If there’s ever a situation you walk into completely blind, it’s parenting. Seriously. There are books and videos and all the advice you could ever need and not want, but (and I hate to sound cliche here but bear with me) until you have a kid you can’t even fathom what parenting is going to be, how you’re going to feel, or the kind of job you might or might not do.
There is a gravity to this responsibility that it deserves, but it doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many extracurricular activities you race them too and from, whether they’re breastfed or formula, organic vegans or reared on McDonald’s and Kraft Dinner, you will fuck up. But you can still do a good job.
I think a lot of moms and dads tend to react in defense. We’re so terrified of our ability to raise our kids that every piece of advice, well-intentioned or otherwise, is met with this immediate need to defend our decisions. Why? Because we feel guilty somehow that someone else is more on the ball and better at this than we are?
Parenting is like Keeping Up With The Jones’s on crack. Why does it have to be like that? Kids just need and want love and attention. I really think everything else, all the other good stuff, the manners and the PhDs… that all follows.
I haven’t been doing this for a long time, but I’m preoccupied you might say because I’m worried about the decisions I make and how they’re going to affect Dylan as she grows. Maybe I care a little too much about what people think of my house or our behaviour when we’re out, but those opinions only matter so far. Dylan isn’t the best-behaved child, but I’m blessed in many respects, and I have to remind myself of that.
I know a lot of you out there – with kids and waiting on them – are wondering if you’re doing parenting right. If you’re at all worried about it, you’re doing it right. That’s the first step, at least. The next steps? Well, they’re a bit harder to take. You have to do what’s right for you (are you sick of hearing that phrase yet?) but ultimately, these realizations will bring you a level of peace and happiness you didn’t know possible (because you have a toddler who runs screaming through the house and doesn’t leave you alone for a second even if just to pee).
BY NO MEANS am I an expert, nor have I a degree and hundreds of hours of book learning behind me. I’m just in the trenches, trying to put into words some of the stuff I’ve figured out while I’m doing this. I’m not perfect – I recently had a huge tantrum, I needed to blow off excess steam. It was a crazy half an hour (no one was harmed in the making of my blowout) but I got to turn it into a teachable moment, showing my kid how to be humble and the importance of communication. So, from one newbie to another, or whatever, here’s 5 things I think every parent needs to do to not suck at parenting:
1) Love your kid(s)
Duh. Love your kids. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. But I don’t just mean love them, I mean LOVE them. And let them know. Tell them, hug them, kiss them, spend time with them. Even if there’s something, anything else in the world you should be or would rather be doing. Take a break from it and spend time with your kids. Those are the special moments they will remember the most.
Maybe also try not to use money and STUFF as a substitute for what children REALLY want, which will almost always, hands down, be your love and affection and precious, precious time. Buying things is fun but you’re not a bank machine, and toys do not lovely memories make.
2) Realize they are people too
Somehow, we have this idea that children are an extension of ourselves. In a way, that’s kind of right. They exist solely because of a miraculous combination of DNA. We birth them, nurture them, and raise them to represent our lineage. But even with all the things we see and claim (“He’s as energetic as his dad!” “She talks in her sleep just like I do!”) they are still, completely and wholly, different from us. Individual little people with their own thoughts and feelings and ambitions and desires.
I know for awhile I would get upset when she wouldn’t do things the way I wanted her to but then I realized, why would she? She can learn from me like we learn from teachers and mentors, but her mistakes and failures and triumphs and successes are not MINE. They are HERS. All her own. In most cases, they are not, at all, a reflection of me and my parenting. And for me, the anxiety around whether I was doing this “right” sort of settled down when I realized this. Like, oh… hey! There is no such thing as “perfect”, just “perfect” for her. It’s these differences that make us so unique and fantastic as a species.
3) Set boundaries
So obviously, you can’t let them do whatever the hell they want. Parenting is about teaching your children right from wrong, of course, and the best way to do that is to set a REALISTIC boundary and stick with it. Example. We have always had a hard time getting Dylan to focus on eating her dinner. Doesn’t matter the routine, if she ain’t in the mood, she ain’t in the mood. Once, dear old dad tried the “Fine, if you don’t eat, you’re going to have to live outside!” tactic. Do you think it worked? Of course not. Her first sentence after that? “I wanna go live outside!” Most kids know a bluff when they hear one and they will quickly call you out on it.
If you don’t want to end up with egg on your face, figure out how to set a boundary that you can stand behind, like no dessert tonight (this works best for us). No television show after dinner. No art tomorrow. Something reasonable that is suitable to the “crime”. I don’t have to explain that boundaries teach children about appropriate behaviour, and are literally enforced to ensure their protection. Without boundaries, you’re going to end up in a situation that you’ll find uncontrollable and also extremely stressful.
4) Do NOT try to be their friends
Kids are great and one day you will have a wonderful relationship where you share every little bit and do all kinds of fun things (we can only hope) but that does not mean you should be their friend while they’re growing up. I am starting to sound like a broken record but children need parents because we teach them right from wrong, how to survive in this crazy world, and how to thrive. They learn by listening, and they learn by doing. You’re a goddamn grown up. Go get your own friends. Share your problems with them, and let your kids be kids.
That said, this kid-parent relationship is a fine balance, and you still want your kids to confide in you, not out of fear of reprisal, but out of respect for your opinion and your wisdom. We really have to work on our ability to LISTEN. Not just to our kids, but to everyone. This is really a lost art, but one we need to nurture in order to have the kind of parent-child relationship we dream of.
5) Realize that you are a human being and it’s okay to fuck up
I think one of the weirdest realizations that we have as adults is that our parents are individual people with their own lives: lives that started before we came into the world and lives that continue when we move out of the house. Oh, you haven’t figured that out yet? Sorry, I’m sure you’ll get there eventually.
I remember when I realized my parents were just people, struggling like I am (before I had a kid, too). That’s about the same time I forgave them for what I perceived as mistakes. They did what they could with the information they had available to them.
Today, we have almost everything we need at our fingertips. To a fault. I had to ban myself from Doctor Google for awhile. We have all the (un)solicited expert advice we could ask for. Our children are going to be miles smarter than we can ever dream to be. And we still seem to really shy away from the reality that we are like poorly planned computer software, prone to error (I’m looking at you Windows updates). We have to stop being so HARD on ourselves about it.
Hey, you. You’re a human. You can fuck up. You can be angry and upset and depressed. It’s what you do with it. (That’s what I tell myself and Dylan, anyway.)
If anyone tells you that what happens to a child while they’re growing up won’t affect them for the rest of their lives, that person needs to be drug out into the street and shot. I’m not trying to put a lot of pressure on you… Okay, I AM putting a lot of pressure on you… but your actions in their formative years really FORM the kind of people they will become when they’re off and on their own. They are soaking up everything you do and say. If there are any behaviours you don’t like about yourself (i.e. you get angry super fast, you talk negatively about yourself too often) now is the time to try to work on that in yourself so you don’t pass that on to your kiddos.
Are you already doing all of these things? Amazing! Pat yourself on the back, you’re a great parent, even if you want to pull your hair out sometimes.
If you aren’t, that’s okay. There’s something about people… we’re fallible. We all make mistakes, to err is human. Be kind to yourself. Be kind in general. You don’t have to be a crunchy granola meditating yoga green smoothie machine. Your kids can watch too much TV or play rough or get in trouble. All you have to do is love them. Make sure they are cherished and protected. Try to teach them to be kind to everyone. Loved kids are happy kids, and happy kids equal happy parents. In the end, I think that’s really what we’re all striving for.