ParentingWhat makes a parent? One thing: A child, in your absolute care. That child maymake you a parent when you give birth, or when you adopt – or a child may,somehow, wander unexpectedly into your life, or be thrust on you by tragedy. Achild may become you child-by-choice, picking you to stand in for a parentmissing or in some way crippled by life. The trick is, once a child owns you,you’re a parent.You may have chosen that, or been waylaid by life’s unexpected detours. It makesvery little difference how the relationship occurred. There you are: You and achild, struggling with the complicated, difficult, eternal challenges of the parentingrelationship. The question from here on will never be how you got to that point, butwhat you do with your parenthood once it is been bestowed upon you.So the question is not how to be a parent: If you have got a child, you are stuckwith the role, whether you wanted it or not. The question is how to be a goodparent – and the answers are as varied as parents and children themselves, thoughsome principles rule.The truth is that most of us will fail in the challenge, in some way or to somedegree. Even the finest of parents falls short of perfection. That is not becausethere are no reliable, committed, intelligent, honest, caring, responsible parentsgiving superb attention to the children in their care. It is because the labor andideals of parenting are infinite, and those who parent are merely human and finite –and because so much of parenting falls under the heading of “no right choices, onlya range of better and worse wrong choices.” The job is too large, the ideals tooconstant, the obstacles too persistent and difficult, and the options often so limitedthat the best we can hope for is to raise a healthy child who loves us, and hopethere is some kind of grace in the universe to cover all our errors.That said, there is plenty to know, consider, and learn about good parenting.Ancient and modern sources have plenty to say. The past offers us plenty ofunsettling versions of good parenting, there are as many or more that canstrengthen your sense of being part of a massive tradition of parents all working toraise up good children, with love and honor on all sides. The First Principle: A Parent is Forever
Whether it makes you sober, or sends you howling in terrified laughter, the bottomline is, once a child has made you a parent, you will never stop being a parent. Thatis true no matter what: Whether you put the child up for adoption, or get in a carand run away; whether the child dies or you do. It is true when your child is littleand it will still be true when you have lost five inches in height to age, and your“little baby” towers over you. To become a parent is to cross over an invisibleborder, and enter into a country from which you can never really return.As with most momentous border crossings, it might be best if you entered into thisnew, foreign land with the knowledge of that eternal change. But in all honesty,few parents can be said to have become parents as a result of deep, profound andaccurate meditation on the ever-expanding ripples of change that will begin when achild enters their life. Instead, parenthood often seems to just sort of happen, andthe philosophy often gets saved until much later. Even the most thoughtful,conscientious parent usually finds once the border has been crossed that the terrainwas not quite what they expected when they got out their visa and walked acrossthe barrier to the other side. It is hard to get your brain to really wrap around thenotion of “forever.”A child does not even have to succeed in being born to carry his or her parents atleast a few feet into that unknown country. Mothers and fathers who have lostchildren to miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, and abortion can testify thatthe slight, ephemeral moments a child existed in their awareness altered who theparents were in ways they could not have planned for.You cannot divorce a child. Even if you give a child away in adoption, that strandremains attached to you, a genetic and personal link to the future and to the worldaround you. It remains an experience you had, a choice you made, and aresponsibility you are caught up in, for all the rest of your life.How you will see that play out is uncertain. You may even be among the few whonever really sense the connection – leaving that awareness to your child, hisadoptive parents, and all the people who deal with him in the decades to come. Butthe bond remains: Your child’s wife, looking into his face, will wonder, in passing,if she sees his mother in his eyes, his father in the shape of his hands. Yourgrandchildren, when asked, will tell people that their daddy was adopted, so theyhave grandparents, but do not know what their real grandparent are like – and evenin saying so much, they will remind people of the bond to you that never broke,and never could break.
