There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect parent,’ says family therapist hoping to build resilience for adults and kids in an age of increasing anxiety

· Dec. 1, 2023, 10:25 am
Craig Knippenberg Family TherapistCraig Knippenberg Family TherapistCourtesy Dr. Craig Knippenberg
Dr. Craig Knippenberg of Denver is a family therapist and author. His new book is "Shame-Free Parenting."

If the perfect mom or dad keeps showing up in your social media feed, making you feel like less than a perfect parent, you’re not alone. Family therapist Craig Knippenberg says the push for perfection is hurting both adults and their children, who are over-protected and under-prepared for the challenges life is throwing at them these days.

“I see some really resilient children and teens thrive and overcome lots of adversity, being very resilient. But I think with the cultural issues we have, (and) with COVID, we have made them fragile,” said Knippenberg. “It's like they're not able to handle things and are just overwhelmed by it all.”

Knippenberg, who lives in Denver, is the author of “Shame-Free Parenting: Building Resiliency in Times of Hardship, Guns, and Social Media.” He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner, who also gleaned some tips on parenting during what can be a stressful holiday season.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Craig Knippenberg Family TherapistCourtesy Dr. Craig Knippenberg

Ryan Warner: I guess as someone who carries around a fair amount of shame, that word stood out to me in the title of your book. Why do you think there's so much shame associated with parenting?

Craig Knippenberg: Well, parenting has always had that. I think all parents for millennia have had some bit of guilt or shame that they're not doing it correctly or they might harm their child in some way, but it's exponentially grown in terms of what today's parents are experiencing. 

Pew Research Center had a study about how today's parents are spending more money on their kids and more time than they ever have, but they feel pressured to do more. And then you throw in the social media ‘perfect parents’  … by the way, perfect parent is an oxymoron, that doesn't exist. That's not possible, nor would you want to be, but that puts even more stress and so the whole judgment against other parents, or they're not doing it the right way, it's just nonstop.

"I think all parents for millennia have had some bit of guilt or shame that they're not doing it correctly or they might harm their child in some way..."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: That's a function of comparing yourself to other parents because of social media?

Knippenberg: Right.

Warner: I think you call them momfluencers.

Knippenberg: Yes. Fortunately I just read recently that there's a new brand of momfluencers, and they're not perfectly dressed up, they don't look like perfection as they're espousing these false myths about parenting. And it's real-life momfluencers, one of whom has had over a million views, and she's in her messy house and in the same clothes she's been wearing, and she's just a regular mom. That's the trend I hope we start to see more of because over the last couple of years it's all the perfect parent syndrome.

Warner: Craig, you write about good enough parents, we've established there's no such thing as perfect parenting, what are good enough parents?

Knippenberg: So we know in the research that if you're inconsistent as a parent with your rules around the house, the children are going to have behavior issues. You have to structure the children. And I used to say, if you can do that 80% of the time –  so let's say your kid left their size 13 smelly tennis shoes out in the living room and they're supposed to be in his room – 80% of the time you march the young man out, ‘Get your shoes out of here,’ 20% of the time, you just do it yourself because you're so tired and you don't want to argue with your kid again. And if you've got a preschooler trying to pick up their toys you know what I'm talking about. But with COVID I redefined it and said, “Just go for 60%,” and if you've got preschoolers, teenagers, 51% is good enough.

What that's based on is that if your kid has an adequate environment, like a road, an adequate road to travel on, and you're a good enough parent shepherding their car down the road, their genetic trajectory is going to take them where they're going to go. There is no research that you could do anything much more than that that would make a difference and your child would all of a sudden be admitted to Stanford or they'd have this fabulous career. It's all pretty much genetic. After you have a good enough environment and you can get through modern culture issues, they're going to turn out to be who they're going to be.

"So we know in the research that if you're inconsistent as a parent with your rules around the house, the children are going to have behavior issues."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: Wow. There's something comforting about that idea. Well, it's so funny to me that we are calling for adequate because there has been such a culture, and I think this is true of my childhood, of the child needing to excel, and maybe the parent feels that as well.

Knippenberg: Yeah, and they're often pushing that on their kid, they need to do all these extra things, get ready for testing, get your application all perfect so you can go to these different schools. That was not there when I was a kid. We were given lots of independence and then you learn to be independent. So one of the issues that I get concerned about is the kids are so dependent on their parents through their cellphones. So anytime they have an issue come up, they immediately call mom or dad to bail them out instead of really learning how to problem solve for themselves or with their peers versus just immediately reaching out to the parents.

Warner: Welcome to my relationship with my mother even today, but okay, Craig, I don't feel too called out here. 

Knippenberg: There is one thing, if I could just mention, in the research they've only found one thing that you could pass on to your kids that would last them the rest of their life. The one thing they found is parental kindness. If parents are kind people, they're kind to the neighbors, they're kind to the grocery workers, they're kind to the people at the restaurant, your kids will pick up on that and they too will become kind adults and that will last for their lifetime.

