Occasionally I run across a family that fairly radiates glory and success. They happily share that their oldest is a patent lawyer, and their youngest is an obstetrician. I find these conversations uncomfortable because, while I don’t begrudge them their happiness, it seems as if these parents are proud of THEIR accomplishment, and bragging about THEIR success. That may sound petty, but I don’t think I am alone in this.
I have also run across families that have had the opposite experience. “I have to go visit my son in prison. It is only his second offense and we are hoping to get him into therapy and find a job he can take to build his confidence and working skills.” These conversations are also hard because the pain is so palpable. These parents also seem to think that they are responsible.
The truth is more complicated than that
As a parenting of a large family, it is clear to me that how your kids turn out is driven by things like genetics, personal decisions, friends and environment, random events and — parenting. Some of these things are outside anyone’s foresight or control.
As a parent, I want to do everything possible to help my kids succeed. However, some of my best efforts have failed, some of the things I thought would make a good impression did not, and some of the things that I feared would have a major negative impact turned out to be less important.
To complicate things, I have been growing up in parallel with my children. I’d like to say that I came out of the church on our wedding day full of wisdom and great ideas. I thought that was true(!). However, it turned out that I had my own growing up to do — and I have been doing it for decades. I hope to achieve mature grown up status by age ninety. The date keeps slipping out…
While I know that we parents do have a great deal of influence on our kids, I don’t think that parents can take sole responsibly for the success or failure of their children.
Some kids are born with beauty, talent and intelligence to spare. Add good parenting, a nurturing environment, excellent education, and good personal choices to a flawless set of DNA and …voila! Life is good! Right? I think it is rare that all these stars align.
Many kids are born with significant disadvantages, such as serious diseases or birth defects, vulnerability to addiction, schizophrenia or other mental disorders. Some are born sociopaths. Some are born with learning disabilities. Some kids just don’t have the abilities that make for the 21st century American success story.
Some kids are born with the cards stacked against them. Life for them is like running a race wearing a 50 lb pack and diving flippers against opponents unfettered and flying around the track in state of the art track shoes. Without love and support, these kids struggle just to get by.
Too many kids do not have the positive environment, loving parents, good educational opportunities, love and support. That doesn’t mean they can’t live successful and happy lives, but it does make for challenge.
There are often things a parent, relative or friend can do to help their child overcome such obstacles — but sometimes there isn’t much a parent can do besides love them. And in those cases, once you have done what you can do, it may not be enough.
I have watched some amazing people deal with serious health issues in their children. These parents display a luminous and intense love for their children that is awesome to behold. The lesson I have drawn from these acquaintances is that each child, regardless of their capabilities, is a wonderful creation that can bless your life and help you grow — as you bless their life and help them grow. They convict me to meet my kids where they are, help them to reach for their best, and love them for who they are versus what they achieve.
Sometimes our ability to influence our kids is minimal
We parents do not have nearly as much control as we would like to think. It is like turning the knob on the propane cooker (recent experience here) and seeing that the flame is not getting more intense. Sometimes we are turning the wrong knob. Sometimes we are turning a knob that has been disconnected from the machine without us realizing it. We turn and turn, and turn, and nothing changes.
I recall a day when I had a talk with my daughter that I thought was going really well. I actively and respectfully listened to my daughter. I carefully shared my thoughts. I bared my heart. I was working really hard at being there for her. I thought I was doing everything right. My daughters reaction?
There are times when we have to realize that our strategy is not working — and try something new — like changing the propane tank. And sometimes that change is to just be quiet and let them go until they are ready to listen.
When children are young, it is not too difficult to control who they interact with. A good friend just told me that her little girl got her tooth knocked out by a playmate who has anger issues. They will be avoiding that little girl in the future.
As your children get older this gets harder. They go to school, develop their own ideas (OMG!) and decide who they want to spend their time with.
Some parents never give up on trying to control their kids friendships. I am not saying that we should not weigh in when our teens are hanging out with the kid that was kicked out of school for consistent drug use and failing grades. We have a responsibility to step in sometimes and be firm. But you need to reserve that awesome power for when it is really necessary — not to protect little Sally from being exposed to that blue collar immigrant family so she can spend time with the wealthy doctors daughter.
On the flip side — idealists can sometimes place their kid in real danger in order to feed their desire to be inclusive and open minded. And it is critical to play close attention to what your kids are REALLY telling you in what they say and do. Sometimes they are really asking you to intervene.
