Written by The Dad
This post isn’t a direct response to those articles as much as it’s a record of everything that went through my head after reading them.
PART 1 – I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING
My toddler daughter didn’t want to do the thing. I told her she needed to do the thing, but she wasn’t having any of it. I was exhausted and impatient and really didn’t want this fight, but I knew I had to see it through. I explained to her the importance of doing the thing in terms to which I thought she could relate. Nothing. I ordered her firmly. No go. I threatened her with some sort of punishment which I can’t remember now. She got furious. She scrunched her face and reddened. She stomped her feet (where did she learn to do that?) and screamed at me. Complete hurricane.
“She’s not usually like this,” I thought to myself. Why all the fury? How hard could it be to just do the thing? “What is wrong with her?”
I realized nothing I was saying was even getting past her ears and I was completely lost. “What’s wrong with ME!?” I’d had a long day already. My brain didn’t want to deal with this.
I just sat down on the floor.
Isn’t it weird that despite people having offspring for thousands of years nobody knows raise them? People have been raising kids forever, yet every single parent feels like they’re doing something that’s never been done. All the un-requested advice, memories of childhood and an entire section at your local bookstore can’t prepare you for having to do it yourself.
At least that’s how I feel.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Kids Are Insane
Kids are completely nuts; that’s the problem. I blame them.
It seems like no two kids are alike. Kids are like little snowflakes…irrational, erratic, yet lovable snowflakes. This uniqueness, while endearing, makes parenting feel like throwing darts at moving targets in the dark. Just when you’ve figured out one kid (temporarily) the next kid comes along with a completely different take on reality and you have to reassess your parenting philosophy as if you’ve never had one. Hitting the metaphorical target one time seemingly has no bearing on whether you’ll hit it or any other targets again.
Kids don’t think like adults. Their little worlds, the worlds in their heads, are completely different than ours. My daughter once asked with all sincerity if we could go to a local big box retailer to buy some pixie dust so she could fly. I’m just glad she didn’t try to fly without it.
Maybe I should say: They don’t think, like adults. Most of the time kids don’t know what they want. The problem is that adults don’t know what they want either. We want what’s best for our kids – we’re pretty sure of that – but what exactly that is and how to get there is a mystery.
The Right Way to Parent
I don’t believe there’s a single right way to parent.
Parenting hasn’t been optimized by science or experts, nor will it ever be. Of course, books are written every few minutes claiming otherwise. Psychologists, teachers and condescending radio show doctors can bring all sorts of advice about the latest, greatest parenting methods, but give it a year and that latest, greatest advice will be antiquated by new latest and greatest advice. And this time we’ll know, right?
For every book, article or blog post about how parents need to be more strict and regimented there’s another book, article or blog post about how parents need to relax and be less controlling. Both sets of advice are always paired with dire warnings about the end state of your child. All of the advice focuses on disgust with the present state of parenting and offers corrections for a hopeful future. None of the advice seems to look at the past. What has worked, and more importantly why? I know many families with at least one crazy kid and one perfect kid, both of whom were parented the same way as far as I can tell. What would those parents tell you? I already have two kids of my own who respond markedly different, given the same command or incentive. Any parenting advice I read or hear has at best about a 50% chance of being useful to me.
There may be a wrong way to parent but if you’re trying your best to parent out of love for your child I’d have a hard time saying you’re doing it wrong. I’m definitely not going to point fingers. Given that it’s so hard to get parenting right, it always strikes me as odd when experts diagnose certain parenting techniques as “wrong”, especially when the criteria for rightness seems to be “perfect obedience of children whom the expert doesn’t have to deal with once the study is complete.”
My primary goal isn’t perfect, obedient kids.
Before you weep for my generation let me explain: Of course I want perfect, obedient kids, but how is success measured? If I use perfection and unwavering obedience as metrics for parenting success I’m pretty sure I’m going to be disappointed a lot. Then I’d be frustrated a lot. Then I’d have to discipline my kids more harshly. Notice that this scenario hasn’t addressed why the kids aren’t perfectly obedient, it’s simply concerned with the fact that they aren’t. That’s about as far as even the most well-meaning advice goes. And yet if I follow that manner of thinking I’ll no doubt be disappointed.
Disappointed in whom? I don’t know…myself? My kids? I’ve setting us all up for failure.
Judging parenting based on perfection of kids is sort of like judging learning based on grades. Of course you want your kids to get good grades (and in school how else are you supposed to measure progress?), but if that’s all you care about you’re missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. School is meant to prepare students for the workplace, but grades on a paper don’t ensure success because, ironically, success is harder to define than a grade on a paper. The knowledge and skills retained by the student are what lead to success. Grades are just milestones along the way. If you think of it this way it changes your perspective on the usefulness of the grades themselves. A sub-par grade indicates an area that needs attention. Good grades are usually the metric for school success, but, if unearned, actually have the opposite effect by hiding deficiencies. Unwarranted high marks are actually damaging to the long-term career prospects of the students.