"In the research they've only found one thing that you could pass on to your kids that would last them the rest of their life. The one thing they found is parental kindness. If parents are kind people, they're kind to the neighbors, they're kind to the grocery workers, they're kind to the people at the restaurant, your kids will pick up on that and they too will become kind adults and that will last for their lifetime."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: Well, that makes me wonder how worried a parent should be when they fly off the handle at their kid.

Knippenberg: Yes. So the first chapter in my book (is titled) “It's Okay to Lose Your Blank Sometimes.” It's okay to yell at your kids sometimes because the modern momfluencers are talking about never yell at your child, you'll hurt your attachment, and all of these myths that are not true at all. For one, strong attachment comes out of having discord and then repairing discord.

The other issue is you have to think of your family's journey and your child's journey through life. It's like this giant stained-glass window, and it's full of all these parenting moments you're having with your kid, and a little piece of glass because you yelled at your child, sure, that doesn't feel good, but that one piece of glass is not going to change your child's trajectory.

Warner: I also think it's so powerful when a parent can say to a child, ‘I was wrong. I have harmed you.’  That in and of itself is a good demonstration of behavior, right?

Knippenberg: Yes. It's showing that none of us are perfect. There's a psychoanalytic concept about the Swiss cheese ego. We're all Swiss cheese. We all have holes. None of us are cheddar. And you can say to your child, ‘I stumbled into one of my holes just like you stumbled into one of yours.’ And when we stumble in our hole, we need to get out and apologize and try to fill the hole up and not go down the hole again.

"There's a psychoanalytic concept about the Swiss cheese ego. We're all Swiss cheese. We all have holes. None of us are cheddar. And you can say to your child, ‘I stumbled into one of my holes just like you stumbled into one of yours.’ And when we stumble in our hole, we need to get out and apologize and try to fill the hole up and not go down the hole again."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: So you've talked about a pandemic of fragility among kids. Will you explain what you mean by pandemic of fragility?

Knippenberg: So mental health rates in teens, of depression and anxiety, have always kind of hovered around 18% every decade and then there was this big increase. Colorado has had some of the highest rates in teen anxiety and depression, and that was during sort of the 2010s. And most people were theorizing, ‘Well, that was social media and this hysteria about getting into the perfect college and all this academic stress on the kids.’ Well, then COVID comes, the rates go up even higher.

Now at some point I'm hoping those rates will come down, but they're still pretty high. All mental health practitioners are overwhelmed with the teens, and they just seem to be so fragile, and I think it's a long-term impact of COVID on them. Just the stress of COVID, the plethora of time they spent on social media, and in my own opinion, the ongoing scourge of school shootings, of just mass shootings in our country. Last spring, a couple of second graders wanted to talk to me about that –  they heard there was a man coming to their school with a gun and he was going to shoot them all. And then they started asking me, “What do they do if they're locked out of the room or if their teacher gets shot?” That trickles down to little ones.

Warner: Goodness.

Knippenberg: That particular one (they talked about ) was at East High School but then everything trickles down on the playground. So maybe a sixth grader hears about it and maybe they have a third grade sibling and they're talking to their parents, now the third grader picks up little bits of it and they're sharing that on the playground too.

Warner: Is it fair to call the kids fragile?

Knippenberg: I don't consider the kids fragile. It's not their fault. I thought about that when I used that phrase, but I do not believe they are. I see kids the same way I always have. I see some really resilient children and teens thrive and overcome lots of adversity, being very resilient. But I think with the cultural issues we have, with COVID, we have made them fragile. It's like they're not able to handle things and are just overwhelmed by it all.

Warner: Yeah, because it did occur to me, is it that the kids are fragile or is it that the environment they're in is so harsh in many ways that no one could help but be fragile in a society where shooting up a school is the norm.

Knippenberg: Yeah, yeah.

Warner: In the face of a culture of violence, of firearms, this is where I always struggle as a host, a journalist, when we have conversations about how to talk to your kids, it's not right to imbue them with a sense of false safety. What's the approach then?

Knippenberg: So statistically, many gun deaths are self-inflicted. And also – I always talk about this with the kids, but it gets harder every year  – school statistically is the safest place you can be as a child. Far more children are injured at home or in the community than they are at school. So their schools have lots of adults, now they’ve all got fences and security cameras, there's eyes on the children all the time. Even at recess, there's playground eyes. There's people keeping an eye on you. So you want the kids to feel this sense of internal safety. But at the same time, we keep getting these attacks on children in schools.

So it's a mix, and you have to inform them of some of this at an age-appropriate level and then give them kind of, ‘Yes, these things are possible, the risk is very low, and this is what we're doing to keep you safe.’ 

But those fears are so big that teens are now wanting their parents to track their iPhones because they're afraid they'll be in a shooting somewhere and they want their parents to know where they are, where to find them. Their brains are designed to move away from the parents and get your life going and go into adulthood, you don't want your parents tracking you, but now they're actually wanting it because they're afraid.

