I’m writing this for the young mothers and fathers and for the bright-eyed soon-to-be parents.
These are the most important, helpful, meaningful, actually understandable lessons I’ve learned as a parent.
Please note, though: I’m no parenting expert. First, experience does not equal expertise. Second, I’m still deep in this mess. Our four kids are still not old, in any sense. Our youngest is 9, our oldest newly 14.
I’ve got no “finished product” to show as an example of my parenting wisdom.
But here’s the thing: childhood is short. You don’t have time to get good at parenting. You just have to do it.
We have four summers left with our oldest in childhood mode. Maybe she’ll live with us longer. Maybe she will do college from home or take a gap year and work locally. Nice fantasies, but it’s more likely that she’ll be ready to taste life on her own terms sooner rather than later. Four summers left, then, and this is one of them. And that leads me to the first parenting lesson:
You never feel qualified as a parent.
I’ve been doing this parenting thing for 14 years now, long enough in almost any profession to gain some mastery. A decade and a half is adequate time to gain skills, accomplish stuff, and work your way up in reputation and opportunity.
Parenting is not like that.
Every year your child grows and changes and enters a new phase. Sometimes they don’t even take a year to do it. Sometimes it seems like every month. And every phase of parenting is different. Different needs. Different emotions. Different developmental factors.
Your child changes and you—the parent—must change how you parent, too. If you don’t, you end up parenting your 12-year-old like a 2-year-old, and it won’t work well.
Changing how you parent means, though, that you’re learning all the time. You never master it. Or, you might semi-master one phase only to get launched without warning into the next.
If you can, let go of the need to feel like you’re qualified and improving as a parent, because that feeling may not ever come.
Consistency is your most powerful tool.
Parenting trends come and go. Between the time I gave birth to our first child and our last child, about a dozen trends peaked, all in a frenzy. Then each one subsided and disappeared.
The thing about trends is that they are loud and seem important. The feeling that comes from parenting trends is nothing but FOMO.
But it’s not missing out on some cool fashion or entertainment item: it’s missing out on something that is key and necessary for your kids to be okay and grow into decent human beings.
At least, that’s what it seems like.
But all the noise around trends is nothing more than that: noise. It doesn’t matter, long-term, if your baby watches Baby Einstein or old episodes of MacGyver, or has no screen time at all. It matters that you create a stable, safe, and loving environment for your baby, who will grow into a child.
And the way to do that is not with the newest, best parenting trends. It is with consistency.
Being consistent is tough. Being consistent as a parent requires an iron will. You look into those little eyes and give in. Or you’re tired and frustrated and you give up.
Consistency is difficult, but here’s what I can promise you: it gets easier, and it’s worth the effort.
Here are the three most powerful ways to be consistent as a parent:
- Be consistent with routines.
- Be consistent with your words.
- Be consistent with acceptance.
Be consistent with routines.
Create them. Stick with them. Change them deliberately (when that next phase begins) and incrementally.
Be consistent with your words.
This has two aspects: first, don’t say what you don’t mean.
That means you have to be honest. If you can’t tell your kids something, tell them you can’t instead of making up some bullshit excuse. They know when you’re lying.
Second, stick to what you say.
If you say, “No ice cream after dinner because you were rude at the table,” then buddy, you better stick with it. If you say, “We’ll go see Grandma on Thursday,” then you better do it.
Your children will learn that they can trust your word, and this will make every phase of parenting easier.
Not easy, mind you, but easier.
Be consistent with your acceptance.
Parenting is a long-term game.
You want your child to be healthy, happy, well-adjusted, kind, educated, and all that good stuff. Chances are, they will be turn out to be a beautiful combination of those things (and some other important factors, all mixed up in their own unique flavor).
In the meantime—the hands-on parenting time, the now, the time you’re in— they will be all sorts of things. Some of those things will seem positive. Some will not.
Your child is definitely going to act like an asshole sometimes.
There will be sadness and screaming, boogers and tantrums, bad moods and eye-rolling, messiness and vomiting and so much poop. Your child will give you all sorts of behaviors, from asshole to zany.
Accept them all.
Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement or approval. Acceptance doesn’t mean you let your child do whatever.
Set boundaries. Hold them. But accept that you will have to set and hold those boundaries.
Don’t expect your child to “get it” (whatever it is) and live in some perpetual state of goodness and joy. Nobody is like that. Why do we ask our kids to be like that?
To me, acceptance as a parent looks like this:
- Acceptance of the situation. My child is melting down in the grocery store, screaming and kicking and wailing and so on. I’m embarrassed. People are looking at me. It’s not fun. But here we are, and this is the situation I’m in right now. I can resist it or I can accept it: Okay, this is what I am doing right now.
- Acceptance of the emotions. My child is angry, upset, tired, lashing out, frustrated, confused, hurting, whatever. I can accept that my child has those emotions or try to stifle them. (Pro tip: stifling emotions never, ever works out well.) In the grocery-store meltdown scenario, I can accept that 1) my child is human and 2) humans have emotions and 3) emotions can be difficult and overpowering and 4) right now my child is in the middle of some of those difficult and overpowering emotions. And, oh yeah, I can accept my own emotions, too. I am also human. I might feel angry, embarrassed, upset, frustrated, confused, and overwhelmed, too. This is not bad, this is not wrong, this is not a failure of parent or child. This is real life.
- Acceptance of the options. My child and I are in this situation. My child has feelings. I have feelings. What are the options? It’s generally not a case of right and wrong, or good and bad; it’s simply a different set of limits and consequences with each option. There is no perfect option. So the acceptance needed is that these are the options you have, right now, in this situation. These pros and cons, these trade-offs, this timeline. Once you accept the array of options, you can let go of trying to make it all work out perfectly and choose the best option for you and your child.
Love covers so many mistakes.
Maybe all of them.
There’s a verse in the Bible I thought I understood a long time ago:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8
I thought it meant that God’s love covered all my sins. And I thought it meant that my love for others—like my kids—could give me grace and patience for their mistakes and issues.
But the longer I parent, the more I see it differently.
It’s not about the love of a deity, or about my love for my children. It’s about their love for me.
Their total acceptance of who I am as a person and a parent. Their willingness to move past the times I yell, or forget something important to them, or don’t pay attention. Their kindness when I’m the one being a total asshole. Their love covers my mistakes and makes me better than I am.
Guilt is a useless emotion. It doesn’t steer us right; it steers us toward extremes, toward reacting and compensating. The more I accept love from my kids, the more I can let go of guilt and offer love back instead.
It’s pretty great to be motivated by love and joy instead of guilt and fear.
It doesn’t fix anything.
It just shows you that it’s okay if nothing gets fixed.
A lot of the parenting books I read early on talked about training, rearing, teaching, and guiding our children. It’s taken me a long time to realize, though, that we’re not training our children how to live; we’re showing them.
We’re showing them by how we live—not by the year or the decade, but in the moment. That’s great news, because everything can change in a moment.
Even if this moment isn’t so good, the next moment can be.