Once you are a parent, you will never, ever again in your life be a “not-parent.”That truth can be replayed anew for each child you have, but it can never bedestroyed from the moment you have your first child. Becoming a parent changesyour very definition.In that, though, you are not alone. At least your utter change is known and sharedby billions, in the past and present, and will be known by more in the centuries tocome. The trick is for everyone, past, present and future, to accept the principlefrom the beginning: Being a parent is forever, and like all things eternal itdeserves some time and attention, and a lot of responsible consideration. To Hold the Future in Your HandsEvery living child is an arrow aimed at the future. Every child who dies is apossibility for the future denied, mourned not only for him or herself, but for all thetomorrows that will never happen as a result of death. When you hold a child, youare holding the future between the palms of your hands. Every action you take witha child is an investment that will only show results a year, a decade, or a lifetimefrom now.That being true, it is painfully easy to develop an overwhelming feeling of stagefright thinking about the choices you are going to be making as a parent. We canhear the sober, aggrieved voices of the adults our children will be, saying sadly,“My mother never loved me enough,” “My father was a bad role model,” “Myparents had no idea of proper discipline.” If we are given to anxiety we worry ourchildren will turn out badly, and commit dire crimes because we failed to parentthem correctly. Then we think of gossip hosts on television, trotting out pictures ofour children in their grubbiest clothes, announcing the darlings grew up in neglectand poverty. Or, if we come from academic backgrounds, we dream of ourchildren becoming genius writers, or painters, or actors, or statesmen – and thenwe imagine the two-to-three academic texts produced yearly “proving” that thesegeniuses were abused by their parents, psychologically warped by theirenvironments, and driven to extremes of distress by our lack of parenting skills.My advice? Well, keep it sort of in mind, in a back corner of your consciousness.It never hurts to know history will judge you, and that your results will be the proofof your methods. But beyond that?
Forget about it. Let it go. It is impossible to make perfect choices for a future youcan only imagine. It is hard enough to make choices for a present that is alreadyright here. Focus on the child you have, in the life you are living now, and do notwring your hands over a future that may never happen.There is an old folk story – one of the many stories of “fools.” This one involvesthe most foolish son of a family leaving his home, to make his way in the world.His father tells him not to come home until he is found three people more foolishthan he. For some time he wanders the world, learning a bit, developing his goodsense, but he keeps failing to find anyone who he honestly thinks is sillier than heis. Until, at last, he enters a tavern after a long day on the road.He orders a meal and a pint of beer, and the daughter of the innkeeper runs off totake care of that. The Fool sits at his table, waiting for his dinner, but no dinnercomes, and no beer. After a time he waves to the wife of the innkeeper, and shearrives. He explains; she apologizes and says she will go take care of it.Again he waits. Again he fails to get his dinner and his tall draft beer. He flagsdown the innkeeper and explains once more. Is once more told he will be takencare of – but no such luck. The innkeeper disappears, and the Fool waits, andwaits, and waits. At last he gets up to see what could possibly be wrong. Hesearches the entire inn, and finds no one – not a sign of the innkeeper and hisfamily – until he goes down to the cellar.There he finds all three, in tears, weeping and wailing and moaning and crying,each still holding an empty pitcher to hold the beer they have not yet drawn. TheFool asks what is wrong.The daughter points to an ax lodged in a high beam above the beer cellar. She says,“I thought you very handsome when you placed your order, and I thought if I werelucky, you would marry me. In time we’d inherit this in from my parents, whowould retire to a little cottage in the town. We’d run the inn successfully, and be sohappy! We’d have four children and we’d make good money, and everythingwould be grand until, one day, you’d come down here to draw the beer, and that axwould come loose from the beam and kill you dead!” And she began to cry again,louder than ever, and her parents with her. They wept and wailed and wrung theiraprons, until at last the Fool reached up, pulled the ax from the beam, and handed itto the girl. “If you’d had even so much sense as to pull this ax free, all the goodthings you dreamed of might have happened, with none of the bad. You’re a pretty
