“What is your best advice when it comes to raising children?”
That was this weeks question on the journey set for me by my daughter and it is, I fear, a touchy one. No matter how carefully you tread you are likely to step on someone’s cherished beliefs, deeply held convictions, and absolute certainty that they know the best way to raise a child because….after all…junior, of course, turned out to be perfect! So let me offer a disclaimer at the outset. I don’t claim to have any answers nor is this a critique of any approach to parenting. Certainly, I don’t pretend to be the perfect parent or to know what’s right for anyone else and their child. Hell, I’m not sure I ever knew what was right for ours. But, stumbling, and unsure, and constantly bewildered though I may have been, I tried. And that is the starting point. You have to try.
When our kids were small, we didn’t have the internet to turn to. Alexa and Google and the countless website that now are ready to counsel us, weren’t a “go to.” And that’s probably good. Wisdom about child raising is far from consistent and what we believe today will likely be replaced by a new theory tomorrow. There are those truisms that were once “gospel” but that we cringe when we hear today. ”Spare the rod and spoil the child.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” Remember those?
In the 1920’s there were experts who told you not to hug or kiss your baby. And that argument made a comeback in the 60’s when one pediatrician even warned that showing the baby love will make them a socialist. God forbid!
It was also argued in the 20s that you needed to avoid giving your child a “soft” name if you wanted to raise a child with backbone and strength.
Then there was a pamphlet published by the U.S. government in 1932 that suggested one should start toilet training their baby immediately after they were born. (Wonder how THAT worked out for folks!)
In the 1930s there was a strong push as well to ensure that babies got fresh air and what better way than window baby cages. (NO…I’m NOT kidding).
Thumb-sucking kids? In the 40’s paint a mixture of acetone and cayenne pepper on the offending digit was seen as the way to cure the problem. In the 60s? The answer was to let them suck away as much as they wanted.
Yep…tons of advice out there. Bathe the infant with lard. Give them coffee at six months. Bath them three times a day (1920s) or twice a week (1970s). The list goes on and on. And today? Even more complicated. Be engaged — no, wait — don’t be a helicopter parent. Give your child autonomy — no, wait — your child needs your guidance. Encourage kids to be comfortable with offering and receiving love — no, wait — never push them to hug or kiss because they need to know they’re in charge of their bodies.
There is nothing easy about any of this. Do it all. Watch out for everything. Manage screen time, build human connections, adapt to a changing world, changing norms, changing technologies. All this has an impact on our kids and how we raise them. And I thought it was hard for my generation!
But then, today you only need to check Google and it will tell you the four parenting styles are “authoritarian,” “permissive,” “uninvolved” and “authoritative” (Hint: the last one is the good one, I’m told). Which one are you? Had I been asked that question, the answer would have been…”I don’t know.” And, to be honest, depending on the day, the issue, the child, and my stress levels, the answer could have been any of the above.
So…I’m not big on theories about this And I’m far from confident about offering advice or guidance. But there are a few things that seem to me as clear and as “right” as breathing. At least for me. And that’s the best I can do.
“Try” is one of them. You were part of bringing this child into the world. You owe it to them to try. To care. To guide, nurture and give them your best, even if it may not always be perfect. You owe it to them to give them love.
And not just love but unconditional love. Love when they’re small and helpless and depending on you. Love when they’re 40 years old. Love forever. They are always your child. And your love matters. No matter what. I’ve often said…and I believe it to be true… you don’t always have to like your kids (though I do…really), but you do always have to love them. No matter what. It was in the small print of the contract we signed when they came into our lives. Don’t breach the contract.
It isn’t that hard though. That’s the beauty of parenthood. Why is it that when we hold that infant child in our arms our hearts grow bigger and the spot assigned for them is filled. A spot we didn’t even know was empty until they came along. And with each child, we find that there is still more room in our hearts. For them. And then for their partners. And for our grandkids. Love is pretty cool that way. Remember that. And always, always, offer love — even when wisdom and patience and other virtues may be in short supply.
Listen. Our kids always seemed to have dreams. They had ideas. Passions. They had fears, and hopes. They had goofy stories to tell. They could be crushed by childhood betrayals. Crestfallen because of an embarrassing moment. Devastated by a mistake, thrilled at a victory, excited by a new adventure, or just wired with too much sugar. But, no matter the trigger, our kids could talk. They could talk a lot. I can’t swear I always “heard” ever word, but I tried to listen. That’s part of parenting too.
Be There. Be glad when your children come to you…at any age. Make it easy for them to do so. I’d like to say be a friend, but at the end of the day they don’t need you to be their friend — they need you to be their parent. Someone they can turn to — knowing you won’t judge, but confident you will listen and, when needed, advise. I’m still thrilled if my kids ask for my views..and I’m happy to share them…but we also have to learn not to be offended if they chose another path. The reality is that our children are not going to be our clones. They will find their own way and their own answers. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t guide nonetheless.
Be their moral compass until the day comes when they can rely on their own. Help them to learn by your example what is right and what isn’t. What it means to be kind, to be compassionate. Let them see by your example what love is. What decency is. And let them learn from your failings and weaknesses and mistakes —we all have them and we all make them. How we handle them, though, is what matters. They say that kids close their ears to advice but open their eyes to example. Set the right one.
Remember the power of your words. I believe that our words matter (even if kids don’t always listen to them). Words have tremendous power. The power to convey love. The power to inspire. To comfort. To bolster confidence. And also the power to hurt. To be judgmental or dismissive or hurtful. Even if that is not what is intended. Think before you speak. Words spoken to a seven year old can be remembered…and quoted back to you….decades later. Words that are.remembered long after you forgot they were ever uttered. Try to ensure that they are words you want to be remembered. What you say matters…sometimes more than you know.
“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.” Those are words from “Le Petit Prince.” There is value in them. Find your inner child. Let it peek out now and then. Play with your kids. Be silly. Remember the simple joys which hold a tremendous power of their own.
About 2500 years ago a Greek philosopher observed that:
“Raising children is an uncertain thing; success is reached only after life of battle and worry.”Democritus
I don’t know that the story has changed much since then. It’s too bad but, although we as human have built a cumulative storehouse of experience about so many things over the centuries, wisdom about the right way to raise our children does not seem to be included in that compendium of knowledge. So we all struggle. We all start anew with our families and we hope. Whether it is baby cages or lard baths, or helicopter-parenting or just letting the kids raise themselves like a pack of wolf cubs, we all have to figure out what works for us.
I can’t say that I found the “right way,” but somehow I found my way. Far from perfect, far from a plan…it was just the best I could do. And, somehow, our kids survived my ad hoc parenting (fortunately they had Leija’s parenting to balance mine) and they grew into adults that we love, cherish and yes, like. Very much.
Maybe it had something to do with us. Or maybe it was luck.
But isn’t that what it is for most of us? A lot of love, a bit of luck, and an undying hope that maybe, just maybe, it will all work out in the long run.