Like marriage, I had heard nightmare stories about raising kids and how much work, how difficult, and what an expensive, exasperating experience it is. No one ever told me it would be the best thing I have ever done, a joyful experience pretty much every day.
I’m not saying it’s easy or always fun. There is much thankless work to be done raising children – you can imagine or recall – but the rewards can exceed the effort manifold. But I believe this to be somewhat conditional upon whether the parents are proactive, patient, and realistic about their children. If not, it might end up being huge relief when they leave home.
There are two main types of mistakes that I see (this is your first clue that I’m going to generalize like crazy). First are the parents that are too controlling. They expect their kids to be perfect, even when it is developmentally impossible. (I will just say for the record that perfection is a counterproductive goal in any circumstance.) So requiring a two-year old or even a teenager to control their emotions is pretty much impossible. Expecting it is crazily unrealistic. To insist upon it creates stress for the parent and potentially emotional scars in the child. The latter creates all kinds of problems, not limited to rebellious behavior. Being too controlling also impairs a child’s ability to learn to be independent – how to take care of, think, and make decisions for themselves. Controlling parents may create controlling kids who may eventually want to control the parents when they get old.
“Your children will become what you are so be what you want them to be” – the Happy Place, Facebook.
Second are the parents that are too permissive, indulgent, and/or trying to be the child’s friend, not parent. They do not want to upset the child, fight with the child, in any way blunt their natural development, make them feel unloved, and so on. The problem with this approach is, depending on how the child is indulged, the child may not learn self-discipline, delayed gratification, moderation, empathy, humility, self-control, money management and/or basic social skills. Here is where I think parents can invest in their long term peace-of-mind by modeling self-discipline early on. For example, I think it was much easier to teach our kids manners and the rules and expectations of the house starting when they were toddlers. By “easier”, I mean that it only took 5-8 years of repetition, reinforcement, appropriate consequences and rewards to get them to use their manners, behave in a civilized manner, or pick up after themselves.
Hard to believe there’s a “harder” alternative. Paradoxically, it feels easier in the beginning to give in to and spoil the child. Then, after failing to teach discipline, age-appropriate independence and self-control, we may experience the consequences of indulgence such as acting up and failing to meet their responsibilities at home or school (add hormones and freedom to the mix when they’re teenagers), poor social skills, or being demanding (for money or acting out for attention). The bad behavior would start with the Terrible Twos and continue until they leave home, so indeed, this would be the harder path in the long run. These children may grow up to be demanding, entitled, ungrateful adults who ignore their parents when they are old, or continue to expect them to provide for them when it should be their turn to care for their parents.
These are huge generalizations and most parents are not operating in the extremes. We may even be too permissive in some areas and too controlling in others simultaneously. Additionally, every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another, so a parent has to be able to adapt and experiment for each situation. No matter what you read or people tell you, parenting is an art. In the end, it’s just one great big experiment, and you don’t get the report card until the kid goes into therapy when they’re 30 and you find out how you screwed them up.
In the meantime, since that report card is still more than a decade away, I try to apply a daily antidote to my parental screw-ups and blind spots. Our philosophy has been to spoil our kids with love, not stuff. As such, I hug and kiss and tell my boys I love them every day (they’re 19 and 17 and they still let me, but not in front of their friends), tell them frequently that I love them unconditionally no matter what happens, what they do, or who they become. I compliment them sincerely as often as I can about something they’ve done or just who they are. I try to sit down and have a conversation with them regularly about what’s going on in their lives, and really listen. I try to provide at least one meal or activity per week that they get to choose for themselves or the family.
The stuff – they must largely earn these things on their own, either by saving their allowance or working. They can lose any of that stuff or other privileges if they fail to follow the rules. In other words, there are pretty clear boundaries about what is required of them and the consequences if they break the rules. If rules are fair and have been applied consistently and the consequences proportional to the infraction, then they will know and follow the rules. If not, they will find ways to break the rules, possibly using escalating behavior. My opinion is it’s just as bad to have inconsistent discipline as no discipline at all.
No one told me that being a Mom is the best job in the world. It truly is. The joy my boys have brought me has been beyond my wildest dreams, and every bit of effort, patience, investment in time/energy early on payed off 100-fold in the end. I have loved every age, including the Terrible Twos and the teenage years. No, it’s not perfect but we learn from our mistakes. We forgive ourselves and our children for just being imperfect humans who are trying our best. If I forgive and love my children unconditionally, then maybe if I’m lucky, they will forgive and love me unconditionally for just trying to be a good Mom.