With a new baby on the way in just over two weeks, I often wonder what type of mother I will be. Lately I have been inundated with advice from parents and non-parents alike. Some of it asked-for; some of it not so much. And as someone who has worked with children for the bulk of my life, read plenty of books and blogs on topics of discipline and child-rearing philosophies, and passed on some good (and bad) advice here and there myself, I'm tempted to conclude that there are only a few concrete ways you can truly screw up your kid.
These ways are as follows:
1. By failing to show our children love by physically or emotionally abusing or neglecting them. In today's abuse-hyper society, any little public slap on the butt is likely to get social services called on you. But in actuality, the kind of abuse that puts kids through therapy later in life is usually pretty extreme. It's the manipulative, perpetuating kind, resulting from parents with their own issues who either don't care about their children or have mental problems which make them unable to care properly. This extreme stuff isn't something to take lightly, but for the most part it's a big giant waste of time to sit around wondering if the manner in which you choose to potty train is going to result in regressive tendencies in your child later on in life. Those of us sitting in therapy at age 24 whining about the way our parents potty trained us probably have too much time on our hands. (Seriously, back when people had to literally toil in the fields from sun-up to sun-down in order to survive, did people even THINK about crap like that?)
2. By failing to instill a sense of right and wrong. We can argue up and down all day what constitutes effective discipline, but the bottom line is that it's about teaching your kid to know right from wrong.
This is done through instilling boundaries, both physical and social, and by modeling behavior that you want your kids to follow. MOST people do this instinctively. If we fail at passing morals onto our kids, they COULD just grow up to be psychopath serial killers. But most parents who are trying, their methods varying or not, will do their best to make sure their kid knows what is right and wrong, and this will not happen. For the most part, arguing the details of how best to do this seems pointless. If I had a nickel for every over-reactive mother fretting about the fact that she (OH GOD!) used her ANGRY voice when speaking with her child, and what this will possibly mean for the child's future. Yes, random mother, your use of your ANGRY voice has effectively ruined your child's future opportunities to run for congress.
3. By failing to let our children live their lives and learn from their mistakes. Children need a little breathing room in order to effectively explore, learn, and grow. It's important to let them learn how the world works. This doesn't mean sit them down and horrify them with the gruesome details, but we shouldn't shield the reality that happens to them either. We shouldn't prevent every single scrape, bail them out of detention, demand that a teacher change a poor grade, or pretend that something unpleasant that happened never happened. Nor should we discourage dreams just because we believe them to be impossible. We can let our children try and fail; it will only make them stronger. Or they may just surprise us.
4. By failing to instill a sense of self-ownership. This could be called a work ethic or simply "owning ones own actions," but it's about making sure kids understand that no one but them is accountable for their own actions and that they are responsible for contributing positively to society. Parents can help kids develop this sense by making sure they are required to do chores around the house, by not allowing them to make excuses for their behavior when something was their fault, but rather to endure the natural consequences and to do their best to make amends, by encouraging them not to quit a project once they've started it, but to follow it through to completion, and by encouraging them to make good choices, even when everyone around them (especially peers) are making bad ones.
These are the only things in my mind that can really truly screw up a child's future if a parent doesn't pay enough attention to them, and even that is debatable. The rest of it is all just fluffy icing on the cake of life. Will they grow up to be a concert pianist or just learn to play show tunes for fun? Will they get all A's in school or have some B's and C's mixed in? Will they make it into their college of choice? Really, any and all of those opportunities parents struggle to make sure their children have either do or don't amount to anything once a child is old enough to make his or her own decisions. Being highly successful in life (and by successful, I mean content, caring, and self-sufficient) is more about having a stable personality, work ethic, kind heart, and drive to follow through with dreams and ideas than it is about having the best of the best material possessions, participating in the most educational opportunities, and landing the most highly-paid job requiring the highest skills.
