As a pediatrician, many friends, family, and even patients would frequently discuss how great of a dad I must be since I “knew everything about kids.” Little did they know that residency only taught me how to intubate my child; I never learned how to help them eat at the table, deal with tantrums in the store, or keep my cool when my kids would talk back to me. (Granted, intubation may be a good fix for a yelling toddler.) I felt like I should know how to handle all these situations and more. I should be the perfect parent.
Let’s face it. We expect to be perfect when we become doctors. We had to be perfect in college. Be perfect on placement exams. Be perfect in medical school. Be perfect in residency. Failure was not an acceptable circumstance. When we fail at parenting, it is easy to take a negative outlook on our situation and remain in those self-loathing mindsets for days.
When I started my journey on embracing my imperfections as a parent, I quickly dug deep into parenting books, blogs, and podcasts. There are plenty of parenting books out there; however, many of these treat our experiences as the same: This is how you do potty training; this is how you start solid foods; this is how you discipline. They are very much a “one-size-fits-all” type of parenting fix, and in many situations, they did not discuss the core issue at hand – my mindset and how it was significantly affecting how I parented my kids.
Our brain is the machine that drives us. Not only does it help us live, but it creates the routines of our daily lives. You may not recognize it, but everything you do in your day is based on a routine: the patterns after you wake up in the morning, the way you drive to work, the foods that you eat, and how you respond to your kids when they are misbehaving.
Everything you do is a programmed system of thoughts that leads to certain feelings and actions in your body, which become easier and easier to do the more you do them. For example, you may have always said you would be the dad that never yells. Then came the one time that you let your voice go. Mine was when our older son kicked my then-pregnant wife in the stomach (he was 2 years old and didn’t understand, of course). You may have felt guilty after this occurred (yep), but then the next time something happened, you yelled again. Then again. As the pattern continued, your reaction to yell became easier and easier, and now you can’t remember the time when you weren’t yelling at your kids. This pattern of yelling out of frustration is a learned pattern. Initially, your brain was resistant to do it; now that the pathway has been paved, it becomes easier and easier to reactively choose that response.
On the flip side, if you train your brain to respond to conflict with calm, understanding, and peace, this not only helps you as a dad respond to negative situations, but it also inherently trains your child to do the same. Your child will also not be so scared to fail in front of you in the future.
The brain is pliable and can be molded once you know how to do it. It will fight you at first. Any time you try to change up a routine, it feels awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes impossible. Ask any patient with anxiety or depression. Maybe you have dealt with these in your own life. The overwhelming dread of negative feelings take over everything, and getting out of that mindset sometimes feels unobtainable.
The same can be said about our mindset at work. When we get down about our patients, administration, work hours, or unfinished charts, our brain frequently responds negatively to outside circumstances. As this pathway becomes more easily accessed, those negative responses occur with even more situations, including talking to our coworkers, spouse, or kids. Unless we control our mindset involving work, it may be even more difficult to improve our mindset at home with our kids.
When you grab that next parenting book, ask yourself one question: What is it that I am directed to that circumstance?
Jeremy Toffle is a pediatrician who blogs at Imperfect Dad MD.
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