I have four great kids, spanning the range from college to second grade. When people ask me why I have 4 kids, I tell them it’s because if I had 5 kids, I would need to run away to Australia.
Parenting is not without its charms, of course, but nor is it short on hard lessons. Someone recently asked me to write down what I’ve learned along the way, for the benefit of those earlier in the journey. With the qualifiers that I’ve been far from a perfect parent, and that everyone needs to raise their kids their own way, here are what have been the most important rules in our household, listed by stage of the parenting adventure.
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Baby Stage: “If you love them, they’ll be ok.”
This actually comes from my childhood pediatrician, who shared it with my Mom, who shared it with me.
You don’t know what terror is until you put someone you made into a plastic car seat, strap them into your Grand Cherokee, and pull out onto the highway. When you arrive home you can’t believe the hospital just kind of let you go with another human being. Don’t they know you’re an idiot? That you were in a fraternity, for God’s sake? Even driving requires some kind of certification process… How can they let anyone just leave WITH A BABY?
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You will read books to help provide the illusion of control, carefully get through that terrifying first bath, put them in the foam taco they give you to ward off evil spirits. But the thought will nag at you deep down that you have no idea what the hell you are doing.
My mother told me she felt this way, and that she took me in one day to see my pediatrician — Dr. Taft — to ask him for help, which I believe at the time was a euphemism for valium.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, “What he wants when he cries, what I have to do to take care of him. You need to help me, Doctor!”
“Do you love him?” said the kindly, quiet man who would ask me to lie down and open my mouth before throwing a sock into it each year until I was 14.
“Of course I do,” she said, tearing up.
“Well that’s all you need to know, Marie. He’s going to be just fine.”
Toddler Stage: “The intersection of Love and Fear is Respect.”
One day you’ll come home from work, and this little person who’s been walking around your house being very cute and shitting their pants occasionally will walk up and say, “Hi.”
This will shock you, just as sure as if your dog had said it.
Soon after, they’re going to start asking you for things. “Have dat?” “Have dis?” “Faw Kate?” “Moo-ah peez?” This will be charming, until at some point they will ask for something you don’t want them to have, and you will have to say “No.”
They will not like this. Then they will stop liking you, immediately.
They will cry… softly at first, then with gusto. They will scream, and howl, and throw tantrums on the rug, chuck a Tinkertoy across the room, ask again and again until they have worn you down enough to consider just giving them what they want so you can all eat in peace.
But you know what? If you cave… you will teach them right then and there what “No” really means. From that point forward, “No” — in their eyes — will mean, “Yes, but only after I get loud enough to make Daddy cave.”
In every conflict with your child, somebody learns who’s boss.
Forget this simple rule at your peril my friend. If you do, you will not only be afraid to go to Target, but you will be subject to the whims of an emotional terrorist for the balance of your natural life. Consider yourself warned.
Look… if you’re doing your job, at this point your kids will know you love them. That’s great, but at some point they’re going to realize that your loving them gives them power over you, and that they can use that power to get what they want. This is mostly just inconvenient now, but there will come a time when it will actually be dangerous for them, and you better have a strategy to manage it in place now, before it’s too late.
In my house, that strategy is to add some fear to the equation. That’s right. I let them fear me… not so much that they are afraid of me always, but just enough so I have control when I need it.
What does that mean? Well, while I don’t hurt my kids, I don’t put up with shit from them either. If Olivia is playing in the corner, and I say come here and she doesn’t, I’m going to ask nicely again just to make sure she heard me. If she did, and she’s not, then I’m going to say “OLIVIA. COME HERE,” in a way that let’s her know she better come NOW.
And when she does come, I’m going to look her in the eye, and I’m going to tell her “When I say come here, you come here NOW. Do you understand me?” And she’s going to say yes, and then we’re going to be cool again. But she’s going to know Daddy does not screw around. And the next time I say “Come here,” she’s going to come.
Too harsh? Well, you’re free to raise your kids your way. Just remember this… at some point, you’re not going to be calling little Johnny from across the room, you’re going to be calling him from across town, and you’re going to be calling because you’re worried about something bad happening.
If you want even a shot of him coming home then you better make damn sure he comes when you call him now… not for your sake, but for his.
Child Stage: “They are who they are.”
For a time your offspring — being, you know, yours — will delight you at every turn. They will be smarter, funnier, cuter, and happier than those animals up the street. They will read before the Smith children and throw farther than the Jones’, and you will see in them flashes of the best in yourself and the person you most love. This is a Golden Time, from around age 4 to around age 12.
Despite this, once in a while, they will disappoint you mightily. They will do something uncharacteristically dumb or unfathomably cruel, and you will need to make a conscious effort at self-control before you completely lose your shit and unload on them.
As you inhale deeply in that inevitable moment, think of this:
The things that make you most crazy in your children are the things you hate about yourself.
