The exact rules of parenting change with the unique challenges of each baby, so I an writing with the aid of 20–20 hindsight.
When I became a father, I was determined not to make the same mistakes as my parents.
It didn’t take long to realize that there are an infinite number of ways to mess up your kids, and it’s a terrifying, 24/7, lifetime process.
As someone who was lucky enough to see my kids get through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, I’d like to share my rules of parenting.
These rules don’t guarantee success: they’re more of a heads-up that the roller coaster you’re about to ride doesn’t have functioning seat belts. Hold on tight.
#1: No matter how vigilant you are, you will not be able to protect your child from everything.
Our first son seemed to learn how to climb as soon as he could crawl.
One day, we were talking in the kitchen and heard a loud thud coming from the baby’s room.
I was paralyzed with fear, waiting to hear the screams when our son came crawling out of his room with a proud smile on his face, as he had escaped the crib we thought would protect him.
I’m not telling this story to reassure young parents that everything will turn out all right.
We just happened to be lucky he didn’t get hurt; thousand of parents suffer terrible tragedies due to accidents no one could have foreseen.
I was forced to live on faith and forgive myself for my failures; otherwise, I would have gone completely insane.
#2: Even if you were God, your children will find something to be upset about.
You may love your kids with all your heart. You may be willing to make every sacrifice in life to give them what they need. You may have all the wisdom in the world and make the right decision (defined as that which will further their development as a person to help them lead a happy, productive life as an adult) in every single situation that arises throughout your life.
Well, guess what? They will still find something that causes them to throw tantrums. They will still rebel as teenagers (and if they don’t seem to be rebelling, that could be an even more serious warning sign that something’s wrong). And sadly, they may distance themselves from you when they become adults.
Nobody said that kids are the only ones who need to grow up.
I read a couple of articles by Beth Bruno about being estranged from her adult daughter, and while I agree with her ideas about how to reconnect (be honest about our past mistakes, acknowledge our children’s suffering and apologize to them), there is no guarantee that your children will be able to forgive you.
We have no control over how our children will react, regardless of whether we make terrible mistakes or do everything right.
Forgive yourself and keep learning. Nobody said that kids are the only ones who need to grow up.
#3: Even if you raise the perfect kid, the next kid is different and will need a completely new user’s manual.
If you do a search for books on parenting, you will see an ebb and flow in the recommendations of “experts.”
All you can do is educate yourself with as many sources as possible and then see what works.
We were lucky enough to have our parenting styles match our first son like a glove.
Aside from a couple of early scares, like the time he screamed so hard he turned blue and passed out on the tennis court where we were playing, or ended up in the hospital because he thought he could play blow a nickle up into the air and catch it in his mouth while laying on his back, our first son was pretty amazing.
He was healthy, active, joyful, curious, independent, loved stories, and smart as a whip.
He even ate his vegetables.
When he started school, he was an excellent student, and developed a wonderful sense of humor.
We had struck the parent jackpot, and thought that we had stumbled on to the right way to raise a child.
For parents having more than one child, each baby should come with a sticker reading “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
When our second son was born, I thought we had it figured out, but over time realized the being fair, logical and taking the time to explain our decisions to our younger son was the last thing he needed.
Every child is unique and the best way to raise them will be a mystery, a constant trail and error experiment.
The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can let go of popular parenting trends, lessons from your parents, and even the techniques that seemed to succeed with your firstborn.
#4: Nothing and yet everything matters in your kids lives, but you’ll never know until it’s far too late.
I remember the first big no I told my five-year-old. He wanted one of those Power Wheels motorized cars. Besides costing way too much money, we lived in an apartment building situated on a hill. There was no way I was ever going to let my son go outside to the street, and no room in the building, so the only place he could have used the car would be if we went to the park.
Even though he forgot about the unfulfilled wish on his Christmas list, I wondered if this would affect him negatively in the future.
I remember how an early childhood incident with my dad haunted me* for years even thought it really wasn’t his fault.
We can’t know if the decisions we make with them as toddlers could result in them going to therapy 20 years later (or worse, becoming snipers in a church tower), and it’s terrifying.
My dad got remarried when I was ten. He realized, after it was too late, that his second wife was really jealous and a little crazy. To protect me, he decided to send me to live with my mom.
I was devastated and burned with rage for years.
