My son just turned 18, so he is no longer legally a child. I feel a sense of accomplishment in reaching this milestone. He can vote and get his nose pierced, buy cigarettes, get a full-time job, sit on a jury, and get married. I celebrate this sudden onset of liberty.
Feeling introspective and retrospective on this auspicious birthday, I put together a list of six 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 I’ve made it, warts and all, and I’m pretty proud of my kid. So here are some of the hard lessons that I’ve learned.
#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. 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.
#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.
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 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. 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. 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’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.
If 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 him for who he is, and parent that child. What he needs is important, not what you thought he would need. Stop feeling like your way is the only way. 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.
#4. Whenever possible, shut up.
I love lecturing. Lecturing is my jam. My children have let me know that my 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, 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, 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.
#5. 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 bringing an ax!” Because I can’t actually take an ax to my child, 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. 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.
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.
#6. 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. 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.
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 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.
Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and two children. Find out more at www.lydianetzer.com.