It’s hard to be a parent. Judging from the popularity of resources designed to help, most of us want to be good ones. But sometimes all the books, articles, and expert advice can overwhelm and frustrate rather than assist.
Various sources claim to have the magic formula for turning a child into a model of politeness and productivity, but things are always much simpler in the abstract than in the execution. We try this or that approach, and when things don’t go as expected we find ourselves concluding that parenting is a lot more complicated than it is and lamenting that we will never be able to get it right. It’s terrifying to think that one wrong move on our part will negatively affect our kids for the rest of their lives, but sometimes that’s how it feels.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Human beings have been having and rearing children for thousands of years, and mankind has somehow survived. It’s only recently that parenting has become a multi-million-dollar industry and an undertaking for which we all need professional help.
But good parenting is not rocket science, as much as the so-called experts might like us to think it is. Our kids are not alien life forms. They’re human beings. Successful parenting essentially boils down to remembering that basic truth and acting accordingly.
“Well,” you say, “that’s all fine and good, but what does it look like in practice?”
Beyond the walls of my own house, I can’t say with any degree of specificity. You and I are different, and so are our kids. I do know that while the details may vary, some key principles can help the details fall into place more easily while reassuring you that maybe you aren’t ruining your kids for life. Here is your all-purpose guide to what every mom and dad needs to do for their kids.
1. Provide for Them
Let’s get the “duh” factor out of the way first. Children need adequate food, clothing, and shelter. If you’re the parent, it’s your job to provide those things until they are old and capable enough to do so on their own. The people who aren’t doing that aren’t reading this article, so let’s move on.
2. Protect Them
When you become a parent, your child’s life becomes more precious than your own. Selfish human being that I am, there are not many people for whom I would lay down my life. But for my kid? Yeah. In a heartbeat. Most of the parents I know would do the same.
Yet it is all too easy to put our children in danger. The people with whom we associate, the decisions we make in our personal lives, the behaviors we engage in, the places we go—all of these affect our children, and for that reason we should consider our children in all of them.
It may mean inconveniencing the adults at times or that we don’t always get to do the things we would like. Too bad. The children come first. My husband and I went about 20 years without watching anything but G- or PG-rated movies because we typically watch movies only at home, and that’s where the kids are. (Frankly, now that the kids are older I find that many of those movies I decided were inappropriate for them are equally inappropriate for me.)
We can’t protect our children from everything, and we can’t hide them in a remote tower away from the world’s reach. They need the freedom to try things on their own, to make mistakes, and to learn from their experiences. But we can take steps to shelter our kids from the evil in the world until they are old enough to have some means of processing it. We can guard them against situations that require decisions for which they are not ready. And we can protect them from the fear that they could ever do anything to lose our love.
3. Play With Them
I’ve heard it said that parents are not supposed to be their child’s friend. I disagree. As a parent, you are your child’s first friend, his or her first playmate. Playing with your child doesn’t mean you quit being a parent. But a healthy sense of humor is essential for finding one’s way through the absurdities of daily life.
Help your children develop theirs by pretending with them, imagining with them, playing games with them, laughing with them, and being silly with them. Thank God I have a husband who gets this, because I am inclined to take life too seriously. That’s just another reason God intended for children to have two parents. It’s hard enough for two, harder still for one to do it all.
4. Show ‘Em How to Do Stuff
We can’t all do everything. But you know how to do some things. Teach those things to your kids. Whether it’s cooking, car repair, chess, or quantum physics, if it’s a skill you have, it’s a no-brainer to teach it to your kids. Passing along acquired knowledge is the hallmark of civilization. It’s only natural that we do it in our own families on a smaller scale.
This doesn’t mean that your kids have to do everything you do or that they can’t learn about things you don’t know. It means that as you live your life, take your children along with you, giving them a chance to see what you do and teaching them what you are able to teach them.
Some of those things will be life skills that they will acquire with moderate practice; others are complex disciplines they may not ultimately pursue. But as the parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher and the one from whom he will learn how to learn. Teach him what you know.
In our family, it is a given that the kids learn music. My husband and I are musicians, and we believe we would be negligent if we didn’t pass on that skill to our children. So in our house playing the piano and singing in choir are non-negotiables. Our kids don’t have to make it their life’s work, but for about 12 years it’s part of their education as much as reading, writing and arithmetic.
5. Take Them to Church
If you’re an unbeliever this one won’t apply. But according to a 2016 Gallup poll, 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God. That’s interesting, because only about half of Americans attend church more than once every six months. If you believe in God and want your kids to also, the way to make that happen is to take (not send) them to church.
Ideally, take them to a church that concerns itself with preaching not worldly success and prosperity but rather repentance and forgiveness; one that is less interested in helping you live your best life now than in pointing the way to eternal life. It’s a message that not only they need to hear, but you do, too, because whether you’re the kid or the parent, life is hard and each of us desperately needs divine intervention.
6. Follow the Golden Rule
All of the above can be summed up in this statement: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Your child is included in “others.” Before he’s a baby, toddler, pre-teen, or teenager, he’s a person.
Watching my own parents age and die and seeing the minutes of my own life tick steadily away has driven home for me the truth that while our bodies change dramatically over the course of a lifetime, on the inside we don’t change all that much. We need pretty much the same things in the beginning of life as we do at the end: to be considered, to be included, and to be loved.
As parents, in our efforts to understand and help our children get through life, it is tempting to get caught up in phases and labels. These can be helpful, but if we allow them to dominate, they can also get in the way. Your children are human beings. Treat them as such.
You don’t like being yelled at, made fun of, mocked, belittled, laughed at, disrespected, treated unkindly, ignored, or toyed with. Don’t do it to your kids. Be earnest. Treat them with respect. Put the best construction on their actions. Take their words at face value. Apologize when you need to. Expect that the same consideration you give them will be returned to you. When that doesn’t happen, deal with it firmly, calmly, and straightforwardly. Don’t give up.
It’s true that children learn what they live. They learn to treat us, and others, the way we treat them. They learn from us what to do when they fail. To great extent, they learn to behave as we suppose they will. If we expect them to be difficult little pre-teen jerks or hormonal adolescent monsters, guess what? They likely will be.
The irony of me giving parenting advice in an article warning about the pitfalls of parenting advice is not lost on me. But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. I make no promises that if you “follow these six simple steps” you will have certain parenting success.
There are parents who from all indications seem to have done everything right but whose children nevertheless end up in terrible and difficult situations, and there are children who in spite of abusive or neglectful parents manage to change the course of their own lives and that of their offspring. When it comes to child-rearing there is no magic potion.
There is, however, doing the best we can, day in and day out while tossing in a healthy measure of prayer. I’m not an “expert,” and most likely neither are you. Thank God he made children hardy, adaptable, and capable of surviving their well-intentioned parents’ untold many missteps.