Friday, January 5, 2018

10 Rules for Parenting Without Regrets

What do you mean you have no regrets?
My son just turned 18, so he is no longer legally a child. I feel a sense of accomplishment in reaching this milestone without killing him, or having him kill me. He can vote and get his nose pierced, buy cigarettes and get a full time job, sit on a jury and get married. I celebrate that sudden incursion of liberty.

Feeling introspective, and retrospective, on this auspicious birthday, I put together a list of ten rules for parenting without regrets. These are NOT the guiding lights that kept me on some noble path of righteousness for eighteen years. In fact, if we're going with a "path" metaphor, I have been in the ditch, off the cliff, driving backwards at a dangerous speed with a baseball cap turned around backwards on my head and my grinning face sticking out the window, and sometimes sitting in the middle of the road crying and picking at my cuffs. But having come this far, and making many mistakes, but coming out at the end with a lot of pride in my kid, here are the hard lessons that I've learned:

Can I pet this cow?
#1. Say yes. Even if you are afraid of setting a precedent.

You're at the beach. You're tired and sandy but it's been a beautiful June day, and the kids say, "Can we stop for ice cream?" You want to say yes, because you're not a monster, but you don't want to set a precedent. You won't always have time to go, or dinner plans that allow you to eat later, or cash. Do you want to create an expectation that every time after the beach you'll eat ice cream?

Just say yes. One time isn't every time. Say yes to letting all the neighbor kids in the pool. Say yes to extending your afternoon walk to the harbor so you can take an extra hour to look at boats. Let him wear the costume to church, or empty the whole shaving cream can into the bath. You can say, "It won't be yes every time, but I will say yes this time." Kids can understand this. And probably, you won't get back to the beach for a few weeks. You won't take a walk every day like you plan to. These circumstances won't recreate themselves as often as you think, because of rain, or someone gets sick, or schedules change. So don't let the fear of creating an expectation of "every time" make you say no to "this time." Because it might be the only time.

Three, and acting like it.
#2. Understand that your child is very young. 

I once heard a mom say to her kid, "You're four years old! Act like it!"

To her it meant, "You've reached the advanced age of four! From this austere tower of maturity, let your light of wisdom shine, lo unto all the earth and your two-year-old brother!" But I wanted to say, "Girl! He is acting like he's four!"

I didn't, because her kid was already being a shouty little turd, and the last thing you need in that situation is some holier-than-thou mother wafting in to drop a "Cherish these moments!" on you. But my oldest child at the time was around ten, so naturally I knew that while ten was an age when they could reasonably be expected to be mature and wise, four-year-olds were babies. Now of course when I look at ten-year-olds, they're babies. And I also know that moms of kids in their thirties look at my 18-year-old and think he's a baby. And so on. The point is that whatever behavior is embarrassing and horrifying you right now, there's a mom of an older kid looking at your child and thinking how young he is, and how much time he has to grow out of that behavior.

#3. Parent the child you have, not the child you thought you were going to have.

Buzz Lightyear rejects 19th century novels.
For example, I never thought I would give birth to a child who didn't like reading novels. Without books around me in tottering piles, I suffocate and begin to die. I need them going into my eyes, multiple ones at a time, all the time. I used to genuinely believe that not reading fiction was a form of mental illness. Then I met Dan and married him. My husband reads all the time. But not novels. He hasn't read a novel in years, yet he manages to stay upright, breathe in and out, walk around on the earth, even support a very demanding family. Looking at him, you would never know the blackened sickness that lurks within. I love Dan, but I never thought for a second my children would inherit his distaste for fiction, or as he calls it "a bunch of lies." Yet this is what happened.

For years I tried to pound a love of fiction into my son. I read out loud to the cliff-hangers, and then left the book lying about. No interest. I instituted a no-movie-before-book policy. Didn't care. I bought entire series of the dumbest novels he had any flicker of interest in, such as Warriors and Vampirates. I tried. I broke my head open trying. Not only did he find novels unappealing, he summarily rejected pretty much any form of narrative including all study of history.

And then, one day, I quit. I said to him, "I will still require you to read some novels, because I am your English teacher, but I do not require you to like them. We will keep studying literature and history, but from now on you're allowed to half-ass it. We'll fill up on the stuff that involves lists and maps and bullet points and charts and dates and facts, and glide over the stories." It was awful, but it was freeing. Now he's a B student in history and English. He has more time for math and science which he likes and is good at. He, like my husband, has continued to breathe and walk, and miraculously so have I, even though I am parenting a child who does not like to read books.

Of course this is a frivolous example. Others are parenting children whose very identities violate the cultural and religious norms and ideas they grew up with. But even if you're only frustrated because your kid doesn't like art, or finds hiking dull, or enjoys football, or likes poetry, and it's the opposite of what you thought your kid would be like, I say this: Don't waste another second parenting a child that you don't have. Look at the kid in front of you, see them for what they are, and parent that child. The one that doesn't like sports. Or likes sports so much he wants to go to the Olympics for wrestling. That one. What he needs is important, not what you thought he would need. What she wants matters, not what you thought she would want. You can still like books, or hate football, or go to the mall, or resent gardening. But stop feeling like your way is the only way. In my mind, asking "Who doesn't like reading novels?" was like asking "Who doesn't like civilization?" Some kind of crazy person in the wilderness who eats deer straight from the carcass and hosts lemurs in his armpit hair?

