Below is a chapter from Rule #2: Don’t Be an Asshat: An Official Handbook for Raising Parents and Children. Over time we will be posting most of the book, though, should this inspire you to buy a copy, we would not be offended 🙂 Posted chapters can be found in the Table of Contents.
Somehow, someway, a child is already part of or soon will be entering your life. Let that soak in just a bit, and then repeat after us: “Holy crap!”
Yes, you are now responsible for raising said child.
Take a deep breath. And exhale.
We bet you were wondering when you would receive your official parenting handbook―many thanks to whomever gifted this copy you!* By now we hope that you have come to the realization that you were more prepared and studied when you received your driver’s license, adopted a puppy, or stood in the produce aisle about to take the plunge and choose the ripest watermelon.
And in all honestly, you probably were.
But never fear; we are here to assist you in this new endeavor because thumping them on the head may be a good way to choose melons—but not so much for raising kiddos.
This is probably a good time to remind you that we offer neither any “guaranteed to work or your money back” parenting tricks nor a big-ass bag of magic parenting fairy dust that will be waiting for you when you get home. Sorry. What we have given you is this, our version of an official handbook, a resource filled with general ideas to keep in mind as you navigate your way through this new world of parenting. So as you digest and translate what you have read thus far, let us offer you a few direct words of encouragement, caution, and perspective.
Good parenting is indoctrination done well.
At the risk of starting off by sounding a bit uptight, “Whatever” is not a good parenting strategy. Yes, you must pick your battles, and yes, each child must be given room to explore the world and develop their own opinions, but you, dear parents, have the primary responsibility to build the foundations upon which your child will then build their beliefs and behaviors. Don’t be afraid to pass on those things that you believe are important: traditions, passions, ideals, and perspectives.
Sure, at a certain point children will rebel against the awesome wisdom that you are attempting to bestow upon them, but having a base against which they can push and which they can measure against other possibilities is better than giving them nothing at all.
Now if you are passing on right-wing ideals, you never cry at movies, or you are a New York Yankees fan, then please, yes—you should totally go with the “Whatever” parenting method.
Children are not projects to complete, destinations to reach, or recipes to prepare.
We all want the best for our kids, and we want to offer them guidance. That said, when we cross the line from to parent to programmer, treating a child like an automaton that, if coded just right, will grow up to be a brain surgeon, middle school teacher, or professional yodeler, we can unintentionally block them from discovering passions and skills that exist beyond our own scope of experience. Sure, you may not actually want them to discover new vocations and avocations, but if you wish to have child who finds fulfillment and joy in what they do and in who they become, forcing them down a predefined and rigid path might not be the best idea.
All kids are different: personalities, passions, perspectives, and developmental stages.
We hate to be the bearer of bad news for those of you who are contemplating multiple offspring. First, really think about this, especially if you are heading toward having three kids, a.k.a., saying, “I give up, chaos, you win.” And second, children do not come off of a factory assembly-line, uniform in all aspects of their being.
As we have observed in our kids, practically from their births, it is painfully and beautifully clear that each of our three daughters is distinctly different from the others in almost all facets of her life. Each has found joy and adventure in different things, each has discovered gifts and passions in different activities, and each has required us to be nuanced in how we provide structure, encouragement, and discipline. We have also found that tried-and-true thinking about development stages and how bodies and brains generally work at difference ages and stages of life has been invaluable. (Please see the “Extra Gravy” section on developmental stages.) So they are not quite a blank slate, but as you raise successive children, it is wise to be attentive to the differences that lie within each of them.
All parents are different: personalities, passions, perspectives, and origins.
Just as each child is different, each parent is different as well. This is so important to remember because the differences on both sides of the parent-child relationship make each combination a recipe for discovery or disaster. As the grown-up in the relationship, it will be your responsibility to adapt, as you will run up against difficult situations that are more about personality differences than about the situation itself.
For instance, both you and your child may be extremely stubborn, or as we say in our home, “determined.” Being strong-willed in and of itself is not bad, but when it turns into a battle of wills, you, the parent, must be willing to change tactics in order to find resolution and understanding. For one child, a stern word may be needed in the moment, but another child may need to take a moment before being able to talk about what happened. It is not their responsibility to always know the best way to proceed; it is ours as parents to discover and then move forward.
To be clear, this is not about giving in or being soft but about being attuned to the particularities of all the personalities so that you can be a help and not a hindrance to yourself on your parenting journey.
Model that which you hope to see in your kids.
