The trouble with learning to parent on the job is that your child is the teacher. – Robert Brault
I’m still trying to get it right as a parent.
When my children were young I was afraid I would drop them or they would begin to choke and I wouldn’t know what to do. With no instruction manual to follow, I relied on instinct and common sense to get me through the times when I had no real experience to guide me.
In 1985 when Mary Beth and I attended childbirth preparation classes, I was hoping a handbook for Brandon would be provided. I really thought my oldest child would enter the world with specific directions on how to be raised. Brandon, as well as our other children, was delivered to us with no such directions.
Today, my children, Brandon, Caitlin, Andrew and Emily clearly have different needs, but my basic fear remains the same – I don’t want to cause any damage. This fear doesn’t keep me from enjoying who they are and the time we spend together. It’s just somewhere inside of me I feel a certain melancholy for the things I can have done better as their father.
Like most parents, Mary Beth and I had to feel our way through how to be a mother and a father. Somewhere along the way we resigned ourselves to the fact that an instruction manual for our children did not exist, but we soon found we were writing our own manual as we learned and grew as parents – sometimes at the expense, and sometimes for the benefit, of our children.
While my personal parenting manual is still being written, I have completed many of the important chapters. I’m looking forward to completing the other chapters soon enough.
Chapter One | Giving Time is the Best Gift
What my children want most is time.
In the early years they didn’t get much of this from me. Time was given to my career and the remainder was consumed by anxiety and worry. Seconds, minutes and hours are variables to which we assign a numeric value in order to provide a calculation of how long something takes to do.
The true value of time, however, is in how we use it, not in how we measure it.
Recently my older daughter, Caitlin, told me she was at a friend’s house and the family spent the evening playing card and board games. She didn’t know how to play many of the games because we never did this as a family. Caitlin commented how she wished we had this time together.
She has never suggested our homes weren’t nice enough or she felt embarrassed by the clothes she wore to school. While I thought these were the most important units of measure, my daughter wanted something different. She wanted more time with me.
Time is merciful though. It allows us to take what we have now and shape it into anything we want. The here and now is our greatest ally. It grants us the freedom to change our behavior and to live in this moment – if we choose to do so.
Today more of my free time is spent with my children. I try to find things they like to do and then set aside other priorities to make this happen. While I still have more work to do, I’m learning how to use time in a way that provides greater value for them.
Chapter Two | Be an Encourager, Not a Coach
I coached Brandon in baseball for three years. When our younger daughter Emily decided to play softball, I decided to dust off my coaching cap and try again.
I learned something important about myself during these coaching stints: I’m a terrible coach for my children. My focus was on their skills and how they executed certain plays. Neither Brandon nor Emily liked having me bark orders to them or to their teammates. What they wanted was for me to encourage them and support them no matter how well they played.
Encouragement to my children extends beyond the ball fields, too. Brandon is starting his career in the same industry, and with the same company, as me. And while I could tell him how to do certain aspects of his job, I will show him I have confidence in him instead. He is a bright young man and will figure things out on his own. By giving him the space to work things out is the best encouragement I can offer.
Caitlin is absolutely knocking it out-of-the park in college. Her grades are awesome. I look forward to the times when she reads one her papers over the telephone to me. She shares the papers with me not because she is asking for help with the editing, but rather as an opportunity for me to tell her how proud I am of her effort and ability.
Emily, our youngest child, who has never been much of a chance-taker, decided to try horseback riding recently. She overcame her fear of the unknown, and the uncomfortable, and now rides a couple of times a week. When she rides I don’t critique her handling of her horse, I applaud her courage.
I’m learning my children don’t always need help with the Xs and Os in life. What they really want is my support, love and encouragement. With that, the Xs and Os have a way of getting accomplished along the way.
Chapter Three | Shut Up and Listen
If we are the ones doing most of the talking, then we can’t hear what our children have to say. We can’t hear their remorse or hurt. We can’t hear their passion or excitement. When our children talk we need to understand how remarkable this is. The fact they have the courage to open their mouths and share something with us is amazing.
I understand sometimes what they have to say is complete nonsense. I get this point because I live it, too. But the day we shut our kids down and they stop talking to us is the day we may begin to lose them forever.
Allow time for rebuttals and explanations. Listen to what they say and how they say it. Often the words they choose can be indicators of how they are feeling.
By all means as parents we have the responsibility to say whatever it is we have to say to our children, but afterwards we need to remember to shut up and listen. Their response, no matter how frustrating and illogical it may sound, will contain a few nuggets of truth that will help us to help them and will help us become more responsive parents.
Chapter Four | Provide Security, Not Control
Security offers predictability: Mom and Dad will come home every night; there will be food on the table; the house will be filled with love, not danger.
Control is a set of unhealthy or unreasonable parameters we impose our children: Don’t spill your milk; don’t get into trouble; be quiet and watch TV.
Security fosters trust. Control leads to conflict.
When I find myself at odds with my children it’s often because I’m doing more controlling than I am providing security. Andrew pushes back the most with my controlling tendencies.
He is going through the college recruitment process right now. Baseball programs are contacting him to express their interest. Mary Beth and I also thought it would be a good idea for our son to reach out to other colleges he would like to attend.
My wife created a statistics sheet featuring his recent baseball stats along with his picture. The thought was he would send an email (which would serve as a cover letter) to certain college coaches with the statistics sheet attached. After a few days of asking Andrew if he had sent any emails, the answer was, “No.”
Mary Beth and I thought the reason was he was unsure of how to write the email. So I decided to write it. The email contained all of the necessary parts: it introduced who he was; why he was interested in the particular program and a brief overview of his stats and a reference to the attached statistics sheet. I thought it was perfect and right on target.
After finishing the email, I called my son over to the computer so he could read it. When he was finished, he stood up and said it was fine, but he wasn’t going to use it. When I asked him to explain, he said, “Because I didn’t write it.”
Point made. I will back-off and let him figure it out. He always does. Andrew is more comfortable when he knows I’m there for him more like a safety net and not as a blanket.
Chapter Five | Show Consistency
The most important adage I have learned as a parent is “Do what you say and say what you mean.”
My children have the ability to see right through me at times. They know when I’m confident as a parent and when I struggle. They know when to back off and when to keep going. I think what they want most from me is clear and consistent boundaries.
They like knowing my love is unconditional and always present. They like knowing if they make a mistake it will addressed, appropriately. They like knowing I’m paying attention and listening. They like knowing, no matter what, I will always be their Pop.
With this knowledge they have a more solid foundation under their feet to step from and walk into the world alone. Consistency gives them confidence and provides a framework for trust and the knowledge they can have security in their personal lives, too.
I’m in the process of writing new chapters in my personal parenting manual. These chapters only have working titles right now because I don’t know how they will end. However, I do know how they begin.
They begin with a commitment to take what I have learned over the past 23 years and apply the lessons learned to mitigate any further damage my inexperience as a parent might have caused.
Knowing what I know today, it’s a blessing my children did not come with an instruction manual. Manuals tend to be scripted and follow a defined set of steps. If my children came into the world with one, I would have missed the opportunity to listen to what they were telling me and to learn from the experiences we shared.
I will continue trying to get it right and do the best job I can with the tools I have because my children are worth the effort. At the end of the day I guess it really doesn’t matter how right we get it as parents – it just matters that we are trying. Having an instruction manual may have caused me to miss this important detail.