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Seriously, I was talking to somebody the other day and he said that in this day and age you can’t even parent kids anymore. Evidently, today’s kids are so connected and so wired that parents don’t have an “in” and they are seeing the sorts of issues one normally associates with teenagers among the single-digit crowd.
I don’t buy that at all but I think a lot has to do with how you define that word “parenting”.
I have been criticized as a parent because I don’t pass somebody’s test for control freak. At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t think anybody has ever accused me of being too strict. I have had people wonder how I get all the luck of having four kids get through their teens and give me almost no trouble at all (at least, not anything that I would call trouble).
To which I reply: that’s not luck, that’s a space station called parenting!
At any rate, that conversation prompted me to sit down and write Dawn’s Rules for Parenting. And, while I could have chosen to write this down someplace less public, I thought, What would be the point of that? That said, I’m not going to label myself some kind of parenting expert. I have never “studied” parenting and I do not have a degree in psychology or anything like that. I have merely raised four very different children, each of whom required different things from me, each of whom challenged me in various ways. Yet they have been relatively trouble-free and loving and fun and I wouldn’t trade them for anything at all. They are the only bits that saved my former marriage from being a 27-year waste of time.
I’m not sure how many of these rules there are going to be but I am pretty sure it’ll be less than ten. So, let’s see what we’ve got:
- Mean what you say. The very first time that you tell your kids something and then turn around and do something else, you’ve lost them. This might not make too much difference in terms of getting them to do what you want them to do but it’s going to make a world of difference when it comes to the all-important matter of conveying values and morals. Why? you may ask. They have no reason to accept and live by your values when your willingness to set aside those values whenever they inconvenience you suggests that even you do not value your values. If your values are real, then you’ll have reasons for what you do and your “No” will be a thing to be respected.
- Don’t make rules you can’t enforce. This variation on Rule #1 will help you avoid a setup for failure with bells on. Rules like “You’re not allowed to play with little Johnny down the street” or “You are not allowed to have sex with anybody for any reason” simply cannot be enforced. If you are against pre-marital sex, I can guarantee your kids know that. Whether or not they decide to adopt your values as their own will have nothing at all to do with you forbidding them to have sex and a lot more with your overall relationship and whether they want to emulate the awesome person you are. On the other hand, if you set a bunch of rules that you really can’t enforce, all you’re doing is encouraging your kids to sneak around behind your back and creating circumstances for them to experience what Penelope Leech called “successful defiance.” That gets you nowhere.
- When you must make rules, keep them simple. I make a distinction between things like having a rotation for doing the dishes, which sort of falls under the category of organizing the household, and the sort of behavioral rules you make as a function of parenting. In my household, I have only one over-arching rule that I have laid down for my children: Don’t do anything stupid. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking how woefully inadequate that rule is but it has worked very well for us. That lone, simple rule has evidently kept my kids from all the sex and drugs and rock-and-roll sorts of trouble that teenagers can often get into. Which is not to say that they have never experimented with that stuff but it is to say that none of them has ever yet been arrested, gotten pregnant, helped somebody else to get pregnant, gotten hooked on any seriously addictive controlled substances or otherwise ruined their lives. They (not I) attribute that to that one simple little rule.
- Don’t pretend you used to be perfect. Comparing children to each other frankly sucks but comparing them to a youthful you is ten times worse. As soon as you start talking about the paragon you were as a child, the kids’ reactions are fairly predictable. They will either decide that you were the kind of obnoxious kid who gets beat up on playgrounds, or they will decide that you were the kind of boring kid who never got picked to be on anybody’s team in gym, or they will decide that you are full of it. Self-righteousness has never been an attractive trait and your children are only human. Besides, you know perfectly well that they are right and you are full of hooey. You’ll do better to admit to your youthful foibles and share the lessons they taught you.
