Yes, you can be a too-good mother

2011-04-08 00:00

BEING a good mother is all about meeting your children’s needs, always being there for them, jumping to comfort them when they’re crying or hurt. Helping them every step of the way. Right? Actually, no. Not unless you want to come dangerously close to overmothering your children.

But how bad could that be? I hear you asking. Surely being too good a mother can’t be a problem? Think again. A Pretoria court recently ruled in favour of a divorced father wanting custody of his overweight and overmedicated 11-year-old boy.

The judge took the advice of an educational psychologist who said that the mother was “overmothering” the child by, among other things, being unable to manage the child’s weight problem and taking him for unnecessary doctor’s visits.

Although many people talk about overmothering, psychologists prefer the term “too-good mothering”, which was first used by English paediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. He warned that paying too much attention to a child’s needs could damage the child’s emotional development.

Winnicott stated that mothers who “do all the right things at the right moments” are, in fact, severely harming their children, causing the children to regress permanently or later on, reject them.

He famously said: “A mother who fits in with a baby’s desires too well is not a good mother.”

Huh? Surely that can’t be right? But Bellville clinical psychologist Hugo Theron says that it is important for children to begin meeting their own demands — and for parents to know intuitively when to let this happen. This may begin very early on, like when a baby becomes frustrated in reaching for a toy. Don’t be tempted to give it to him or her, but encourage the child to find a way of getting it.

As Theron points out, the problem is that many parents are unaware of what they are doing, thinking they are doing the right thing when the opposite is true. He mentions for instance, a working mother buying toys or sweets for a difficult child in a supermarket at the end of a long day. Giving in to the child’s demands makes the guilty mother feel better and pleases the child in that moment, but there may be long-term consequences to these small, seemingly harmless acts.

Parents often don’t realise that in all of their actions there are messages that are being sent to their children, even their babies. By doing everything for them, you could be telling your childreneither that you don’t trust them to do something, or that you think they are unable to do it by themselves. This could lead to children becoming overly dependent on their parents, insecure or passive, or could lead to acts of rebellion later on. Overmothered children may also reject their parents completely, much to the horror of the “good” mother. Overmothering or too-good mothering is especially problematic in homes where there is an absent father.

In terms of their long-term development, overmothered children may remain immature and be hampered in their development with their mothers. They may be slow to speak and have difficult relationships, not only with their mothers but with others, says Juliet Hopkins in her article: TheDangers and Deprivations of Too-good Mothering.

The moral of the story seems to be to let your toddlers and children become frustrated, angry and upset sometimes — to allow them to see your displeasure when they do something wrong and let them “make it up to you” again — a crucial exercise, which teaches them empathy, says Hopkins.

Putting it all into perspective, Theron says that parents should aim to provide the scaffolding while letting their children do the actual building themselves: “Be present, but don’t do everything for the child. Be a bit like a life coach.” — Parent 24.com

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