Few behaviors are as triggering as someone suggesting bad parenting — your bad parenting. Perhaps a co-worker innocently wonders whether you ever cook homemade meals for your kids, or a teacher’s email suggests that all kindergarten parents chaperone field trips.
You think, “Ugh, I’m a horrible parent.”
Rather than looking at these incidents as infuriating, now you can look at them as productive: They probably make you a better parent, says a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Researchers from five U.S. universities tracked parents and found that after perceived workplace slights about their parenting (in psychology lingo, those are “threats to parent identity”), participants invested more time and effort in parenting.
It works like this: Say a manager makes an offhand comment that threatens your sense of yourself as a parent. It may well be fairly mild, such as an earnest inquiry: “Don’t you read with your kids daily?”
“The interaction just makes you start to question: Am I a good parent?” says co-author Rebecca Greenbaum, of Rutgers University. Why don’t you read with your kids every single day?
“You’re dissatisfied with yourself,” says co-author Marcus Butts, at Southern Methodist University. This is not a bad thing. Humans are hardwired to want to feel good about the roles that we care about, and we instinctively protect those identities with a burst of action, the researchers explain. Perhaps you sign up for a weekly activity with your kid, or start cooking dinner with the kids once a week. And you pull back from work.
The effect is immediate. The study found that when participants’ parenting was questioned, they felt more shame that day, did less work and spent more time with their families.
The researchers have some advice for avoiding this cycle of guilt and shame.
Expect to sometimes feel like a bad parent. It’s OK and normal. “There are potential benefits to shame, right?” says co-author Cynthia Wang, at Northwestern University. “It does lead you to focus more on your kids and invest more time in parenting.” She suggests allowing yourself to feel all the feels, while trying to draw productive energy from them. Being a perfect parent is, well, impossible, and you don’t want to shame yourself for failing to achieve the unachievable. Did the comment call to your attention an actual failing, or was it just someone preening about their own fabulous parenting?
See your friends. You already know that family and friends matter, but this time the argument is psychological: “Friends can allow you to look at situations more positively, and reappraise,” says Wang. For example, when you’re telling yourself that you’re a no-good useless parent, a friend might intervene and provide perspective. Your own mind can’t provide the same service.
Get therapy. The study found that those who are most rocked by these seemingly harmless incidents are more emotionally unstable, and feel more ensuing guilt and shame. It’s unpleasant. Butts suggests avoiding this cycle by accessing whatever therapy, medications, mindfulness programs or other resources help you stay cool in stressful situations.
Zoom out. When you feel like a bad parent, step back from your emotions. Big picture, it’s OK to not be on Perfect Parent duty every day. “In life, we always have a limited amount of resources,” says Greenbaum. “Day-to-day, it’s OK to shift our attention — maybe you need to up the ante at work one week, and the kids don’t get as much attention for a few days.” You’re a parent, not a martyr.
The researchers, by the way, knew to look into this subject because they have firsthand knowledge. “We all have kids, and all our kids play together,” says Wang. “Working and trying to manage both work and parental roles can be very challenging. It was important to us to understand this dynamic.” Mission accomplished.
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