As we know, the modeling thing doesn’t always work. We know far too many conservative Republicans with liberal Democrat kids to believe that kids automatically take on everything that we do. That said, acknowledging that mirrors can be warped, fogged up, cracked, and sometimes crystal clear, we do think there is some truth to the idea that children are a reflection of their parents. We need to be consistent in our own behaviors so that we create a normalcy around the perspectives and behaviors that we hope to see in our kids. Because we want our kids to understand what it means to apologize, we apologize to them when we are in the wrong. Because we want our kids to embrace nonviolence, we do not spank or or smack our kids as a form of discipline. And because we want them to develop healthy and whole romantic relationships, we do not hide our affection and playfulness from them—plus it’s just fun mortifying your children by engaging in a little flirting or kissing in public, where they can see us.
Be the grown-up.
There will be times when you will desperately want your toddler or teenager to independently make rational, thoughtful, and regulated decisions. Yes, we must equip them to assume agency, initiative, and independence—all good things—but there will also be situations when we make some choices for them. There will be times when only you can decide what is best for them, and you will have to be the adult then. This goes for everything from determining how long playful and unfocused times last to dealing with public meltdowns to making decisions about their education, activities, and general welfare. How much input your kids have in making these decisions will and should shift and grow, but always remember that you are the parent.
Know how you will discipline.
Like so many parenting decisions that need to be thought through, discipline is one of the most important. The ways in which you define boundaries and deal with ramifications for crossing those lines will impact so many areas of your child’s life. Understanding developmental stages, individual personalities, and your own disciplinarian tendencies are all vital to make wise and effective decisions about discipline. To begin, let’s play the what-if game. (No, these do not come from real-life experiences.)
- What will you do when—when, not if—your child melts down in public, complete with high-pitched wailing, body flailing, and back talk?
- What will you do when—when, not if—your child not only won’t follow your instructions but willfully and defiantly continues whatever behavior you are trying to curb?
- What will you do when—when, not if—you catch your child in a bold-faced lie about where they were that day?
- What will you do when—when, not if—your child bites, hits, or kicks another human: child, adult, sibling, parent?
- What will you do when—when, not if—your child fails to follow through on a promise or commitment?
- What will you do when—when, not if—your teenager uses “that tone” and is rude and disrespectful?
- What will you do when—could be if, but c’mon, probably when—[insert your most memorable childhood offenses]?
The easy and condensing answer is “Well, my children will know better”—if you believe this, please see rule #2—but the reality is that even if your perfect child does not live out any of these specific things, there will come a time when you will have to discipline your child for something.
Often times the best thing to do is, after the first—or second, or third—time something happens, try to figure out if there is any way to preempt the behavior. After all, the last thing you want to do is set your child up for failure by placing them in a stressful, tantrum-inviting situation.
When our eldest child, Evelyn, was about two years old, she would throw a nasty fit every time we had to leave a place. What we began to realize is that she did not do well with transitions from one place to another. So when we just walked up to her and said, “OK, let’s go,” we soon discovered that she was not one of those “she just rolls with it” kinds of kids. In fact, we quickly learned that she was one of those, “Um, honey, why is our child’s head spinning around while she is spewing fire from her eyes?” kinds of kids. We only had to go through this three, or four, or eight times before we figured out that maybe there was another way. Yes, we are quick ones.
What we started to do was this: when we were about fifteen minutes away from our planned departure time, we would give her a warning, like, “We are going to leave soon.” She was then able to prepare herself for what was apparently a major life change of leaving the park and getting into the car. Who knew these things meant so much to a toddler, but once we figured this out, the tantrums ceased.
There are probably as many ideas for disciplining a child as there are parents, but we found these to be most helpful for those, “What the hell do I do right now?” moments in time:
- The “side eye.” For infractions in public areas, you must master a look that says, “You had better stop doing whatever you are doing.” Note: practice if you must, but do not wield your side eye unless you really have it down. The last thing you want is for your mean look to make them giggle.
- The “I am not playing around” voice. It is imperative that you save your serious voice for serious times. A forcefully spoken “That is enough,” or a loud, “Don’t hug that porcupine!” can nip many a mishap or dangerous situation in the bud, especially when children are out of arm’s reach.
- The “I’m just disappointed” talk. Sometimes the idea that the child is disappointing their parents, family, community, and self is punishment enough, and little else is required.
- The “Do you want me to call Lola?” threat. My personal favorite, also known as the “Fun Dad, Mean Grandma” bit, means that my kids know that if Grandma is mad, they can say good-bye to ice cream for breakfast, having no limits on TV, shopping, and other spoils.
