Parenting is the most difficult job in the world. Yet it is also the job we expect to do competently without experience, job training, or even an instruction manual*. Actually most moms expect to be excellent, perfect, gold-star parents. Dads, for the most part, seem to be happy if they are just a better parent than their own dad. It’s a guy thing.
Some people claim to have parenting experience. “Well, I grew up with ten brothers and sisters. I know all about raisin’ kids!’ That’s like saying I could be a carpenter because I grew up in a house. I grew up with four brothers and helped to take care of them from the first day mom brought one home. I can still see her standing in the doorway with a kitchen towel in her hand saying, “No, honey, you can’t get him out.” I was standing next to my brother’s crib with my arms stretched between the slats as far as they would go and my hands underneath him, trying to figure out how to lift him out of his crib. I was four. And that was lesson one- don’t try to take your brother out of the crib by yourself. But that lesson and the ones that followed were simply about the physical tasks of caring for a child. They didn’t differ in many ways from the tasks involved in caring for my dog- feed it, don’t let it pee on the carpet, don’t hurt it, don’t let it out of the yard.
It isn’t the physical aspects of caring for a child that usually cause us fretful nights of worry and heartache. It’s the emotional task of teaching and guiding our little lump of clay from infancy to adulthood that scares the hell out of us. (My mom said that is not cursing because some things literally scare the evil out of us and force us to be good!) And I think the premise of that sentence is the first major mistake made by parents. I know all of the arguments about “nature vs. nurture” and I think the guy who came up with the idea that children are a “lump of clay” to mold or a “blank slate” to write upon must have been childless or clueless. Infants have their own temperament from birth. While we might train a shy child to be more confident, or a boisterous child to be calmer, we can’t change the fundamental nature of our child. And if we have a child who is the opposite of our own temperament we may have a much more difficult time raising that child because we simply don’t understand their view of the world. Their temperament creates our reaction to them from day one.
I thought I was well prepared to be a parent. My grandmother and mother seemed confident in my ability to handle the job. There were just two things that caused me to question that confidence. First of all, I had a girl. Oops! Eighteen years of experience in a house filled with boys and God gives me a girl. Very funny. I didn’t even have a girl’s name picked out! Second, God gave me a strong-willed girl who said “no” every time I asked her to do something. What was I supposed to do about that? It was a daily learning experience for both of us. When my second child was also a girl I thought I had it made. I had experience raising a girl! I knew what to do. Wrong. This time God gave me a shy, sickly child who required a totally different style of parenting. Then when I had a son I had to change my approach again. And of course I constantly heard, “Well that’s not fair!” if I didn’t or if I did treat my children the same or have the same expectations of them. It was impossible to be exactly the same parent for each of them. Some days I just felt like I was going crazy!
One of the guiding principles of my life has been “do the best you can, where you are, with what you have”. I think that applies as well to parenting as it does to any other aspect of life. It took me a while to understand that not only was each of my children different, but I was different by the time I had each one. The “where you are” had changed physically and emotionally and even financially. My mother was the first to point that out to me because her own life was so very different by the time she had my youngest brother. (The photo is me, pregnant with Karen, with Mom and my brother, John.)
My children have proven my point by turning out to be totally different individuals. Yes, I can tell that they were raised together in my house. They all love to read, eat, travel, and talk. They are all smart, funny, and creative. They are all decent, compassionate human beings. But they have chosen different paths in life- different from each other and different from my own. I spent years teaching them about life and they accepted some of my values and applied those to their lifestyle. But they also ignored many of the things I taught them and instead did things their own way.
Yes, I see you have your hand raised and you want to remind me that the Bible says, “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6 Sorry, but I don’t know how to make that verse into a promise that you can create the perfect adult if you are the perfect parent. Perhaps the “old” part means very, very old. There are many verses in the Bible that I don’t fully understand and this is one of them. The first time I questioned it was when I found out that our assistant pastor’s son was on drugs. If ever there was a man who had trained his child it was that one, yet the process had somehow failed to produce the expected outcome. I know too many mothers who drown themselves in guilt thinking that if they had just done a better job of mothering their child wouldn’t be in prison or wandering the streets or dead. We have to understand that at some point our child’s “free will” takes over and we are no longer responsible for their actions.
I am in a position as a kindergarten teacher to daily witness the struggles of young parents. My advice to them is to be more patient…with themselves. Parenting is a tough job. Perhaps there isn’t an instruction manual* because no one has figured out the best way to do the job.
*Yes, I consider the Bible to be our instruction manual for everything, including parenting. However, it doesn’t specifically say “Here’s what to do when Johnny stuffs something up his nose and refuses to tell you what it is.”