(This is also true of your parents, by the way, but that’s another post.)
If you worry about getting fat, your kid’s obsession with dessert will drive you nuts. Secretly selfish? Timmy’s refusal to share with his siblings will frustrate you no end. Terribly timid? Josie will not stand up for herself at school, and that will push you over the edge. Excessively strong willed? Johnnie’s pig-headedness will have you On. Your. Last. Nerve.
I’ve seen it time and time again, in others and myself. Part of it is wanting the best for your kid, of course, but part of it is not dealing with your own shit and putting it on them. Be paranoid about this, or eventually you’ll pack them off to college with your baggage, and not just your luggage.
Remember that no matter how great your kid is, there’s going to be a gap between your idealized version of them and the person they really are. You need to expect that, to make friends with it. Your job is not to turn them into the person you always wanted to be. It’s to help them become the best version of themselves they have the potential to become.
Teen Stage: “Earn freedom by showing responsibility.”
In the Golden Time, your children will delight in your company. They will drive around with you on sunny Saturdays, and sing along to your music in your back seat. They will hold your hand in the parking lot, and put things in the cart, and ask if they can help you bring in the bags.
Then one day you will be driving them from here to there, and they will be in the back seat with a friend just chit-chatting away. They will be listening to their music. You will say something, and they will not hear you. You will say it again, suddenly uneasy as you focus on the road, but they will not hear it again, and you will realize it is because they are not listening to you.
You — so long at the center of their world — will have become an outsider.
Let me give it to you straight: In return for bearing the oppressive burden of an infant, then the stubborn narcissism of a toddler, nature teases you with a child who loves you unconditionally, then turns it into a teenager who will treat you like a nuisance.
I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Not forever, but certainly for a while. And you better be prepared for it, because even if you are it’s going to hurt.
Part of that preparation must be to establish the right precedents early. Peak parental compliance comes around age 12. If you’re not at a level that can tolerate some erosion by then, you’re pretty much screwed.
This is as it should be. From around age 13, your kids are going to want to have more of a say in things, and it makes sense to give them more room to maneuver as you start down a five-year glide path to their being able to make even big decisions for themselves.
Your job as the parent is to control the slope of that glide path, to maintain it within the boundaries of your own comfort level. In our house, we operate on the principle that freedom is something to be earned, step-by-step, through the demonstration of responsibility. Make good choices around the house, and you get the benefit of the doubt. Miss curfew — even by a second — and a half-hour of curfew is lost next time. Manage your time to get home a little early, and eventually, a half-hour of curfew is gained.
Lie to me once, and I can’t trust you. Your freedom contracts. Show me you understand the relationship between rights and responsibility, and I know you get it. Your freedom expands.
To be an adult is to understand that choices have consequences. The process of getting there — of making choices, and dealing with their consequences responsibly— is for me the core of the parenting journey.
The tricky part of the teen years is letting them make the mistakes they need to make to grow, while protecting them from mistakes they can’t recover from… specifically mistakes that put their safety, legal standing, well being, or future options in jeopardy.
Grown Stage: “Happy and gone is the best you can do.”
The picture above was taken when we dropped our eldest off at college. It was a happy event, at just the place she wanted to be, and all of us — her, her siblings, her mom, her second mom, and I — were joyful in this moment.
A few hours later we all got into the car without her, and cried most of the way home.
In the weeks that followed, the transition was probably hardest on my wife and her mom. This is partly a gender issue, I think, as the relationship with same-gender parents is different than that with off-gender parents, but it was hard on us all in our own way.
While I missed having my little girl under my roof, I was heartened by my confidence in her as a person, by the quality and fit of the university she’d chosen, and with the knowledge that this was about the best we could have hoped for.
It occurred to me that if one defined a matrix for the outcomes of grown offspring, plotting the happiness of a child against their independence from your material support, “Happy” and “Gone” would be about the best you could do. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t miss them, that you wouldn’t take every opportunity to see them, check their social accounts obsessively, or take care of them in whatever ways you could. It just means that raising a contented person who knows who they are, who has the clarity of purpose to pursue their own goals and desires, and the strength of character to function as a conscientious and independent adult is the goal of all the effort, sacrifice, and pain that parenting involves.
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Bearing that responsibility shapes you as well as them. What begins as a burden evolves over time into a kind of mission, then — perhaps only in retrospect — into something you realize was the defining privilege of your lifetime.
In the end, that’s what winning looks like. You help to create someone Happy and Gone.
I remember talking to my Mom when I arrived home with my first child, shaken and afraid of every bad thing the world was ready to throw at this helpless pink thing someone had just pulled out of my wife.
“How are you doing,” she said.
“To be honest I’m really scared, Mom. Being responsible for her is kind of overwhelming. I’m trying to hold it together, sure this just takes some getting used to. But when does this feeling start to… wear off?”
“I’m still waiting, Michael” she said. “And I love you.”