People choose to take on the role of full-time parent, long or short-term, for all sorts of reasons. People are also lured back to their careers for all sorts of reasons; money, boredom, stage of life, morning teas. One important reason that I think is not discussed or acknowledged enough is the basic human need for compliments.
Children are generally not great at delivering positive feedback. The meals I deliver day in and day out to my boys are always critically evaluated. As they chew, they hold their little fists out perpendicular to their bodies like mini Caesars of Rome. My teeth clench, my eyes widen in anticipation and my heart sinks as their little thumbs plunge downwards. Sometimes I am rewarded with a horizontal thumb and very occasionally I get one that briefly hovers around 10 o’clock before settling back at the 9. My dancing is the subject of derision and scorn, Monty now thinks I am only the third best Lego builder in the house (he is not right about that) and last month Milo said I look ‘okay’ but I would be much better looking if I had hair.
As for adult feedback, I assure you the only time adults-in-public ever notice your parenting is when your child has opened a box of spaghetti and is making pasta angels on the floor of aisle 3, or when they hold up the ice cream queue by asking for 5 samples, including the rainbow twice… just to be sure.
No, during the day your moments of parental pride are almost always achieved alone. Yes! Negotiated Milo’s birthday party list down by 4 without causing any playground fallout. Yes! Managed to brush Monty’s hair while convincing him it will not impact his long-term ambition to have dreadlocks. Yes! Convinced Milo for the 7th straight week to go to Coding Class while he begged for a week off only to hear what a great time he had afterwards. Yes! Super-glued Monty’s water bottle lid back together for the 3rd time. Yes! Found and returned 12 Minecraft books to the library the day before they are overdue. Yes! Resolved an argument over the last banana by eating it myself.
Fist bumping yourself gets boring, and your knuckles get sore.
The workplace has all sorts of structures and systems in place to ensure people are regularly given feedback and praise for their work. Admittedly these compliments are often bland and meaningless, but that steady, nurturing flow can usually be relied upon in some form, and it is good for morale. But expecting or delivering compliments for positive, creative, effective or just brave parenting is largely taboo. Parenting is seen as an expected, almost universal skill, and the day-to-day grind of its execution nothing remarkable. To receive thanks or acknowledgement is one thing. But to receive a compliment for your skill or perseverance is, I think, something else altogether.
Last week I was standing at the supermarket check-out with Monty, loading our groceries onto the conveyor and discussing the relative merits of chicken wings versus chicken thighs, while I simultaneously rebuffed his varied requests for chocolate, Chupa Chups and New Idea Magazines from the evil end-cap of temptation. Mid-load I looked up at the 18 year old check-out chap, who was sporting a nice wispy moustache and a passive expression (as is the style du jour), to say hello and without warning he said to me “you’re a really good dad.”
“Thanks” I said. But, caught off guard, I had teared up a little. He noticed this, found it weird, and we continued the rest of the transaction in silence. But his compliment had lodged itself in my cerebral cortex, and was perhaps more resonant than any I have received during 20 years of structured feedback sessions in the office. As Monty and I walked back to our bicycle, I squeezed his hand and grinned.
Parenting is confusing, confounding, confuddling and sometimes even contorting. It is a constant work-in-progress, with each day filled by numerous little wins and a roughly equal number of little losses. It is generally impossible to know if you are winning. I think therefore that when we witness good (or even slightly better than competent) parenting we should all be more comfortable delivering compliments; to friends, family and to strangers with children in the airport security queue. Especially to strangers with children in the airport security queue.
All humans need compliments; and perhaps at certain moments white-knuckled, solo child-wranglers need them more than most. So, if an opportunity arises, be free and loose with a parental compliment. It will be more impactful than you think.