficult to fight with somebody who keeps saying nice things about you.

But kids don’t hear that. They hear their parents talk about what’s wrong with them, what they have to fix, ‘please stop doing that,’ and so that translates into their relationship with each other. If we teach them about appreciating other people, the fighting just diminishes on its own. There is nothing to do it, it just is dismantled. It’s very gentle. It’s very peaceful. There’s no punishment. There’s no win or lose, the idea of ‘fair,’ ‘I’m the victim, he’s the bully,’ all of that just goes away.

In the moment, how do you maintain the peace, the calm, the proper demeanor? Does it require a sense of detachment from the situation? Because I’m picturing my two kids going at it and I try to ignore it for a little while and then it just drives me crazy. Like you’re saying, I don’t have all the systems put in place so that’s part of it. But in that moment, I reach a point where I can’t let this go on anymore because the simple sounds of the fight make me feel like I’m going to lose my mind.

Right. First of all, you do have to detach a little bit. What I say to parents is pretend you’re a scientist. And sometimes you can start to look at it differently and suddenly you think of a way to break the fight up without going in and saying, ‘Knock it off, I’ve had enough!’ You figure out, ‘maybe I’ll just invite them in to cook, make carrots,’ or ‘I think they’re just looking for a connection so maybe I can just make this easy on myself.’ Or, ‘I need to get out of the house. Oh, I wonder if I said to the kids “I’m going for a walk, I need some fresh air. Anybody want to come?”, the fight would be over.’

What happens is your mind goes to this: ‘I can’t stand this fighting. This fighting’s got to stop. I’ve got to do something. God damn it, those fucking little hooligans.’ Before you know it, your mouth is going and now you’re part of the fight.

You’re fighting too, right.

Yeah. I’m not very disciplined. I have to write up little things that I can go to and say, ‘Okay, I hear some squabbling. I could wait ’til it gets really bad and I can do what I normally do, which makes it worse. Or, I can look at my list and say, “Can I distract them from this? What if I went in and gave them both a hug and told them I loved them?”’

I’m always looking for the easiest, simplest, fastest solution. I don’t want complicated in my life, particularly with five kids in the house. No! I’m not very smart. I’m a C-minus parent on a good day. Things have to be really simple and they have to work quickly. That’s what I’m trying to share with parents. Listen, don’t complicate the situation. Keep the problem small. Sometimes you do have to detach, but you also have to have thought about what are your other options for getting through those moments.

Finally, how do you talk to parents about not being so critical of themselves throughout this process?

The thing I want parents to understand is this: you are doing the best you can with the information you have. There’s no room for judgement or criticism. You have made the best use of the information you have to raise really great kids and people.

But now you have new information. Use that information to move yourself forward because criticism and judgement pulls you back. As often as you can, forgive yourself and move forward with the new information. It’s not easy to do, but it can be done with a little bit of practice.

I think that’s also part of the culture. ‘If I beat myself up verbally out loud, other people will tell me I’m doing a great job.’ But that’s because our kids are miserable – they’re not telling us we’re doing a good job, so we need to hear it from other people. If the kids were happy and you were listening to your gut and following your instincts, you wouldn’t be so judgmental of yourself. You would know you made a mistake, and you’d correct it, and you’d move on.

That’s so important. Just in general, in life.

Yes, exactly. It’s all about life. Parenting is just a microcosm of the world.