In my work with parents, I've encountered an abundance of defensiveness. Parents often feel the need to vociferously defend their parenting choices. Yet just pointing out to other parents that they are defensive probably wouldn’t help, and here’s why: people likely feel defensive because they’re parenting the best they can, but they are struggling. Most of us get defensive about something having to do with our children at one time or another. There are a few common reasons why we get defensive about our parenting, and knowing them helps us to remain open and supportive.
1. WE'RE PARENTING ON AUTOPILOT
Parents are defensive about their choices when they have no idea why they made them. How much thought do most of us put into how we intend to raise our children? When I was pregnant with my son, I spent hours reading about pregnancy and childbirth. It was only after he was born that I realized I hadn’t read a single book about infant care or parenting. We make intentional decisions about so many aspects of our lives, but most of us choose to parent on autopilot. We content ourselves with parenting the way we were parented, whether it was healthy and effective or not. What if we thought critically about the values we intend to impart? What if we approached parenting like any other passion we pursue: with verve, purpose, and humility?
2. WE VIEW OUR CHILDREN AS AN EXTENSION OF OURSELVES
As Dr. Shefali Tsabary astutely observes, “Many of us fall into the trap of allowing our sense of worth to become entangled with our children’s behavior.” When my son was a toddler, I took personal responsibility every time he yanked a toy out of another kid's hands. Typical toddler behavior became proof that I was failing as a parent. Any suggestion for how to address this behavior was met with defensiveness since it was obviously a critique of my ability to parent effectively. There’s no such thing as the perfect parent. By striving for perfection, we miss the authenticity of recognizing and learning from our mistakes. We miss the chance to model humility for our children. What message do we send when we are hell bent on perfection? That not only do we expect perfection from ourselves, but we expect it from our children as well.
Our kids are whole, complete beings separate from us. They are their own people with their own ideas and their own desires. Sometimes we’ll be proud of their choices, and sometimes we’ll be disappointed in them. Regardless, it isn’t our job to mold them into the people we think they should be. Assuming their choices are a reflection of us as people is dangerous. Our children may choose a career path we don’t value or a religion we don’t condone. When we assume every decision has to do with us, we take our children’s life choices very personally.
3. WE OPERATE FROM AN EXTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL
Often we think something is being done to us rather than our life being a series of moments in which we make decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example, I have worked with several women who chose to formula feed for a variety of reasons. One mama chose to formula feed because she was a single mom who worked full-time and had twin baby boys along with an older special needs child. She knew she would be spending up to 13 hours a day away from her babies, and she decided formula feeding was the best choice for her family given these many factors. She made this decision intentionally and never felt the need to apologize for it.
On the other hand, I also worked with a woman who weaned her son when he was a few months old because her bipolar disorder was worsening, and she needed to stop waking at night to pump. Protecting her sleep was the single most important thing this mama could do for her mental health, and by extension her family. Yet she felt she had no choice and took any mention of breastfeeding very personally. This mama became defensive because she felt powerless. If she had felt empowered by her informed decision to wean, recognizing it as a healthier choice than risking a worsening manic episode, she could feel confident in her decision.
4. WE'RE INSECURE AND FEEL SHAME
Researcher Brene Brown describes shame as a “...web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be.” She also points out, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” We may be afraid of feeling vulnerable and instead choose to react to our shame with defensiveness. When we're steeped in shame, we can’t admit that we might need support or education. That level of vulnerability feels unsafe and unobtainable. Yet it's also the only antidote to shame and its accompanying defensiveness.
5. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Sometimes we know what we’re doing is wrong. Our behaviors are contrary to our beliefs and values, and that makes us very uncomfortable. This state causes stress and thus defensiveness. For example, a parent may not believe in spanking, but she feels overwhelmed and resorts to using punishments she doesn’t actually condone. When we judge ourselves, we’re apt to see judgment everywhere.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
The best way to avoid becoming defensive is to remain mindful. Having a greater awareness of our triggers and emotions means we can begin to observe when we react in a knee-jerk manner. When we can identify our bubbling emotions and name them, we can choose a different reaction. Recognizing our defensiveness and choosing a different way means making peace with our vulnerability.
When we observe defensiveness in others, it's not our job to tear down their walls. These situations call for increased empathy. We may be seeing a small snapshot of a complex life we can't begin to understand. We can best support each other when we remember that parenting is difficult, and we're all in this together.