Last month, my son had to write a graduation speech. I warned him that earnest words are deadly dull and suggested that lists are easier to write and more entertaining. As he began to compose, I found myself listing the things I've learned during 18 years of parenting him.
Establish your power early. Skirmishes are easier to win than wars. I remember a friend telling me it took her an hour and a half to talk her 2-year-old child into a car seat. I was incredulous. Why didn't she fold the child in half and cram her into her seat? I've heard parents say, "It's too hard to get my child to bed, so I just let him fall asleep in front of the TV." To me, this statement heralds the beginning of the end. If you can't set limits when your child is only 2, you're going to be in big trouble when he's 16. I found it helpful to think of limits as non-physical hugs. They provide security and love.
You get more savvy about power struggles as your children grow. I found my way out of bedtime battles by establishing a predictable evening routine for my son and daughter: bath, lullaby and last sweet words made a reassuring ritual for us all. An inspiring resource for having fun setting limits is the work of Jim Fay from the Love and Logic Company. I recommend his tapes Helicopters, Drill Sergeants and Consultants to start with and Hormones and Wheels for handling older children. You can get a catalog or order tapes and books by calling (800) 338-4065.
Turn horrible experiences into learning. Children can't escape the slings and arrows of the world, and parents feel these even more intensely than their children do. You can't always protect your child, and you really don't want them robbed of experiences that will help them grow. I calmed myself in two ways: First, I saw again and again that my children had more resilience than I remembered having as a child; second, it helped to figure out what the experience could teach my child. Leaving the West Coast, I was concerned about moving my son from a small, nurturing private school into a larger public one. During the summer before he started to school, he went to a poetry class and returned one day, confused. "I wrote a poem that wasn't funny, but when I read it, everyone laughed," he told me. While my heart was breaking at his first rejection, I realized this was a perfect time to introduce him to the potential cruelty of public-school classrooms. We talked about how some people get their power from the outside (by manipulating, teasing and mocking) and others get it from the inside (by caring and being kind).
Everyone has regrets. I wish I'd done a better job with the two biggies: religion and money. I wish I'd given my children a religion that they could reject. At an age when children are curious about religion, mine had a dismal experience at a disorganized Sunday School. It was bad enough, and they were old enough, to refuse to return. Ever since, we have been attending the Church of Sunday Sleep-in, setting that one day of rest apart from all others.
I wish I'd introduced a healthier attitude about money views (and that I had a healthy attitude to impart). I felt comforted and enlightened recently when I came across Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad, a book that made me see finance differently. Koyosaki had a father whose money philosophy seemed wrong to him, so he found a mentor-dad and apprenticed himself. It's not too late to undo my own fiscal ignorance, and I'm going to give this book to my son.
Read together. Much of our family life and my children's love of learning has come from sharing books together. Lots of parents think that this is the way to improve their children's test and school skills. While, they may be right, they're missing the greater gift. I remember Jim Trelease, the author of The Read Aloud Handbook, reminding parents that they'll always have time to mow the lawn and play bridge, but the opportunity for reading aloud is brief. Reading can slow down the world and open communication on a daily basis. Parents who read aloud have more fun.
Downtime and choice are crucial. The pace of life is so fast, it's hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind. I've watched parents struggle with transporting children to activities, complaining all the while that they have so little family time. I've learned a lot from living with the introverts in my house. My children have spent lots of time reading, listening to music and inventing games. Part of this pattern can be set in early childhood by the way parents respond to the "I'm bored" whine. It didn't work for my kids, and I told them it was their job to find something interesting to do.
Put yourself first. Many times I've faced the difficulty of trying to meet family needs when I was drained. Someone once applied the airplane safety mandate to parenting, and I thought it was a perfect analogy. In a plane, if oxygen is needed, parents are instructed to put on their own masks before helping their children.
Time-outs for parents are essential. It's nearly impossible to be a professional, a parent and a lover-friend to your mate. You'd think it would get easier when your children are older and parenting is less frenetic, but habits and patterns make it just as difficult then to find time for your marriage. Four years away from a child-free home, I'm working harder to invest in the relationship that launched our family.
Actions speak louder than words. One day I drove a child to sports practice because his parents told the coach they had to work and were too busy to drive. As we arrived at the child's house, the father finished mowing his lawn and came to the car to thank me for bringing his child home. The boy I'd driven was very quiet as he left my car. He didn't greet his father or hang around to hear his father chat with me. I felt the tension. Children don't miss the messages, even when the parents don't realize what their actions are saying.
Admit your faults and flaws. I've taught my children that while making mistakes is most definitely a part of being human, you become a better person by cleaning up the messes you make. I was well into my 30s before I learned that you don't have to carry unresolved mistakes forever. Admitting your errors and finding ways to correct them usually makes them vanish. Acknowledging my mistakes with my children has helped our communication. I love to talk about what I've learned from my mistakes, and I'm not afraid to let my children know when I feel I've made an error in judgment.
Laughter and play are the best medicine. One sadness in my son's leaving home is thinking about losing our great foursome. We played Bigs against the Littles in card games and team mini-golf for years. Like most families, we've accumulated family stories, traditions, silly sayings and in-jokes. When my children were young, I used to write down their funny sayings; they were a great antidote for a sad mood or dull moment.
TV is a family's greatest enemy. My favorite years were those when we put the TV away and found renewal in playing games, reading aloud and being silly.
Self-esteem comes from self. By middle school, my children knew we would be partners in their plans for higher education. We would handle most of the finances, but they had to help by keeping up their grades and getting involved in school activities. When college acceptances and scholarships arrived, my son felt rewarded for his hard work.
A sense of pride develops from work that's well done. I've worked hard at mothering, learned a lot, and gained experience I'll always treasure. I'm almost as proud of my parenting as I am of my son.