But no. There are all kinds of people. In the genetic lottery you may not produce someone just like you, so deal. Deal faster than I did.

That was a long one. Here's a short one:

Sewing this was hard.
#4. Do the hard thing.

Most things that are worth doing and have a high positive impact on our kids lives are a pain in the ass.  So drive endlessly. Pay vast sums. Spend a lot of time. Learn new skills. Talk to people you don't want to talk to. Work with people you don't want to work with. Doesn't matter if it's hard. You do not want to look back and say "Well, we had this opportunity, and it would have been great, but I did not want it to cut into my day that much, or it would have been too much of a learning curve, or I didn't know how to do that, or I didn't feel comfortable putting myself out there." Parenting is one hard thing right after another. Some of them, you will pass by, and that's ok. You can't do everything all the time. But some of them you will need to dig in and do, for your child. If you get through with parenting and you've never done anything that made someone say, "I could never have done that!" while you're thinking "If you had to, you could" then you've passed some opportunities by that you will regret. Do the hard thing.

#5. Whenever possible, shut up.

I love lecturing. Lecturing is my jam. Sometimes I even get paid to do it, when I'm talking about how to create tension in a scene. I also have some great parenting lectures for my kids. For example, I love my "What Slimy Pit-Monster Lives In a Room that Smells Like This" or my "When I Was Your Age I Wanted Things! And I Made Schedules and Lists and Worked Hard to Get Them!" or my old favorite "Do You Want To Be the Kind of Person Who Turns In Work This Sloppy?" I find that my lectures wander from criticizing specific behaviors to general indictment of the child's character, and on to comparisons with my own virtuous childhood, and sometimes all the way to declaring, "I give up!"

Pictured here not listening at all.
My children have let me know that these lectures are not that effective. They've noted that when I repeat myself seventeen times, each time with a different metaphor or anecdote from my own childhood, that the intended effect diminishes significantly. They've even sometimes made the humorous gesture of finishing my sentences for me as I say them. As if they already know what I intend to say.

So now my rule is that as soon as it is possible to shut up, I do.

There are two reasons. One is that the lecturing is not effective. You're old, you're wise, you understand these things, and they're young, and foolish, and they don't. You're not going to lecture them into understanding. Even if you include many clever analogies. I've tried this. It doesn't work. The other reason is that because lecturing will not produce understanding, and you will feel frustrated, and need to lecture harder. Then you will work yourself into saying negative things. Things that will ring out like bells through the years. The children will not change their ways because of the length of a lecture, but they will never forget the terrible things you never meant to say when the lecture started. They will remember those things with blistering clarity.

Don't you remember every horrible thing your parents said to you? What is wrong with you? You're not smart enough to do that. You'll never be an artist. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You are the devil's child, sent from the fiery depths of hell to torment me on this earth. Stuff like that. Don't put those things in their ears. Say what you know you want to say, and then shut up as soon as possible.

That random tissue paper glue thing is so great, baby.
#6. Be your child's biggest fan. 

On occasion, you will have to criticize and correct your child. But as often as you can, make the choice to be a frothing, irrational geyser of praise. Defend them to the hilt. Believe them even when it's foolish. Emulate that lunatic on reality television that won't let anyone say anything bad about her little girl. Lots of people in this world will want to criticize your baby, and you don't always have to be one of them. Don't we all deserve to have that one person who thinks the world of us, who has never known anyone more wonderful, more adorable, more interesting, and more talented? Be that person for your kid. I know that coaches aren't supposed to give them trophies for trying, but their moms still can, surely?

Don't lie. Don't praise bad behavior. But don't always feel like you have to temper your praise or keep it reasonable. It's okay to say to your child that you think they are the greatest in the world. Gush and foam about your kid sometimes, and let them hear you do it. You are the parent. Let them know they are your favorite, and that home is a safe place, a happy place, a place where people think you're great. They do not need to know that mom is being realistic about how good they are at dance, or that mom is just being honest about their appearance for their own good. Let other people do that. You be fanatically positive. Only in recent years have I had the good sense to admit to my kids, "I thought you were the very best" without qualifying it. I wish I had come to that way sooner.

#7. Show your child the dark parts of what it is to be human.

You will cry. You will lose your temper. You will make mistakes.

You are a working model of a living human being, on permanent display in your child's world. When they're young, you're all they know. If they don't see you cry, if they don't see you mess up, and lose your crap, and do wrong, then they'll never see you stop crying, and fix your messes, and restore order to your brain, and correct the wrong. If they never see you in pain, they never see it's possible to recover.

