Everyone who’s had a child—or been around children—has heard a bizarre or unanswerable question, often multiple times a day. Whether it’s about how many drops make up a rainbow or how to drive to the moon, there are times when we can only shake our heads and say simply, “I don’t know.”
Why do kids do this? They’re curious about the world, but that’s not the only reason. As Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget suggests, children aren’t simply “little adults.” Rather, they think in ways that are fundamentally different from ours. The ways they process the world have a different sort of logic than ours, and they often make “leaps” in understanding that move them closer to the adult world.
For example, take a child who likes to disguise himself and pretend to be different animals. He expresses his feelings differently in each costume; for instance, roaring in his role as a dinosaur, or being soft and quiet in his role as a cat. As he tells his mother, he’s not only pretending to be these different creatures; he’s actually becoming them.
How we can learn from kids’ tricky questions
While we aren’t likely to put on dinosaur costumes ourselves, we can take a cue from kids’ behaviors to rethink our own disguises, and our own identities. We can start to become “childlike”–curious about our own assumptions, and open to questioning if there couldn’t be another way.
Clearly there’s no simple fix to many parenting dilemmas, but reframing our mindsets can help. For instance, consider a mom who’s recently come back from maternity leave. Depending on her circumstances, she might feel torn in her identity as a competent professional and the need to be a “good mother” at home: the classic “new mommy” guilt. She might struggle to feel either attached enough to the workplace or attached enough to her child at home, and continually wrestle with the day’s limited number of hours.
Nobody would say that resolving these questions are easy. However, this mom can start to investigate which elements of these multiple identities feel authentic, and which are aspects of herself she can let go. She can also figure out how to match up her expectations for herself with who she actually is. This comes from psychologists’ idea of self-discrepancy theory, developed by Edward Torrey Higgins in 1987.
This theory discusses the many different “selves” we have: for example, our “actual” selves, or who we really are, and our “ideal” selves, or who we aspire to be. When our actual selves don’t measure up to our ideal selves—when we’re not who we’d ideally like to be—we can feel dejected or start to have low self-esteem. When we don’t feel we possess the qualities we ought to, we can start to feel fear or anxiety. Something bad will happen, we start to think. Maybe we’ll get fired, or maybe we’ll have the familiar I’m a bad mother feeling all over again.
While self-discrepancy theory can be applied to anyone, it especially suits many new mothers. We often idealize motherhood in a way that sets us up—when we actually become mothers—for disappointment.[i] That is, we feel a mismatch between our ideal and actual lives. When we don’t live up to our own high standards, or to the standards we imagine others have for us, we can start to feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment.[ii]
While it’s common to feel guilt as a new mom, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Improving the support systems we have around us can help, but we can also reframe our mindsets, steering ourselves away from the “guilt” of parenthood and towards a mindset that we are—and have—enough. Some ways of doing this include:
- Taking five minutes to acknowledge what you do do on a daily basis
- Start thinking in chunks of days or weeks, rather than minutes or hours
- Make a list of your top three values, and underneath each, list activities that are aligned with those. Maybe there is one you can do now.
- When you feel guilty about not doing “enough,” ask yourself questions:
- Why do I feel this way?
- Is there another way to frame it?
- What if I thought differently?
- If I didn’t feel guilty about this, what would I do?
In thriving as parents, and as people, we can become scientists of the dilemmas we face in our daily lives. We can tinker until we find strategies that, as far as possible, prevent meltdowns, and allow us to be the richest versions of ourselves.
[i] See a 2013 article by Dr. Miriam Liss, a professor at the University of Mary Washington, and colleagues in the Journal of Family Studies. In her study of 181 mothers of children under five, she found that mothers who feared “negative evaluation”—that is, who worried about others criticizing them—or who felt a mismatch between their ideal and actual selves were especially prone to feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings, when more than occasional, are worrisome: not only could they affect the mother-child bond, but they also clearly impact a mother’s well-being and mental health.
[ii]As Mary Adams, a pediatric nurse, found in a 2015 study published in the journal Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, some mothers are able to experience this mismatch between ideal and actual selves and adapt, with relatively little negative emotional effects.