[Side note: True story, I took a class in college once where I’m positive I got no more than maybe five or six questions completely right the entire quarter. I was positive I was going to fail and have to retake the class. I received a B- grade. Today I couldn’t tell you one thing I learned in that class. But I digress.]
There are certain things I want my kids to learn and which I hope they appreciate: God, family, freedom…Americana. I want them to be respectful, thoughtful, well-adjusted and empathetic. I want them to value learning and constructive discourse. I don’t want them to just follow direction or follow the pack.
I don’t want them to memorize the “right” answer, I want them to learn how to find it. If I can teach or facilitate the learning of these things I will be happy. How I get there could be messy but I’m alright with that.
Kids Are Actually People, But Littler
I have to admit something: Before I had kids I held a lot of beliefs about how I was going to raise my own. I knew how I wanted to discipline (why is that always first on the list?), I knew what things I wanted to stress as important to my family, I knew how I wanted them to learn, I even started a booklist I wanted my kids to read some day. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the program that should be downloaded on the blank hard drives inside the heads of my offspring.
Then I had kids and I realized they come pre-loaded with some funky software.
Quickly…most of my child-raising ideas melted. They didn’t go away; they just changed form into a more malleable substance. I realized as I watched them grow just how much their little brains are working, how much they’re learning without me even teaching them. They’re complex little beings with little kid versions of nearly every emotion and desire I have, scaled to their needs. I started noticing that even the most annoying, shrill outbursts have some sort of purpose, some need to be filled. It’s not always rational to me, but then again I have years of nuanced perspective built into my mental background to add meaning to things I see every day. My kids don’t have that. They take life as it comes and when things don’t add up their minds short circuit and sirens go off. As they get older and better at communicating this happens less, and nonsensical tantrums are gradually replaced with those broken record conversations where I end up exclaiming, “We’ve already talked about this a hundred times! I said no, I meant no!” Or something to that affect.
My problem is relating to them. I don’t remember much about being as young as my kids are right now, but I remember snapshots. I remember being talked to like I was a little kid when I was a little kid but I didn’t feel like a little kid. I felt like I was just a little adult. Time and age are relative, apparently. These interactions have bugged me ever since. If my toddler-aged kids feel anything like I did when I was eight years old there’s no wonder they get so frustrated with misunderstandings.
PART 2 – I HOPE MY KIDS MAKE IT TO ADULTHOOD
I sat there on the floor, cross-legged, eye-level with my infuriated daughter, completely unsure of how to handle the situation and too mentally tired to want to. I momentarily pictured my adult daughter in jail for some heinous crime because I’d failed to raise her to not be horrible.
That actually touched me.
I put my arms out toward her and said “C’mere”.
Her expression didn’t change but she immediately walked toward me. She sat down on my lap and laid her head on my shoulder, arms still folded angrily. She broke down and sobbed for just a minute, then straightened up, still frustrated but a little less indignant.
For a full minute she dramatically explained to me why she didn’t want to do the thing, arms flailing for emphasis. Where did she learn that? Maybe I talk with my hands like that. I don’t know.
She just…didn’t want to do the thing.
Her argument didn’t make any sense. It was toddler logic and void of all perspective. But it made sense to her and most of all it was important to her. In that moment she really, really wanted to be heard.
Kids Will Eventually Become Adults
Kids are training to be adults. There’s a popular thought (and the inevitable books) going around that kids shouldn’t be treated like adults, and that doing so damages their growth. I halfway agree. They’re not adults, for sure, but then why so much consternation when they don’t act like adults? Asking kids to make adult-level decisions would be foolish. However, giving kids entry-level decision-making opportunities seems healthy, as long as we don’t expect mature reactions right away. Why the rush to discipline non-adult behavior out of a kid? Why not show them how to adult correctly?
I have no problem with discipline when a kid’s action is severely wrong and/or dangerous, but what’s lost in the discipline discussion is how to show them what you expect of them. Just because kids’ thoughts and emotions aren’t fully developed doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. It’s up to me to not just discipline out the “bad” but give my kids the context and nurture the “good”. Kids may not be fully developed mentally, but kid stress is still stress.
I don’t intend to treat my small children as if they are adults currently, but I certainly intend to parent them with the end goal of adulthood in mind. Kids may not have the ability to reason and make complex judgements as an adult would, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help them learn how in certain small ways:
- This includes saying please and thank you to them, just as I expect them to address me. Kids mimic what they see. They watch their parents’ mannerisms and replicate them as they play. I don’t feel right asking them to behave in a way that I won’t model for them. From an outside perspective this may look like bargaining, but my kids know that I ultimately have the ability to meet their needs and facilitate their wants.
