“Look, Mom, it’s you!” my son shouts. I look up at the TV to see a female superhero who’s neither sexualized nor in distress and I smile with satisfaction.
“Is that me, buddy? Am I a superhero?”
He doesn’t respond, as he’s already been sucked back into his show. My gratifying moment dissolves. I watch my son’s blank expression, deep in his television trance, and my imposter syndrome triggers me to question: am I doing this mom thing right? Sometimes I truly don’t know.
We’re raising kids in an incredibly complex world, and while I happen to think my parents did a great job raising me, referencing their playbook just doesn’t work in the current environment.
Kids have access to a scope of information, people, and ideas we couldn’t conceive at their age – regardless of our best efforts at parental controls.
They’re making higher stakes decisions earlier in life.
They’re fielding academic pressure from parents, educators, and social media.
They’re interacting with AI, inadvertently preparing for careers that don’t yet exist.
They’re forced to develop social emotional skills in a world where facial expressions are masked and safety protocols dictate how they can play.
Most of the time I’m focused on the here and now, celebrating an on-time morning drop-off, brothers getting along, or just making it through the day. Who has the energy for more? But inevitably I’m reminded that sometimes I need to step back and consider the big picture.
What can I prioritize to help my kids thrive long-term? What’s my role as their mom, and what are my limitations? What are the core values I want to pass on to them?
When I’m maxed out on mental capacity but want to do right by my children, where are my superpowers best served?
Put their mental health above all else. Even academics. I define success for my kids as being fulfilled, happy, healthy and loved, so I try to track my parenting decisions back to that. With this perspective comes challenges stemming from generations of “children should be seen and not heard,” a society that values academics above all else, and being married to a well-educated first-generation Southeast Asian. Yes, I absolutely believe education is important, but the pressure these kids face is not worth the cost to their self-worth. Straight A performance does not predict happiness. The expectation that we can funnel children through an injector mold education system where they all come out equipped for success is unrealistic. It also sets them on a path toward shame, anxiety and depression when they can’t deliver.
What if, as parents, we focused our energy on changing the conversation from grades and scores to more holistic life preparation? From what books they’ll read to what supports are in place for developing problem solving strategies, regulating emotions, and establishing healthy patterns of thought and behavior?
I recently spoke with Dr. Mark Loafman, a family physician who provides physical and mental health care to families in Chicago. He explained a blind spot that’s fanning the fire of academic pressure: “At this time, physician involvement in schools is mostly part-time school nurses and doctors focused on getting injured athletes back on the field. It’s really time to rethink the role of health care in schools. We see the pain families are experiencing as a result.”
Look, I’m not a PTA-mom. I’ve never organized a bake sale or volunteered to be room parent. But I do have a voice in how our school donations are spent. I can pull in the school social worker when I sense my first-grader’s emotional wellness is being overshadowed by reading and math scores. I can guide my boys to set their own goals. What I’m learning is that it doesn’t require a ton of effort to put small things in motion that can make a big impact on their happiness.
Give them all the tools. I never imagined I’d become a mom who’s constantly researching and wrangling resources. But somewhere along the way my kids’ needs escalated beyond the scope of my parenting superpowers. An autism diagnosis inadvertently swept us into the world of early intervention, opening our eyes to the power we hold if we just ask for the right help. I now know that regardless of developmental differences, support from resources like school counselors, social work therapists, and child psychologists can be invaluable to kids navigating this brave new world.
The pandemic has really shone a light on how these childhood infringements have complex and lasting effects. As one therapist who works with our family described, “We’re seeing more and more kids struggling to cope due to movement restrictions, isolation, and extended periods away from family, friends and classrooms. Whether it’s pandemic anxiety or other environmental factors, kids and their families need the additional support.”
The real a-ha moment for me was that we don’t have to wait until our children are in crisis to pull these levers. We can develop media plans before their online personas are out in the world through gaming and social media platforms. We can talk about the importance of mental health earlier than it feels appropriate, the same way we begrudgingly talk about sex and drugs. We can introduce trusted professionals into their lives before their struggles seem too overwhelming to conquer.
Continue working on yourself. Kids learn by example, so I need to walk my talk. For me, it’s important my boys understand that I don’t have all the answers. They need to see that I’m proactively creating opportunities for personal growth and connection, whether it’s eating well and exercising, forcing us out into nature, helping others, or trying new things. Resilience is our path to happiness, but it’s not a spectator sport. There’s a level of accountability involved, and my own journey will most definitely impact theirs.
The small moments of motherhood are indeed special, but I can’t be so focused on the minutia that I overlook the end game. When I visualize my boys as adults walking out our front door and into the real world, I see kind, capable, and joyful humans that approach each new day with tenacity and grit. So rather than doubt and guilt myself for allowing too much screen time or serving chicken nuggets for dinner, I can lean into big picture parenting and feel confident we’ll get there together.