Dear Yen, this one is for you!
I’m always a little reluctant to write about raising my kids because I know it’s a fragile balance that could all go horribly wrong in an instant. Which means being a mother is something you should never take for granted. (I write this as my littlest almost-7-year-old snuggles my shoulder with her stinky blanket.) We are up very early this morning because my 16-year-old had to be at the barn for a horse show at 5:30 a.m. Parenting is never easy, but the thought of getting everyone up that early was worse than the reality of it. Which is a tiny little lesson about parenting: that perhaps the hardest part is managing our own minds about it, our fears, our worries, our expectations. I will try to capture my basic parenting principles after 31 years of being a mom, with one full-grown, one almost-grown, and one little adorable sprout still growing.
1. Hugs and kisses. I do travel a lot away from my kids for work, and when I ask my littlest what she misses most she always says “hugs and kisses.” It’s so important to touch each other and snuggle. It’s a primal part of everyone’s feeling loved, safe, and healthy. We are also big on back scratching, back “cracking” (when I was a kid I learned it from a Swedish exchange student) and reading parties (reading in bed together). Just enjoying being together is so important and gets everyone through the tough times. Plus, being confident in your body is the best example for them learning to be confident in their own bodies.
2. Be flexible. It’s tempting to think as a parent that you can control everything and limit “bad influences.” Phffft! Forget about that. Candy will be found—yes, candy filled with GMO “sugar” and artificial dyes and disgusting chemicals. The world will not end if they eat it. Our job as parents is to develop their other healthy tastes so they’re even stronger, and make those other things just not that interesting, which a hard-line outright ban does. I mean, who doesn’t want to read a banned book? Or eat a forbidden food? I’ve always “banned” TVs in my kids’ rooms. But now a laptop IS a TV. A freaking phone is a TV. Make other things even more interesting and exciting. I remember when I was a kid, a Twinkie was the elusive symbol of everything evil in the world. When I finally had the chance to eat one, I remember thinking, This is it??!! It’s…disgusting!
3. Set boundaries. I am a huge believer in setting boundaries for kids. That means rules about when to come home, how to behave in public (respectfully!), and, ESPECIALLY, how to treat YOU. It’s not OK for them to order you around, call you names, or treat you poorly. Our job as parents is to teach them to be responsible and independent and honorable people. Therefore, we have to behave that way because they will always learn more from watching you than from what you say. If your child is acting out—whether a toddler with temper fits or a teenage with temper fits—a few times is normal, but more than that and they are desperately trying to communicate something to you that you must get to the root of. Often, there is something in your own behavior that has to change before they can feel heard, supported, and calm. It could be anything from needing more sleep or more healthy food to needing YOU to be calm and stop freaking out all the time. Giving in to their excessive demands is never a good idea. It’s always a test to see how strong you are. Be strong! They might hate it in the moment, but they will love you for it in the end. Being fairly consistent is essential, too. This means being consistent between the two parents (be as aligned as possible in front of your kids) and also consistent from day to day (consistent, not rigid!). This respect of boundaries also goes for nature, animals, and other people.
4. Manage expectations. That is, manage your own expectations. Your kids are not mini you’s. They are unique and different and have their own desires and talents and pleasures. Yes, you may have a fantasy about how you want your children to turn out, but that’s a lot of unnecessary pressure to put on a little seedling or even a sapling. Delight in their differences. Support their uniqueness. Encourage their independence. But also EXPECT excellence! I believe every kid is capable, smart, and good. But how that gets expressed might be different for each kid. If you expect each of them to be excellent, they will each strive for excellence. That does not mean perfection. Perfection is for losers. Perfection is boring and kind of insane and very damaging to people. One example of expecting excellence is that I take my kids out to dinner, often to nice restaurants and sometimes even to business dinners. Do they behave perfectly? No. But do they learn how to behave respectfully? Yes. Do they learn how to try new things and listen with one ear to grown-up conversations? Yes. Don’t put your whole life on hold because you have kids. Don’t raise your kids like monkeys in a cage that only come out for entertainment or to go to Disney. We are raising humans—humans who will one day create the future.