This is hard!
The nuclear bomb of parenting
There are limited ways to really influence your kids, and you can’t always count on knowing what is going through their heads. However, there is one secret parenting weapon that anyone can use that will make a huge impact — EXAMPLE.
If you have your stuff together, treat your family with love and respect, show them real consideration and willingness to sacrifice your own wants in order to meet your responsibilities to them — or just to show your love for them — it WILL rub off.
Some kids are harder cases than others. You may not see the results immediately — but results will come.
The darn thing is that this works both ways. If you treat others badly, are always looking out only for yourself, or go trough each day moaning like the ghost from Christmas past — they will pick up on that too.
One night my wife was hot and uncomfortable. Our air conditioning was not working well. It was around 1030 pm and I could see she was not going to sleep a wink. So, I headed over to Walmart to get her a stand fan. I set it up and let it rip. She slept like a baby.
The next day the kids were astonished at what I had done. It had really touched her as well. It didn’t seem like much to me — especially after all the boneheaded stunts I have pulled. But it really made an impact.
My wife is even better at this than I am — taking opportunities to get me those shorts I mentioned I needed, picking up my dry cleaning on the way home from work, or coming home with some random item from Costco that she thought I would love. If one of us wants some wine and cheese, we always get enough for two. And when we go for walks we each take time to listen to what is happening in the others work. We include the kids at times in these special moments and let them know that they are part of our inner circle of caring.
My kids have a bit set in their head now — people that love each other take care of each other, and are there to listen when things are a bit crazy. They have an example to shoot for in their own relationships. Will they continue this in life? I hope so, but nothing is guaranteed in parenting.
How much does your child trust you?
We stress with the kids that we will pick them up — no questions asked — when they call — regardless of time or place. And we have proven that willingness on a few occasions.
We have also had times where the child did not tell us something that was going on at school or with friends that was tearing them apart. It’s heartbreaking to find that out after the fact.
Will they call you when out drinking and needing a ride home? Will they tell you when their heart is broken? Will they run an idea by you for a career change? Do they feel that they can have an open discussion about college choices? This doesn’t mean solving… often it means just listening. As a parent with life experience you should share what you think. But active listening is critical and letting them know that you respect their right to make a choice. That is crucial, and it is sometimes hard as hell.
My kids don’t always listen to my advice — but sometimes they do. And I want them to know that I will be there to act as an impartial sounding board when they have a dilemma, I will be there when they need a ride home, I will be there when they need a shoulder to cry on or a place to stay after a break up that has them reeling, raw and emotionally ragged.
Give them reasons to trust you. Don’t freak out when they tell you something shocking. There is always time to do that later — in your closet or the bathroom.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Parents often think of the path to success as a beautiful trail that takes their child from the path their parents set them on — up to a beautiful garden on the mountain top. They see one path and one destination. They KNOW that Lauren would be a fantastic engineer, or lawyer, or doctor.
Maybe Lauren secretly wants to be a teacher. Or maybe she isn’t ready to make any decisions about what he wants to be. Maybe she just wants to play for now.
The reality is that there are many paths and many destinations. It is the journey that matters. Help your kid understand that truth. Show them that the journey is awesome by your example each day. Realize that you are still on your journey and may not know as much as you think about the destinations you are pushing them towards.
I am in the habit of asking my kids what they think they would like to do in the future? We discuss their ideas for a bit and then move on to something else. Invariably their choice story changes over time as they grow up, learn what they like and don’t like, and get a better idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Some people say that it is bad to tell someone to follow their dreams. Some people are adamant that this is the best advice for kids. I think both positions are half correct. I tell the kids to think about what is cool to them, space?, medicine?, education?, renewable energy?, Geology?, etc. Then I tell them that there are many ways to work with that cool thing, to find the one they can enjoy doing. For example, it takes engineers, scientists, teachers, technicians, contract administrators and many more to put an astronaut in space.
Am I responsible if my turns out to be an axe murder?
As parents we have the ability to really screw up our kid, or make them better. You cant control the outcome. There are powerful forces at work that you may not even be aware of. But, if you are a conscientious parent, and have given them a good example to follow, and nurtured their growth with love, learning, and care —that is the best you can do. And hopefully, it will be enough.
Remember that after you have poured all you can of yourself into raising your child — be kind to yourself. We parents are far from perfect.