"School statistically is the safest place you can be as a child. Far more children are injured at home or in the community than they are at school."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: You mentioned cellphones, and I'm desperate to ask you about them. If you had your druthers, is there an age at which you'd give a kid a cell phone?

Knippenberg: Well, with our daughter we were going to do sixth grade, like all the other parents, with a smartphone. After seeing what was going on with her classmates, we decided that she would have a flip phone. She was none too happy about it and she got a smartphone when she started high school. And I really like that. There's a support group nationwide called Wait Till 8th, and it's about you wait till eighth or ninth grade to give them a smartphone. 

Warner: What is it about eighth grade that feels magic to you about smartphones?

Knippenberg: You're waiting for brain maturity. All children are different and some can handle things earlier than others and so it's partly based on your individual child. Overall, middle school is that early phase of puberty, and the brain is incredibly vulnerable during that phase of development. It has twice the emotional output as it did when you were in elementary school, very similar to a preschooler's emotional output, and it has half the self-control.

Now, the other big piece that kicks up at puberty is what's called your non-verbal system, and that's the part of your brain that knows how to connect with friends, how to make friends, how to influence others, how to be part of the group, that all is just exploding in their brains. And then when you throw social media into it, it could be bullying, group bullying against one student or people taking pictures of you, a film of your embarrassing moments and posting it online, or it could be doing deep dives into TikTok and finding ways for self-harm or promoting eating disorders. It just goes really deep.

Warner: So the idea is that we are syncing up smartphone privileges with brain chemistry, with brain development?

Knippenberg: Yes, with their brain development.

Warner: Let's switch to a somewhat more pleasant topic, the holidays. The height for a lot of people of course of unrealistic expectations, of stress. Maybe we could start in this realm with gifts, Craig. How do parents not get themselves, to use your word, shamed into giving kids everything?

Knippenberg: Right. I sort of like the system my parents did. They had a set budgeted amount that each child was allowed to have, and there were five of us, so they always spent the same amount of money total. So if you got a bike, that might chew up most of it and you got your stocking. Well, if you had three or four things that were less expensive then you had those and your stocking. So it's really setting a reasonable limit on how much you're going to be getting them.

And then you have to avoid –  you have to think about kids, they love novelty. The brain is wired for new things. And you take them to some event, you take them to the mall, and every kid, they're walking around looking at all those new toys and everything, and what's every kid thinking? “I want that. I want that one too.” And they will tap out your wallet in a heartbeat. So you might even have some set standards around, “Well, we'll see how many gifts you'll be getting.”

What I like is very few gifts from the Santa thing and more family gifts. We draw names as a family, the cousins, and we all give each other a gift, even the little ones participate. And there's only a few gifts, when my children were younger, that were from Santa. It was more about let's think about each other and our family and caring for each other and taking care of each other as a family.

Warner: So ascribing gifts to the man with a beard, it means that there's a magic fount of money and goods, and it doesn't build the idea that that comes from something mom earned and thought about you specifically for?

Knippenberg: Yeah. Right. It's about the relationships in your family, not just the magic of the big guy who will just shower them with everything.

Warner: But you don't eliminate Santa gifts altogether?

Knippenberg: No, we didn't with our kids. I know there are some parents that do.

Warner: Okay, we began by talking about structure and that with some kids if you can be at 51% consistency in structure, you're really winning. Is structure possible at the holidays?

Knippenberg: I think it's possible, but also necessary. The number one would be sleep. Regular sleep schedules as much as you can. Now, if you're taking them to the Nuggets game or the Nutcracker play that starts at 7, that's not going to happen, but if you can try to stick to the routine of a sleep schedule. Sleep's very important for children, and anytime there's a big change in structure for children, they struggle behaviorally.

The last week of school, before the two-week holiday break, it's chaos. They barely get anything done, and there's special parties and all this stuff, and there's no learning going on that week. But then when they come home, they have all these fantasies and things they want to do, of course, and then probably different foods than they usually eat. But if you can stick to some kind of thing around bedtime, and also the idea that you're not there to entertain them all the time when they're off, they have to self-entertain because mom and dad might be working online from home, or mom and dad have to do a lot of shopping and a lot of cooking. There needs to be, “Okay, this is the schedule for today. This is the time you have to entertain yourself, and then we'll be making the cookies and then we'll be going to bed.” Even though it's a different structure, you're trying to provide some guidelines for them.

"Sleep's very important for children, and anytime there's a big change in structure for children, they struggle behaviorally."

— Craig Knippenberg , LCSW, M.Div

Warner: Craig, I have to think that you give this some thought when you write your books, but I don't know that there's a lot of parenting advice that makes me think, “Oh, is that coming from a wealthy parent with a lot of time on their hands who isn't facing economic or time hardships?” My takeaway from most of what you've told us is that this is applicable at virtually every income level.

Knippenberg: For sure at every level. Now, the amount of time you have to do that, you might have to figure out different ways of structuring your child, or even childcare for them if you don't have the money, but it applies to everyone. It really applies just to the basic needs of children.

You care.

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