- This includes listening to my kids and talking with them more than giving orders and directions. Sure, they don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time, but when I’m talking to someone older and wiser than myself I’m sure I come across the same way. The process of talking things out and solving problems with someone who can help them (me) is a positive thing, I think. As they grow, I’d rather they view their authority figures (family, teachers) as those who can help guide them, rather than taskmasters to be blindly obeyed because authority “knows best”. They’re allowed to ask lots of questions and ask for justification. From an outside perspective this may look like my kids don’t respect authority or lack discipline. My goal is completely the opposite. I want to show them how to listen first. I want to be open to discussion, thereby always being open to learning. In personal matters it’s a way to show empathy. In scholastic matters it’s healthy to be inquisitive even in areas where everyone thinks they already “know”. I won’t always have the answers and I want to show them how to deal with uncertainty. I wish more adults listened first. I wish more adults could admit not knowing everything. I struggle with it myself. It’s a pride thing.
- This includes allowing them to think outside of the box at times, to get their hands dirty and to make mistakes. This is tough for me because, like any parent, I really want what’s “best” for my kids and I don’t want them to be hurt. But they have to learn that struggle is good and failure is a learning experience (something I wish more adults practiced; In truth, kids already know this instinctively but I feel like adults often want to discipline or educate it out of them). I hope it will teach them to think critically about actions and subsequent consequences. From an outside perspective this may look chaotic, messy, and wasteful. It may look like I don’t know what I’m doing as a parent. I don’t. I have a lot to learn in this area myself. We’ll learn it together. Sure, this is a lot of extra work for me – it’s already pretty exhausting – but I hope it will teach them to think critically about the consequences, and teach them that they have ownership of their decisions. When they hit a wall they’ll know whom to talk to.
It’s All a Matter of Perspective
I often have to step back and survey the child-raising terrain. I have to remember that tantrums don’t mean failure. We joke about our kids asking “Are we there yet?” during road trips, yet we ask “Why haven’t they grown out of this?” when they lose their minds about some trivial thing.
It’s hard to maintain perspective when I don’t always see the entire picture. It takes an immense amount of patience, which I’m just now starting to realize and appreciate.
I have to remember that my kids are watching how I deal with the highs and the lows. More than what I say, they’re paying attention to how I act. Ups and downs are going to happen and I’ve got to be able to handle the uncertainty of not knowing which is next. My kids’ worlds are experiencing all of the ups and downs too, probably with exaggerated relative amplitude. If I can be patient and consistent in my place as parent their world will normalize and start to make sense with time.
I’m not going to get it right every time. I’m just going to be okay with not knowing everything, with the understanding that I’ll never stop learning. I don’t need to know it all because I don’t think it’s even possible to know it all. In fact it’s not a good idea to try to know it all. Anytime we strive for certainty we sacrifice freedom (Note to self: That sounds like a jump-off to another blog entry).
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I love my kids more than anything. We’ll figure it out. I’m the adult so it’s on me to be patient through the entire process with the big picture in mind.
At least…as big as I can see right now.
I have a vision of my family in about 30 years…
Someday, if all goes well, my house will be filled with my own kids and their kids, probably around a holiday or something. One grandkid will be throwing a tantrum. Another one will be spilling a dark liquid on something cream colored. Their parents, my kids, will be sleep deprived and at their wits end. After all, they’ll be worried about health, school, money, business, relationships, life in general…on top of all the parent stuff. From an outside perspective it might look all messed up.
They’ll no doubt have received more advice than they want, much of it from me. I’ll wish they could see that they just need to have faith that this too shall pass. They’re smart kids, right? They can figure it out. I raised them well, didn’t I? I think I did. I tried to, anyway. I’ll still be worried about them. Maybe I’ll still have that fear that giving just the wrong advice it will mess up their chances at success.
And there they’ll be…stressed, tired, and confused, because life just does that too you sometimes. They’ve seen us go through things, though, so they know it’s possible. And we’ve been there for them when they’ve needed us.
And I’ll still feel like I wasn’t quite prepared for this. But then again…when are we ever really prepared for this?
So I’ll just put my arms out and say, “C’mere.”
EPILOGUE – SO, DID SHE DO THE THING OR NOT?
I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember whether my toddler daughter actually completed the task I originally asked of her. I’m sure she did. I think it’s important to follow through on things like this, but for this instance I’ve forgotten.
This story will always stick in my mind because of my own simple epiphany; I realized in that moment that she didn’t need to figure it all out and make the right choice, or to have some objectively correct choice disciplined into her, she needed the tools to help her deal with her emotions and make a good decision on her own.
Moreover, she needed to know that the authority figure in front of her could empathize, giving her an anchor point to ride out the hurricane of toddler emotions. She didn’t come to me when I solved her problem or gave her an order to follow; she came to me when she saw I was willing hear her, to bring her in, to talk with her and to empathize. She already wanted to make a good decision, but she had to work through her own little toddler issues as well, and she wanted to make certain I could do that with her.
I realized in that moment that I didn’t know what I was doing. It was a reminder that the exact right answer may not always be clear, but that’s okay. In those moments I need to keep looking up and have faith, and even if it means blocking out or ignoring toddler-style storm, and listen.
I believe that now when she feels confused and frustrated she’ll trust me even more, knowing that I’m there to help her out and empower her in some little way.
At least that’s how I will feel until the next tantrum when this all goes out the window.
Neither of us really knows what we’re doing. We’ll be alright. We’ll figure it out together.