girl and this is a nice inn, and I would have been happy enough to marry you. Butnever will I marry into a family of people sillier than I.”When raising children, your chore is to remove axes you can see in the present, andlet the axes of the future fall where they may. You cannot see them, and can onlydo so much to plan for them. So, take the future seriously. Realize your choiceshave consequences. But let go of the anguish and the fear of history watching overyour shoulder. Concentrate on the present and the needs of the present, first. PrioritiesOkay, you have accepted this is a serious commitment that will change your life,but you have also accepted you cannot let that get to you. You are focused on thejob, and the real child who needs you. Wonderful! Now I bet you are asking,“What next.”It is what I would ask, anyway. At some point, the rubber has to meet the road, andthe actual child-rearing needs to begin, right? Well, mostly right. Now you have toget used to setting priorities – and then resetting them. And setting them over andover again with each new situation – and remember, by definition, a growing,learning, changing child changes the situation all the time. That is a kid’s job.To successfully keep up with shifting priorities, you have to – set priorities.Yes. That is just what I said. You need to set priorities to set proper priorities.Why? Because if you do not you and your child are going to be pulled apart by thewar of conflicting demands. If you need to see an example of where poor prioritystacking can end up, just go to a few parenting events and chat with the parentsthere. You will quickly find at least a few whose day planners are crammed withthe 75 billion things they are tracking that absolutely must be done to raise theirchildren successfully: Play dates, little league, a steady stream of doctor’sappointments, parent/teacher conferences, dance class, sleep overs, birthday parties– those to be given and those attended. There are pageants, and clubs and weekendactivities and recreation and education and after a little while of listening to thelitany, you begin to wonder how anyone can come out of that sane. People do.Some parents and children manage to surf the crest of the wave with ease. Moremanage to take spill after spill only to clamber back on the board. But only a fewmanage to stop and ask themselves what this is doing to their parenting. After all,
look at all the demands they are meeting. Look how well they are ensuring theirkids have it all.Their kids do not “have it all.” They have a lot, and much of it will be precious tothem when they are grown. Much, however, will be remembered as a blur ofkaleidoscope changes all swirling around a single, harried parent who is teachingonly one lesson well and consistently: That if you cannot do everything, then youare a failure.Is this really a lesson any parent wants to bequeath to their child? That the rat racestarts in preschool and does not end until you are forcibly shuffled off theshuffleboard at the end of life? Do you want your children believing that it is notso much that Girl Scouts is important, or dance class, or a My Little Ponies themedparty, as that somehow you do all of it? Or would you rather your child learnyoung that life is about choosing, and then valuing what you choose?You begin to draw the line between you and rat race parenting by setting your ownpriorities and standards. You decide what is vital, and what is not.Here is a sample of priorities. Yours may and probably should be different in someways, and on some levels, but it is a start. But it is roughly the set that I chose, andit will give you a sense of setting limits.First came my child’s basic needs: Fundamental medical attention, food, water,shelter, clothing, sleep, and an environment that meet a few basic criteria for safetyand security. Love and a basic education – these came first, and nothing was tocome between her and her true needs.After that came the enriching stuff: Ethical upbringing aimed at teaching her somestandards of behavior. Books – as many as I could give her or convince her to readherself, were included. Access to art tools, music, and exposure to beautiful things– and plenty of discussion when possible. You quickly find out that it is notpossible to inflict all that much lecture on an unwilling child and you settle forsaying honestly and quickly what you do feel. That this particular book is the bestfantasy you ever read as a child or that painting is one of your favorites in theentire world.Oddly, these flashing comments seem to matter more than all the erudition in theworld. What matters most is to see Mom and Dad loving a great, complex world,
and interacting with it. With luck, your child may come to do the same, even if sheloves a painter you hate, and reads no fantasy at all.After that? Attention paid to a few friends, the occasional trip, treat or party, andyou have covered what is needed. From that point on everything is not onlyoptional, but should be considered with great caution before being added to achild’s life. A child can live without seven clubs, birthday parties with themedpaper plates and hired entertainment, music and dance and sports lessons all atonce, and so on and so forth. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that a child may notbe better off for a lot of boring afternoons drawing with crayons and bickering withone best friend than they are with an infinite number of afternoons laid out in one-hour blocks in a day planner.If you set up a very basic set of priorities focused on outstanding physical andemotional needs, fundamental education, and the great doors to culture – booksand art – you have given yourself a way of evaluating the ocean of options that willpress in on you as a parent.An even more powerful tool is simply to use the “want/need” division. We allknow there is a real difference between “I want,” and “I need.” For things needed,you should exert every effort to provide. Things merely wanted? Not so much,though no parent ought to intentionally block a child from getting any of theirdesires, either. But the best way to cope with the things a child desires is to try toteach them to pursue those themselves, not