Yet, talk to many parents today, and they would have you believe that each and every decision you make regarding your children's lives is a LIFE OR DEATH DECISION. It starts incredibly young. If you don't get your kid into the correct daycare, read them the correct books, play them the correct music cds, etc. you could potentially screw them up for LIFE. And because no one can agree on what "correct" means, we have parents taking sides on just about every issue. There are those who are for or against vaccines, those who are for or against learning to read in preschool, those who are for or against attachment parenting, those who love and hate the grading system, those who scorn antibacterial soap and those who marinate their children in it. Parents introduce solid foods at different times, let their children take on certain responsibilities at different times, put their children in every organized sport or extracurricular available, or demand that their children play entirely out of their imaginations. Some parents swear by structure; others swear by freedom. Some cry, "FREE RANGE KIDS!" Others advocate sheltering childhood "like a flower, until it's big and strong enough to support itself on its own."
Ultimately, most parents will overlap on several issues, and clash terribly on others. No two are alike. And for a soon-to-be parent like me, navigating through the "dos and don'ts" of parenthood can seem a little overwhelming.
The truth is, I have seen kids who were given every possible educational opportunity do very well in life, just as I've seen some crash and burn, becoming drifters who don't know who they are, what they want, or how they can possibly live as effective adults. I was one of those kids given every opportunity. I was enrolled in Montessori toddler classes and preschools, played sports throughout grade school and early high school, did a few years of gymnastics and after-school and summer programs, "just for fun," had a math tutor in the fifth grade just for an extra advantage during the school year, started playing classical violin at 2 and classical piano at 7, went on to win music competitions, got fantastic grades, always made high honor roll and was enrolled in all honors classes, went to college with a scholarship, went on to finish grad school, and where am I now? The head of some multi-billion dollar corporation? Writing an award winning novel? Nope. Just living in an apartment in blue-collar America, working part time with a baby on the way. None of the accelerated learning and educational opportunities my parents gave me as a child amounted to me wanting to become a doctor or a lawyer. It didn't lead to me becoming a brilliant or successful adult in the world's eyes.
Yet I consider myself a successful adult. I am married to a man that I love, I have goals and aspirations in the works, I find enjoyment in daily life, I serve my community, and I think that as far as those four things listed above that my parents could have screwed me up by failing to do-well, I am fairly competent in those areas. But did I need all the math tutoring, suzuki violin training, extra curriculars, good grades, etc. to become just as "successful" as I am now? Absolutely not. Several friends of mine are just as competent, if not more so, and at about the same exact place in life as I am, or even further along. And they never had all those crazy "advantages" as kids.
I really think that ultimately, each and every parent has to take life day by day, focusing on the big, important issues and letting go of perfection when it comes to everything else. Sure, give your kids opportunities as they become available, but don't stress out if you can't get your kids into the biggest and best of everything. Withdraw those activities which are becoming more of a hassle than they're worth. And ignore the hums of disapproval from other parents. For me, I know that I'll do everything in my power to make sure I don't neglect my kid in any of the four areas I listed above. I want my kid to be and feel loved, to know right from wrong (and since I'm Christian, to know Jesus), to gain a spirit of adventure through the freedom to try new things and pursue dreams, and to be a competent person who takes responsibility for him/herself and contributes positively to his/her community. These are the areas of life I plan to focus on, and to heck with the rest of it.
Who cares if my kid isn't in gymboree like all the other kids? Who cares if they don't start crawling until months after the others? Who cares if their vocabulary isn't as large? Who cares if they have no hand/eye coordination or can't sing a note? Who cares if our house isn't always sparkling clean, we occasionally have ice cream for breakfast, and my kid's the one in the sandbox dumping sand over his/her head? And conversely, who cares if my kid happened to do better on the spelling test than yours or mine got the scholarship and yours didn't?
I think parents would be a lot less stressed out and a lot more attentive to the actual lives and needs of their children if they stopped worrying so much about deadlines and milestones and started focusing more on daily character development, bonding as a family, and just enjoying each and every moment of this very short and complicated life.