It took me thirteen years to rebuild my relationship with him and mature enough to explain to him how much that decision hurt me.
He had no idea about how I felt, and even though I tried to tell him gently
It took me 28 years and a men’s therapy group to finally see the situation from his perspective.
To cope with this uncertainty, see Rule #1.
#5: Parenting can be impossible, so embrace suffering over the decisions you make for your child.
One of the greatest things I ever found in H. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled,” was his observation that children will recognize that they are loved and valued when you suffer over making a decision involving them.
Spoiling your child rotten or being a disciplinarian allows you to make quick, easy decisions that are consistent with your world view.
When was the last time that worked out well for you in your life?
We are constantly forced to make difficult choices.
Worse yet, we are often forced to choose between two bad outcomes.
It takes time, energy and hard work to always be there for them and focused on the now.
Your teenagers may not agree with their curfew, or not going to that party with all the college students, but if they know that you tried to see both sides and you have rational reasons for making a decision, eventually they will appreciate your effort.
Or not. See Rule #2, then find some peace by rereading Rule #1.
#6: Teach them that actions have consequences in life in small, daily doses.
It seems like today’s children live on one edge of the spectrum or the other.
For some kids, it means an endless stream planned activities, participation trophies, and a 24/7 focus on being “special.”
For other kids, it means a never ending cycle of bad experiences in a dangerous environment, and a 24/7 recognition that no matter how much they excel, it won’t change their circumstances.
Teaching the lesson that actions have consequences is vital for all kids. If they do something bad, there has to be some sort of punishment. If they fail at something, they have to be allowed to feel pain. If they do something stupid, they have to be allowed to see how they have hurt someone else and try to make amends.
But if they act honorably or with compassion, they have to be praised. If they do something productive, they need to be rewarded, and shown that hard work will ultimately win out.
Any idiot — even a parent — can react the right way when there’s a Summer Blockbuster-sized event that occurs in their child’s life.
The best lessons are learned in quieter moments, when there seems to be little a stake.
Of course, even if you try to teach consequences to your children, those efforts can be negated by a spouse or grandparents who don’t share your vision.
I tried, but failed in this area, and the tiny lessons I taught were overshadowed by those other experiences that teach a child “if you’re cute, or charming, or manipulative, or devious enough, you can get away with doing something you know is wrong.”
While driving to a family event, I remember telling my younger son that if he kept fighting his brother over a toy, I would take it away from him. Even though he had other toys, he insisted on fighting with his brother over the one toy in question, so I took it away for the rest of the trip, in spite of his protestations.
Ten years later, I warned my then 15-year-old son every day for a week that if he did not get his teacher to sign off on his homework assignments (he was struggling in school because he refused to do the work), I wouldn’t take him to his karate school on Friday. He didn’t, I didn’t, and his response was to leave the house in anger and not come back until 3:00 am.
By not teaching him consequences, he believed he could get his way by worrying us to death. That behavior only grew worse over the next few years.
Even when my wife and I finally worked together to enforce serious consequences, his grandfather was always there to bail him out.
Sometimes it takes a broken tail light, a fix-it ticket, a failure to show up in court, a bench warrant, an arrest at a Labor Day drunk driver checkpoint three years later, a punitive $50,000 bail, and a weekend in jail to learn that actions have consequences.
My son was angry at us for a year or two, but he also made a lot of progress in becoming a responsible adult.
I know we were lucky and it sounds like survivorship bias. A lot of parents suffer unimaginable pain when real tragedy strikes the lives of their children.
But what choice do we really have?
“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.” — R.D. Laing
Years ago, I was at an Al-Anon meeting and remember hearing an older couple tell the sad tale of how their 40-something drug addict son was pounding on their door to ask for money again and they had to call the cops and have him taken away. It took them three decades to stop enabling their son and let him hit bottom.
We’ll do anything to shield our children from the extreme, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic consequences of life.
Make the most of those small teaching moments in a safe, controlled environment.
#7: Teach them that the process, not the result, is the secret to success.
I’ve written in the past about doing the stupid stuff.
Aside from online celebrity success, politics, leading a major corporation, and crime, there is almost no human activity where getting what you want is more important than working hard and doing the right thing.
And even criminals have to pay their dues.