demand you enable them.If you find yourself faltering, thinking you should perhaps get that day plannerafter all, and “provide” your child with all the advantages, stop and considerwhether you, as a child, would have enjoyed being ferried between activity afteradult-supervised activity, never still, never private, never even properly quietlybored.Quiet, privacy and boredom are healthy elements in a child’s life, as are limitedresources that demand creative thought to become entertaining. Your child ishonestly not likely to need to have had ballet, piano, Tai Kwon Do, soccer and GirlScouts when she reaches adulthood. She will absolutely, though, need to knowhow to keep herself entertained, how to choose her own actions and activities, andhow to live without constant service or attention. When the temptation to pile onthe “benefits” presses you too closely, ask yourself what skills you need to copewith your life, and then make sure your child learns those. They are more likely to
be toward education, ethics, and self-discipline than they are to activity, recreationand socialization.So there you have a basic principle of parenting: Managing the priorities andholding to them. Do not damage your child by failing to make the hard choicesyourself. It is easy to convince yourself that more is better and that a decision thatincludes everything is better than a decision that includes nothing – but that is nottrue. The best gift you can give your child is the sight of you choosing clearly whatis important – and setting the rest aside. The very best gift is to show your kid youare living your life as though he is one of your priorities – not because you run andfetch and haul and tote, but because you give your child your time and your notice. Centering Your LifeI sometimes think the current trend toward helicopter parents and drive-throughactivities occurs because it is so much easier than trying to simply live with and fora child without all that excess filler or pressing micromanagement. It takes courageto parent in the simple, spare way of our best ancestors.In the old days, there was no real room for helicopter parenting, or drive-throughsoccer moms, or any of that. Mother and father were almost always both alreadyoverwhelmed with the basic requirements of life, whether they lived in a city or outon a farm. The effort and constant attention demanded to provide food and shelterto a family outweighed any desire to micromanage a child’s life. To the extent thatchildren were micromanaged, it was largely wrapped around integrating them intothe working needs of their families.Farmer’s children learned to chop and carry wood, milk cows, slop pigs, kill, pluckand clean chickens, plow, and more. Why? Because quite frankly, most farmsneeded every bit of help they could get to provide for a family. Urban childrenhelped tend stores, or watched over their siblings so a parent could afford an extrajob to help pay for rent and food. Children were not given make-work, they wereneeded, and no one made any bones about it.This was in many ways a superb thing, if also a burden and even an abuse. A childmight indeed, be pushed beyond his or her native ability, but there was often aclear reason and a clear sense of pride and relief on the part of the whole familywhen a child performed well. A child who showed a talent for training horses, orraising poultry, or even for scholarship could contribute in clear ways to their own
family, and in many families work was imposed not simply out of theoretical beliefthat it was good, but because everyone knew it was needed.“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” was not that different in underlyingattitude than our current belief that children “should” do chores and help withhousework. The difference is that in the past the connection between need and achore was far easier to see. If the chickens were not fed, they died. The cow whowent un-milked moaned out her pain, and her milk production slacked, losing thefamily income or provisions. A deli-counter left unattended could lead to theft, orthe loss of sales income. A child might hate the chores, and even the religiousmoralizing, but he or she would be unlikely to doubt the basic necessity that thechore be done. Today, our chores are seldom as validating to a child. Yes, thegarbage must be taken out – but it can often be delayed without clear loss toanyone, and a chore delayed is a chore forgotten to most kids.The result of this shift from necessary work to make-work, and cosmeticallyfocused work has led to another change, too. In former days, a child worked with,for, and around his or her parents, in constant involved interaction. A parent taught,supervised, and managed a child while at the same time laughing, teasing, andserving as an example for hours every day. Even parents who said or did littlemore than was required were there, completely knit into the full day of a child.Other children fared less well, but all in all more parent’s lives were lived withtheir children, integrated, with their shared lives centered, whole, and cut from asingle piece of cloth. There was relatively little need for such modern proverbs as“Spend at least one hour in social interaction with your child.” Nor did anyoneneed to provide “context” to help a child understand the “moral value of honestlabor.” Social interaction started with sunup and ended with final prayers. Contextwas a calf dead in a ditch because a gate was left open. Honest labor was theincome from tending the counter of the family store.We face a much harder challenge, now, to center our lives and our children’s liveson our family interactions. Work pulls us away, as do our social lives, our eternalInternet involvements, our games, our television and movies. The underlyingeconomies of our lives are largely invisible to children who cannot see thedifference between an hour spent online doing labor and an hour spent onlineplaying World of Warcraft.Yet our children need that centered, interactive, context-rich family life to grow upto be the sanest, happiest, most capable people possible, with the healthiest
