Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Five Ways to Be an Okay Parent

Once I wrote an advice column on parenting. It was vetted by a non-profit which specializes in these things, but I was the person who made the questions up (you always wondered, now you know) and then answered them.

When my kids were preschoolers, a very earnest mom I knew was talking on the playground one day about how to get her kids to eat vegetables.  "I read this thing in last month's issue that said you should give them options and set a good example," she said.  "I actually wrote that," I responded, and she stopped dead to quit glaring at my son as he brandished a stick after her kid. She looked me in the eye and realized I wasn't kidding.  As my best boss once said, you know you are a grownup when you realize the people in charge don't know anything. I'm pretty sure she wrote off anything in print after that.

I am no expert, to be sure, and take minimal credit for how well my kids are turning out.  So far, so good. They are interesting people who make good grades and get invited back to other people's houses after they've visited.  I take this as the most positive sign I'm going to get. So, here's my advice at the stage before real teenagers but well past potty training:

Rely on benign neglect.  Sure, when they were little I played with them and took them to stuff.  But at home, as long as I could see them out of the corner of my eye, I stood at the counter in my kitchen and read library books.  To myself. If I sat on the couch and tried to read, they deduced I was relaxing and of course that wouldn't do.  If I stood up, I must be busy, so they let me be, sometimes for three or four minutes at a time. 

Know they're smarter than you.  Think you're more intelligent than your kid?  What color, exactly, is the sky in your world?  When pregnant, our generation takes vitamins and eats spinach; our moms smoked and drank the odd highball. They had fun, and we, armed with knowledge and good intentions, are making a bunch of smarty-pants. Careful what you wish for. Anyway, you are the parent, so make up the rules and hold your own. Then listen, because you'll learn something about them and maybe the world. This is the good part. Just remember, they know more in sixth grade than you'd forgotten by your sophomore year at Brown or wherever you couldn't get into now. It's evolution.

Childhood isn't a total minefield.  My dad is a former a cop who saw lots of very bad things, and yet he and my mom still let me run around all day with a pack of kids in my neighborhood.  Now he says it was because we lived in a small town, but he hasn't objected when my own progeny have gone for twenty-minute bike rides to the store or to a friend's house.  As he says, what else can you do?  Let go as you can, based on where you live, but remember bubbles of imagined invincibility burst eventually. Better this takes place in a non-traumatic way at eight than in a what have I done with my life way at thirty-five, because in the latter case they will likely be watching your television and eating your food when it happens. 

Know their friends.  This is the best shortcut I've found.  If you've done things right, your kids will have cool friends, who will in turn have equally fun parents who will eat dinner/drink wine//walk the floor with you and talk about which teachers you want next year. You'll know which kids not to invite over before they wreck the house or throw a tantrum and lock themselves in the bathroom. In the best possible world--my twenty year-old self is screaming loudly now--you can pick out your in-laws ahead of time. This could determine the quality of your Thanksgiving holiday for the rest of your natural life. Choose well.

It ain't you, babe.  When we are in the stage a wise friend of mine refers to as The Milky Haze, biology is keeping us close so we can keep those infants alive. Time marches on and life intervenes, and we learn we can't do it all.  At some point, it's important to understand there are others--a sitter, a teacher, the other parent, even--who will inform your child's universe. You can't control it all, try as you might.  It's a major moment when you look to kind and wise hearts to jump in at the inevitable moment when you are not around. These souls (who don't need to share our every belief about how the world works, by the way) are among best gifts we get as parents: hard as it is to imagine, there are people in this world who love our kids almost as much as we do.  When they show up, we must be grateful they've been sent, and have the humility to understand we, like every other parent, need them. Most especially, I hear, when we have teenagers.  And if we're lucky, someday we'll be called upon to return the favor.


  1. Sue,
    I hope you put Chris and I in the camp of people who love your kids....'cause we do.
    So far the teenager thing has gone pretty smooth. It is nice to have your kids grow up to be people you would have wanted to hang out with when you were their age. I would have BFFs with your daughter and my daughter! Love your blog.

  2. You bet I put you in that camp! Love to see your happy family and always enjoy having Emma over. She is a delight. Glad you liked the post and enjoy the blog!