I am not a great morning dad. Getting my kids ready for and off to school stresses me out. I look for my son’s pants (found in his drawer) as I mutter into my coffee cup. I tell my daughter who is yelling at me from upstairs that her breakfast is ready. With precious few minutes to go before we need to get in the car, I can become a manic impostor of my better self.
At a time when the books “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” and “Bringing Up Bebe” are grabbing headlines for their portrayals of uber-effective parenting, my book title is “Dad Needs Coffee More Than You Need Pants”, or “Ignore my Morning Whimpering and Please Ace that Math Test”.
Publicity-burnished models of parenting can be inspiring (more the Michael Landon father figure on Little House on the Prairie than the Tiger Mom, for me); we can strive for the ideal, but what we see offered up on TV or in best-selling books can also be defeating if we feel we’ll never measure up.
Fortunately, I have a realistic sense of where I stand in my parenting skills, and I know that I am not alone in having bad days. There are other grumbling coffee-clutchers in my circle of friends, just as there are those who are graceful and naturally kind in the morning. We share our stories. We laugh, we learn a few new techniques here and there---but perhaps most importantly, we come to understand when it comes to parenting just how normal we are. I mean this in the best possible way. Most of us are not 100% on our A-game every day. We do our best. We make mistakes. We learn. We move on.
Understanding what is normal behavior is crucial not only to peace of mind, but it also helps determine how we act. In the prevention field, we see this phenomenon in the social norms approach, an environmental strategy increasingly used in public health campaigns.
The social norms approach is based upon the belief that individuals incorrectly perceive that the attitudes or behaviors of others are different from their own, when in reality they are similar. It is largely because individuals assume the most memorable, often extreme, behavior is representative of the behavior of the majority. This assumption may lead individuals to adjust their behavior to that of the presumed majority. This effect has been verified for substance abuse and other destructive health behaviors, notably on high school and college campuses, but also within communities in general.
Prevention practice relies on assumptions. If we highlight the positive behaviors of the majority---the great number of teens who don’t drink compared to the smaller number who do, say---we color the perception of what it means to be normal. When kids understand that NOT “everybody is doing it,” they have a better foundation from which to say “No” to drugs and alcohol.
As for our family, luckily my wife is great in the morning. My kids know that I’m not at my best before school—but they also know that I will be fully there for them in the afternoon and evening. Play time, homework, dinner, bed time… Dad’s all over it.