emotional and social lives. That health and happiness is not based on helicopterparenting or through a hyper-sufficiency of activities. It is the result of a life ofintegrated relationship with a family and circle of friends, in a setting a child canhope to understand and watch with knowledge.Some people try to provide that by dropping out entirely. “Back to the basics”living is always a temptation. Home schooling movements, homesteading, andother approaches to imitating the integrated and tightly involved lives of pastcenturies are popular responses to the sense of disconnection many parents feelthreatening the core of family life. Others institute rule-laden ritualized lives, witha framework of constant patterns maintaining the structure of family living andparent-child interactions.These are not bad choices. They increase the involvement between parents andchildren, establish principles for which parents are clearly willing to live and fight,and ensure children know without doubt they are important to their parent’s corelife choices. The intimacy, the structure, and the ritual practices all are old andpotent ways to strengthen personal bonds. However, not everyone can succeed as ahomeschooling small farmer, or draw on a ritual-rich daily life.So it is important to adapt a bit. For you, the ritual laden life may be waking upearly and exercising with your child, both of you together in the faint dawn,listening to your favorite music together. Constant context can be provided byshowing your child both the work and the play you are doing while staring into thecomputer, sharing the nature of your job and inviting your child to join you in yourgames. You can integrate your child into the labor needed to maintain your lives byshopping, cooking, eating and cleaning up together in a regular pattern he or she isnot allowed to evade.The important thing about being a parent is to make sure you live a full life, makesure your child sees it and is fully involved with it, and that your work, play, lifeand family are all woven together in a way that lets your child know you aredetermined to live in a relationship with him, and lets him understand the exampleyou are making of your own life.“Have you hugged your child today,” and “An hour of interpersonal time with yourchild” are not bad rules of thumb. They will see you through in a pinch. But thegoal of a centered life with a fully integrated child comes closer. You may not askyour child to do taxes with you, but you should live your life so he knows when
you are doing them, and why you do them correctly. Your life should not be livedbehind a veil, with your child peering in past the fabric trying to get a glimpse. Discipline and Self-DisciplineFor many people, the core question of parenthood has to do with discipline: Howto discipline a child, spanking or no-spanking, time out, tough love or tender love,a cold parent serving as a disciplining god, or a gentle guide? How do you makeyour child do as he is told, and grow as you would have him be? How do you dealwith mistakes? How do you deal with rebellion?There is no simple answer, but there is a key thing to keep in mind in all thedecisions you make. The point of disciplining a child is not to achieve perfectobedience to you. It is, in the long run, to encourage your child to achieve perfectobedience to himself, and at the same time to addict him to moral standards thatwill later ensure that his perfect self-obedience provides a decent human being whowill be a blessing to the world he lives in, rather than a curse.That is an important distinction. A child who learns to be obedient to you, but onlyto himself when that self is serving you in some sense, has very little true self-discipline or moral understanding. No more than a flesh and blood sock puppet,without you or some other authority figure he or she is unable to count on his ownmoral compass, nor able to make a hard choice without a dreaded goad forcing hisdecision.It is not easy to raise a self-disciplined, personally ethical child. It is harder thanraising an obedient child and literature makes it clear that is no easy task in its ownright. Children lack so many of the things needed to make deeply good choices –and when they fail to make good choices, the temptation to punish them toencourage either more obedience or less experimentation is enormous.The trouble is that you want a child who will be good when you are not watchingand not there to act as a witness. He has got to eventually become his own witness,the judge who presides in sober sternness over your child’s own actions. Therefore,the discipline you impose must not be aimed at mindless acceptance of your owndictums, but at acceptance of the underlying morals and precepts. Punishment anddiscipline should encourage your child not simply to submit to your orders, but tohis own ideals. That requires cleverness and thought on the part of any parent –often more thought than a parent staring at a child-created disaster can summon.