5. Play together. I’m not talking about putting your own life aside to play with them every moment of the day…are you kidding me? I notoriously hate playing all games except one: group solitaire. But there are lots of ways of playing together. Some of our favorites are doing puzzles, swimming, playing soccer outside, drawing and painting, writing stories, riding bikes together, trying new things like kayaking or paddle-boarding, and traveling to new places. But, by the way, never, ever make fun of your kids or humiliate them in front of others. That is not playing or fun. That is shaming and horrible and will require years of therapy for them to recover from.
6. Work together. If you are cleaning your child’s room, start out giving him or her little jobs (find every one of your socks and put them in the laundry basket, perhaps) and gradually work up to bigger jobs. Working side by side, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, working in the garden, cleaning out the car, or volunteering, is a great way to instill a good work ethic. Make charts with stickers as a reward for a job well done! Yes, there is a time for laziness, but there is also a time to get things done. Kids need to learn how to do that, and if you do everything for them, they turn into adults who don’t know how to do anything for themselves. Hmmm…would you want to marry or be one of those?
7. Unconditional love. OK, I’m going to brag for a minute. All of my kids are smart, good people. I’ve had a number of teachers tell me that whatever we are doing as parents is working because all of my kids have been well-adjusted, good at school, and highly creative, and, for the most part, charming. To what do I attribute that? Well, first of all, I never try to squeeze my kids into a mold. We make our own molds in our house. I love them no matter what and always try to teach a lesson when things go bad. Even after I completely lose it and scream and act terribly (which I have done—what parent hasn’t??), I let them know how I am really feeling and how I need their unconditional love, too. Together we are human. Together we are wonderful in all our messy imperfections.
8. Create a healthy environment. What we are finally learning on the frontiers of science and medicine is that germs, dirt, and bacteria are actually essential to our health. Sterility is not safe. Skip the antimicrobial stuff and the flame retardants and the artificial air fresheners. (OK, that means skip the plastic bottles and food containers, too, but let them play with plastic toys.) Feed them organic food!!!!!! But don’t be obsessive about anything. Get the toxins out of your house, your food, their bedrooms, your yard, and let them get dirty and have fun. Feed them nourishing, nutritious food with love so that they can withstand the occasional crap food.
9. Really listen to them. Learning to listen to your kids is kind of like turning a dial on a radio and trying to find a frequency with a clear signal. What they say is not always what they really mean, and what they really mean often needs a little gentle coaxing to come out. Sometimes the listening is physical, too. For instance, my oldest was a truly picky eater. And I, being a very young mum, wasn’t sure how to handle it. Turns out, 30 years later she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance, which maybe explains why she would never eat a sandwich. Sometimes they say no when they mean yes, and you have to read their body language to find out what kids are really saying. Sometimes body language masks a true desire to find something out. But quieting your own self to get on their frequency is always rewarded with true connection and sharing, which is such a lovely thing.
10. Let them go. My two oldest have gone to camp for four weeks every summer since they were 9. It’s hard to let them go. But they will tell you it was the best four weeks of their year. When I was on my kids’ school board, I learned about “helicopter parents.” I even know one parent who MOVED to their kid’s college town. Honestly, I see this especially with mothers who have boys, which worries me the most. We’ve come so far in raising independent and strong girls, and yet a lot of mothers of boys seem to indulge in their son’s boyhood more than their manhood. I could be completely wrong, but it’s something I’ve noticed, and since I don’t have boys it seems odd to me. Again, I think it’s our job as parents to raise independent, responsible adults. Therefore, they need to know how to make their own doctor’s appointments (by the time they go to college, not as toddlers!), how to cook for themselves and do their own cleaning, and how to get their own jobs. If we’ve done it right, letting them go is a happy thing. Hopefully, we haven’t lost so much of our connection to our own selves that when we let them go it seems we have no self left. Our kids are not who we are. They are on their own journey, as are we. And like any good journey, it takes preparation, discipline, and research to get the most out of it. And getting the most out of it is all about loving, having fun, and learning new things. Enjoy the trip!