- Don’t pretend you’re perfect now. Don’t be afraid to admit it when you’re wrong. Sometimes, you will be. If you have more than one kid, there will absolutely be that moment (or seventy) when you blame one of them for something another of them did. Or a time when you will not believe they are being truthful to you, only to discover later that they were. It happens. It doesn’t have to turn into the kind of thing they’ll be confiding to their therapist about in ten years if you will only be willing to say you’re sorry. When they see that even you make mistakes, said mistakes will transform from something to be avoided at all costs to something that’s a great learning opportunity. While we’re at it, don’t be afraid to let them change your mind. Just because you have made a decision doesn’t mean that it has to be graven in granite, and that kind of rigidity is not a good thing to model for your kids. Naturally, if you have made one of your values-based decisions, it may take some doing to make you change your mind. But they might be able to come up with a good, values-based reason why you should. Then, too, sometimes we as parents have to give the kids an opportunity to show us that they can handle some new privilege/responsibility. You can afford to let ourselves be talked into giving them those opportunities. How else will you know?
- You need to figure out when to let go. Part of your job as a parent is to train your children not to need you anymore. That’s kind of a simplistic way to put it but it is a good simplification because it emphasizes the fact that, in the end, they get to go be grown-ups. Your mission, which you accepted as soon as you brought them into the world, was to give them the skills they need to go forth and adult. So you have to encourage them to make their own decisions, as early as possible. You need to arrange their little lives so that they can start handling their own stuff as early as it’s reasonable for them to do so. You need to back away from interceding between them and the world as soon as possible. There are going to be things they are going to have to learn and they won’t learn them if you are forever doing those things for them. Clearly, the tasks you set for them or hand over to them should be age appropriate. You aren’t going to ask your 3-year-old to arrange for their own pre-school enrollment but you can let her practice decision-making in other small ways (you have two candies, which will you eat first?). You’re a parent. Make sure you do your job.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are half a dozen ways to say this. Pick your battles. Avoid giving the kids things to rebel against. Continual anger loses its effectiveness after awhile. It all comes to the same thing: if every little transgression they commit makes you crazy, you will transform into a screaming meanie and the more you scream the less effective your screaming will get. Melody Beattie once wrote, “The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world.” That is very true. Most of the time, life imposes its own consequences for unacceptable behavior, leaving you with nothing to do but resist the temptation to say “I told you so.” And if you are calm about most things, when they finally do cause you to lose it, they will be much more inclined to pay attention to your fury. So be tactical about the things you fight with them about and be sure they are things that really matter.
- Hang onto your sense of humor. I don’t believe that parents should try to be buddies with their kids. It’s important to maintain the generation gap; trust me, you don’t want to encourage your kids to treat you like they treat their friends. But that doesn’t mean that you would be best served by parenting with a broomstick up your ass. There is very little that will happen in your household that is a life-or-death sort of thing and being able to laugh about stuff will help you to keep things in perspective. If you are calm, you will encourage your children to confide in you when other kids are sneaking around behind their parents’ back. If you are just, you will empower your younglings by treating them fairly instead of pulling rank on them whenever your creativity fails you. But when you can laugh — what a wonderful gift to give them. Laughter brings warmth to relationships. Laughter makes every terrible things significantly less terrible. Laughter goes a long way toward helping you to avoid sweating the small stuff. And being able to laugh with your children (as opposed to laughing at them, which is fun sometimes too) will do wonders for your long term relationship.
I was right, less than ten. I will encourage my children to come in here and remind me of things I may have forgotten … although I suspect their reminders will fall under the eight categories I have listed here.
Parenting isn’t easy. Far from it. The consensus is that it is absolutely the hardest thing that anybody ever tried to do and absolutely nobody ever gets it 100% right. But I’ll tell you this: as difficult as it is to do it well, I think there are a lot of people who make parenting much harder than it needs to be.
Your children don’t exist to make your life difficult. They are not the cross God has given you to bear. You are allowed to enjoy your kids and you are allowed to enjoy your role as their parent. That doesn’t make you irresponsible.
And if you’re having fun, you are much more likely to do a better job of it.