If you're living a perfect life of peace and sanctity in front of your children, because you want to shield them from the sadness you feel, or the anger, or the mistakes you have made, then know that you are also stopping them from understanding how to get through those hard and strong emotions, and recover from mistakes. Fight in front of your kids, and make up in front of them. Share your sadness over death, and let them see the aftermath, how you struggle and how you overcome it. Because they, for sure, will NOT be able to live that perfect peaceful life. They will throw fits and they will screw up and they will be horribly sad and they will fight. They need a model for this behavior as well as for all the good stuff like being kind and showing compassion and patience and all that. They almost need it more.

This one now has a cell phone.
#8. Don't promise or threaten what you can't deliver. 

This one is hard, because it eliminates the possibility of shouting, "I'm coming up there, and if you're not actually doing math, I'm going to murder you in your face with an ax!"

Because I can't actually murder him in the face with an ax, I shouldn't promise that. I get that. But I also won't REALLY cancel his birthday party, or make him stay home from something when I've already bought tickets, or take away her phone for a year. Where it's possible, keep your promises simple and attainable, and your threats reasonable. If I'm constantly asking my children to doubt me, and question whether I really mean what I say, I'm asking for a world of trouble when I do lay out consequences I mean to enforce, because they're going to question those too, with good reason. In a perfect world, consequences would be clear, and ruthlessly enforced, both good and bad. However, sometimes the good consequence can't happen for some reason, and sometimes the bad one was really much too bad, on reflection.

It's important to remember that if you've made an unreasonable threat, or a promise you can't deliver, it is okay to apologize to your child, and explain what happened. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have threatened to throw your Christmas presents into the fire one by one. That would have been crazy. I am not going to do that. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said we could go to Paris for your sweet sixteen. We like making our car payments too much. Etc. It's ok to recover from this by bringing in clarity and honesty, even late. But it's better to keep it simple from the beginning, and not wave around idle threats and bribes.

Eat candy, learn science.
#9. Take your children's social life as your responsibility. 

This is hard. It takes time and driving, and opening your door, and constantly stocking your refrigerator and pantry. It might also take maintaining a pool, having a game room, buying a house with kid hangout spots. Maybe it's going to church when you don't want to. Maybe it's making sure your kid is neck deep in a sport that they love where there are similar obsessed children. You may have to go to ComiCon or host band practice. You may have to finish the basement and then lay in Doritos and Mountain Dew and buy a Playstation. You may have to travel with the volleyball team. You have to pick up and drop off endlessly, and coach a team, and teach a class, you have to fill up your van with children, all the time, and you have to care about those children too, and befriend them. You will be glad to do all of this for your child. Some kids naturally seek and find friends and it all flows easily and you don't really have to do much. Some kids need the help. Take it upon yourself to do this work, and spend this time.

They weren't as close to the precipitous drop as they appear.
#10. Do your best.

There are two parts to this final rule. First, and most importantly, you have to know what your best actually is. Your best won't look the same as any other mother or father's best, and trying to do someone else's best will either disappoint you or break you in half. Maybe your best includes fewer trips and more books. Maybe your best involves less money spent but more play time spent. So you have to experiment, and reflect, and adjust, and figure out with brutal honesty what your best really is. Be serious with yourself, and figure out your limits, and how much you can do and stay healthy and cheerful.

Then do that. All of it. Don't stretch yourself to exhaustion, but go hard. Don't let yourself down by under-performing. In this season of your life, parenting is your most important job. Do it at maximum volume, top speed. Put everything you have into it, and nothing less, ever. One of the biggest reasons to regret what you've done as a parent is the feeling that you haven't done enough. But that finish line is a disappearing target, and we're always reaching for where we could have done more, spent more, etc. Figuring out how you're calibrated is hard, and takes a lot of soul-searching, but it's worth the time. When you figure out how your knobs work, you know what it means to turn them all the way up. And you can't expect yourself to go past that. Even if you're one of the ones that "goes to eleven."

I'm sure I'm forgetting some "rules" I meant to include. As I wrap this up, I find myself wondering what my children will think of this list. Probably, "Mom, you don't follow those rules!" And that's true. I do disappoint myself, and let them down. I fail often, but sometimes then I triumph, and figure something out, and make progress. I take it seriously because I owe it to them and I love them. So here I give you my attempt at a protocol. May it help you a little bit.


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  2. I've been noticing lately how good you are at doing this parenting thing at maximum volume and top speed. Excellent advice here. I am SO GOOD at #1 and SO BAD at #5!

  3. I did actually follow through on a threat once and make us stay home one time when we already bought the tickets. That was painful... for me. $$$

  4. Veronica PorterfieldJanuary 8, 2018 at 6:10 PM

    Thank you for these words, and for your example, which continues to inspire me even as our kids reach adulthood <3

  5. Thank you. My kids are 25 and 23 and I feel pretty accomplished. Both have jobs and are on their own. But sometimes I wonder did I do enough. After reading this, I feel like I did pretty well, including staying at the beach until the sun set and letting them swim in a cold NH lake on a windy April day and telling them it was like being at Cape Cod. Lots of fun and challenges, but worth every minute.

  6. Great advice, and the tone is a not so subtle reminder to have fun with it all.

  7. Thank you for these words, and for your example

  8. Thank you for these words, and for your example

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