Want to do something amazing for your relationship with your kids? Engage in this thought exercise:
Think of a good friend; someone you genuinely like and care about. (Don’t use your spouse – too many in-law issues!) What sort of parent would you want for that friend? If you were somehow able to go back and parent your friend yourself, how would you do it?
I have found that by looking at a friend, who I don’t really have a vested interest in trying to change, I can envision what it would look like for me to parent with more patience, wisdom and acceptance. It’s helped me come to see my kids for what they are. They are their own persons who have both the right and the responsibility to figure out who they are and what sort of life they want to live. What they are not are extensions of me or proof of the worth of my life or even my skills as a parent.
This is so clear to us when dealing with any human being other than a child – particularly your own. Then we are prone to respond to their imperfections, independence and petty rebellions by going into whatever our version of full-blown panicked-tyranny mode is to cow them into pleasing us. And that’s hard on both parent and child. Even as a kid it always seemed to me that both my father and my grandfather would have liked to be more gentle and empathetic than they were with their children. But they were convinced that if they didn’t make sure we stayed not just on the straight and narrow but on the painted line right in the middle of the road, all hell would break loose. I just don’t have the fortitude or the compliant kids necessary to get away with that style of parenting, so I’ve been letting my kids wander all over the countryside surrounding the road for a while now and my father himself has commented positively on the results. (Not that he doesn’t have some reservations, but then again, so do I!) And it turns out that I was right about my dad too – seeing him hold one of his grandkids is a beautiful thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I have no problem pulling rank and forcing my kids to behave or comply if need be. But my preferred method is always to convince them to go along by choice. One of my proudest parenting moments was when my oldest was about 9 or 10 and I overheard him advising his little brother, “if mom tells you how to do something, just listen to her. Every time I think I know better and try it my way, I find out that her way actually is better.” Hearing my son say that based on his experience, he has found me to be trustworthy was a huge compliment. He was the most uncooperative child you would ever want to meet. To this day he thinks that trying to re-invent the wheel is a sign of good character, although he has figured out that maybe it’s been his hammer and not everything is a nail. So, I like to think I’m doing something right. And if he ends up dealing drugs and porn, I’ve already said it’s all his own damn fault. See how nice that works?
I think that looking at your kids as younger prototypes of the sort of person you might want to be friends with one day also helps deal with the reality that whether they are left to their own devices or not, many (most?) people do some really dumb things before getting their act together. As parents, our instinct is to COMPLETELY FREAK OUT over each step our kid makes off the appointed path. Some kids will be cowed into keeping mostly in line, even if the path is clearly not the right one for them. Other kids will just begin doing the mambo all over the countryside and give only lip-service (if that) to the idea that maybe they should really get back on the path- or any path that isn’t clearly leading to having a social worker assigned to you. But I have had friends who did some really dumb things. I read things like this written by a woman I have to force myself not to be jealous of and I know that even things which can seem like the end of the world for your kid, aren’t.
I propose that the best approach, especially if you have a headstrong teen on your hands is to roll your eyes a lot. If my kid insists on doing the macarena in a swamp, well I’ll be happy to laugh at him when he’s busy scratching mosquito bites. I might have some calamine lotion around here if he wants to look for it. Sucks to be him. (It’s easier to learn from your mistakes when you can laugh at them, right?) And I bet those cliffs I’ve been telling him not to dance around look a little less appealing now that it appears I might know something about something.
Granted, I’m not done yet. Maybe the haters are right and and my kids are destined to be 40 year old comic store clerks. Maybe, but I doubt it. They’ve had a lot of practice in realizing that what they are doing isn’t working. I’m sure they’ll catch on eventually. I’d say by about 25 they should have figured out the comic store clerk thing isn’t for them. Or maybe they’ll buy the place. Who knows?