In sports, art, music, and writing, everything we do to achieve excellence involves mastering the things within our control.
As a parent, that means encouraging them to be the best they can be, while allowing them to see the results of their efforts.
As tempting as it might be, you can’t do your child’s art projects, regardless of how much you want to help them or finish it so they can go to bed on time.
Perhaps my proudest achievement as a coach was teaching my son to think like a writer. He had gotten a D on a high school English paper, and it was full of the empty fluff needed to reach the necessary word count. There wasn’t a single thought about the character, the decisions made, or the awareness that the book’s theme might apply to everyone’s lives.
We sat in my office on a Saturday, and I told him we would stay there as long as it took for him to do the job the right way. I asked my son open-end questions about what things meant in the story. After the usual stalling and resistance, he finally saw that the only way to end this ordeal was to do the work. He started to answer the questions vaguely, so I asked him to prove his answer with examples.
At some point, a light finally went on in his head and he started making connections. The depth of thinking in his essay had jumped to something I would expect from a college student. I congratulated him on reaching a whole new level of thinking and he seemed genuinely encouraged.
He rewrote the paper, turned it in, and got a handful of extra points, raising his grade to a C- because he didn’t follow the teacher’s rigid10-sentence per paragraph structure. I told him he had done the best work I had ever seen him do, and it was probably the best paper in the class.
He lost all motivation and came close to failing school, but the ability to think like a writer had been planted.
Fast forward fifteen years: he has written a script, has a second in outline form (no parental bias here — if the film ever gets made, it could become a global smash), and a large portfolio of short stories, rap songs, and stand up comedy material.
Bonus future rule: You’ll never stop being a parent, but it really sucks when you become the child.
As our children grow up, they reach different stages of independence, until they go out on their own in the world as adults.
It’s hard to give up the one role that defines most of us for at least twenty years.
That might be the longest career you will have in any one job.
But there’s a big difference between letting go and slipping into irrelevance, and yet we are all headed down that path.
If your kids grow up to be successful adults, they will not only stop depending on you to do things for them, they will stop asking your advice.
I can’t think of the last time my older son came to me to talk about a problem. Occasionally, he’ll correct me about some idea I’ve expressed that doesn’t past muster with the scientific community.
For now, our lives as parents still revolve around helping our younger son find his place in the world, but the time when he won’t need us is fast approaching.
We will always love and need our kids, but we have to create a new identity and find another raison d’etre.
This new path will either be liberating or terrifying.
Based on my experience with my parents, falling into old age will be another difficult transition.
After a major health crisis, my dad came to live with us at age 92 because the risk of being alone was too great. Even though he retained his independence, we took care of more and more things in his life with the family. As the years went by and his memory got worse, I create online accounts for him and set up automated payments, as well as doing his taxes.
He stayed in good shape, but his reflexes slowed down to the point where it became unsafe for him to drive. This was a terrible conversation I avoided. The matter was settled when he got into an accident where fortunately no one was hurt. But the loss of independence was a major blow and he declined quickly over the last 1 1/2 years of his life.
At the end, I had to care for him in the same way I did for my infant sons.
And while I’m glad I was there for him when he needed me, I don’t know if this was a source of comfort for him in his last days or a crushing blow to the last shred of his dignity.
As a parent, I don’t know if I would want my children to see me in that condition in my final days, as I would want them to remember me when I was still full of life.
But is death even about us?
They’re the ones who must continue living the lives we hoped would be happy and successful.
Would it be too traumatic for them, or would it be the kind of experience that lets them reach another stage of maturity in their lives?
When I reach that point, I will have no control over what happens, or how I will feel about it, but I have to wonder if those final thoughts will be that primordial instinct I felt when I held our first baby in my arms…
How can I best love and protect this little soul entrusted to me?
Here’s to better writing.
*I remember an early childhood experience when I tried to hit a soft baseball as my dad tossed the ball to me. I was too young to realize that I had no hand-eye coordination, so I blamed my dad for his poor pitching, as if he did it on purpose. I don’t remember how he reacted, or how he tried to comfort me. I only felt anger, sadness and hopelessness in defeat — a complete inability to deal with adversity and overcome the obstacles placed before me. This experience haunted me throughout my tennis career. I was so devastated by tough losses that I fell into a pit of depression that impaired my ability to break though on the circuit.