Therefore, disciplinary decisions should focus not primarily on the negativeelements of a child’s life, but on the daily positives. As hard as it is to accept, themost important disciplinary lessons you teach occur when there is no punishmentneeded, no major mistake to be dealt with, and no obedience demanded. Negativeor punitive discipline has a limited place in raising a truly moral and independentperson with self-discipline, but it has less a place than constant positiveencouragement of desired behaviors.That is much harder than it may sound. To encourage your child in positive traits,you have to pay incredibly close attention, and be very smart about what your childwill consider rewarding. Praise? Yes, that often works. So do bribes – or“payments” if you want to call them that. However, the most valuable toolavailable to you as a disciplining parent is respect.There are many types of respect. There is basic respect owed to all human life.There is respect owed to those who try to live well, even when they fail dreadfully.There is respect shown to those who succeed. Respect, though, is a fundamentalhuman need. People need to be respected. It teaches them how to respectthemselves and others.Your child is most likely to learn the discipline and self-discipline you dream of,and to learn a vigorous moral view of the world, if you start by respecting him as aperson from infancy. That does not mean simply treating a child as a little adult.Indeed, that would be a catastrophe. It does, however, include recognizing thedignity, and rightful pride a child feels, and recognizing their real personhood. Achild is not a toy, a pet, a trophy, a prop, a slave, a remote-controlled robot, or anyother such thing. While not an adult, a child is not a living thing.Therefore, right or wrong, your child must first sense that you are not going toassault his fundamental human dignity, humiliating a child as punishment, orabusing him is a fundamental assault to that deep respect for his worth as a being.There is another aspect of respect, however; respect not for a child, but for hisabilities and actions. As a child gains skills, demonstrates ability, and makes goodchoices, there should always be a corresponding increase in the respect he earns.This is not a matter of blind praise. Indeed, it has to be exact, often minimallystated, and entirely connected with the child’s ability – though with fair recognitionof the limits the child still experiences.
So, for example, when a child learns to put on his own clothes in the morning, asmall child cannot put on clothing without assistance. No parent should waste timepretending he or she can – nor should the child be disrespected for a lack of skillthat is inevitable. A parent helps, with respect and calm good will.When a child rebels against that help as an affront to his or her dignity, a parentmay rebuke the acting out, but at the same time offer to let the child attempt todress himself. Offer lessened respect for the poor action, while continuing torespect the child’s desire to take on a level of self-discipline and skill. As the childlearns, the parent should cede more and more independence to the child – notpraise, so much, though a bit of praise surely will not hurt. But the underlyingpositive discipline is not the praise, but the liberty of telling a child, “Oh, good.You can dress yourself now. I’ll let you take care of that, then.”Punishment is often counterproductive, especially when it is seen as a primary tool,rather than a secondary reinforcing agent. Punishment, if sever enough, candiscourage some actions; but it generally tends to breed rebellion not obedienceand cooperation. A child whose primary forms of discipline are negative, is givenso few positive reasons for pursuing self-disciple and positive choice-making onhis own, that he is likely to base much of his life merely on the evasion ofpunishment and witness. That is essentially the opposite of the desired goal. Noone wants to end up with a child whose moral structure is merely based on gettingcaught or not.But again, focusing on fundamental respect for the person of the child, increasingrespect and liberty for gained skills and self-discipline, and carefully withdrawnlevels of respect when a child proves unable to perform as a self-willed adult in anarea, takes much more attention and precision than a punishment for a rebellion, abad choice, or a child’s failure to discipline himself. The truth is, most parents willend up using both the positive and negative punitive techniques to maintain controlwhile raising a child.Fortunately children are enduring, and will usually survive the muddle, forgive,and love you anyway.Parenthood is a dance between those truths: The truth that negative things happen,less than ideal methods are used, and life is seldom perfect; and the equal truth thatif your bond with your children is good, and the love real, in the end your childrenwill survive and endure most of your mistakes. We would all prefer to be perfect.As parents, we are not.
Fortunately, neither are our children. They are radiant, wonderful, complicated,and admirable little packages of human spirit, who are designed to survive reality,rather than wilt for lack of the ideal. If we love them, respect them, teach them ourideals, and demonstrate them regularly, there is at least a hope they will surviveour failings, and if we are very lucky indeed, love us still.If we teach our children to discipline themselves, and to understand our ideals, wehave done more than many have – and can take joy and pleasure in that, even if thepath to adulthood was filled with rebellions, mistakes, battles of will, lack ofobvious victories, and more. Do rightly by your children, check their worst habits,encourage their best, show them your ideals by living them yourself – and refuse togive up on them.