- The “You pay for it” ramification. We’re flexible on this, but as kids begin to earn money via jobs, allowance, or couch cushions, they are able to be more fiscally responsible for things like lost or broken phones or other property damage.
Other disciplinary tactics include grounding, taking away valued items or making them watch Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace on continuous loop, but what we do not do is make empty threats. Bruce was the six-year-old kid who, when his stepfather threatened, “I will stop this car, and you can get out,” hopped out when the car stopped and started walking—on the freeway. Bluff. Called. Mic. Dropped. The moral of the story: don’t threaten something that you are not willing and able to enforce. Sure, there will be times to be flexible, but if your child knows that, “You’re grounded for a week,” actually means, “until Dad forgets,” the discipline becomes hollow and ineffective.
Another thing that we do not do is spank our children or anyone else’s. Yes, we have friends and family who spank their kids—and say they are fine—but we are not a spanking household, and on this we are both in complete agreement. Our children are often playfully threatened with a good beating if they don’t promptly deliver a cookie to the couch-sitting parental, but they all know that it will never happen. Some might think that a lack of spanking is just a symptom of a spoiled America; others would say that under no circumstances should an adult strike a child; and some simply think spanking is a cultural choice. Because we think that using violence in response to violence is not a helpful tactic at any stage of life, we have landed firmly in the “we do not spank” camp and have made the choice not to spank, swat, or hit our children with our hands, wooden spoons, slippers, switches, belts, fly swatters, or any other instruments, culturally acceptable or not.
While we feel strongly about the spanking, at the end of the day, discipline, like cosleeping, education, and other parenting choices, is highly contextual. You must take into consideration the parent, the child, and any counsel available—from the school, other caregivers, and the like—and then make the best decision you can.
Let them live their childhood—you’ve had your chance.
This one is hard for all parents. After all, who doesn’t want their kids to love something that we love? Bruce likes, no, loves baseball, so he has always had this voice whispering in his head, “Please, please, please, one of my daughters, please love baseball.” His dreams have manifested themselves to varying degrees, but what he has been pretty good at is not trying to live out his baseball dreams and passions through the girls. For as much as we parents want our kids to love and excel in the activities that we loved and excelled in, it doesn’t matter, because we have lived our childhoods, and now we must let them live theirs. From dance, to math, to theater, to sports: be passionate and be supportive, but don’t try to be them.
Give yourself a break.
In a world with so many expectations placed upon young people, it is the parent’s job not
only to ease anxiety but also not to add to it. There will always be a level of worry and stress about the choices we make for our kids, but when that rises to the level that our kids begin to pick up on our stress, we have moved to heaping expectations on ourselves that are unfair, unachievable, or both. Yes, each decision that we make has ramifications, some more than others, but that does not mean that every decision should have ulcer-inducing potential.
Seek out, build up, and invest in communities that will nurture your child.
You cannot and should not raise your children alone. Some of the greatest assets you have in life are the people around you who can help to broaden children’s experience of and exposure to the world. Over your child’s life, you will have the opportunity be part of groups where you can find meaningful interactions, develop deep friendships, and practice being community. From youth activities like soccer, Scouts, and summer camps to adult-driven groups like the PTA, church, and parent groups, it is important to invest time and energy in your community in order to mutually influence one another’s children in positive ways. In these groups your children can seek and know social familiarity and emotional support when other communities are creating anxiety and stress in their lives. This is also true for parents, so pouring into these groups is good for everyone.
Don’t parent other people’s kids—usually.
There is something deeply spiritual and personal about the relationship between parent and child. This is never more evident than when
someone offers unsolicited parenting advice. Generally well-intentioned, often passive-aggressive, and sometimes right on, unsolicited advice gives even the most calm and even-keeled parent the capacity to bite your face off. Barring physically dangerous situations, just take note of those “If that were my child…” conversations that are going on inside your head and do your best to keep them there. Your advice will most likely only fuel the gossip train and create awkwardness at the next PTA meeting.
Parent other people’s kids—sometimes.
Following up on why not to parent other people’s kids, there are times when you should. So many messages in today’s culture say, “Don’t get involved,” “Mind your own business,” or “Every person for themselves,” but this is a short-sighted approach for a society to take when raising its children. Yes, there are lines not to be crossed, but one of the gifts of being part of communities like public school, Girl or Boy Scouts, and faith communities is that, regardless of status or station, we are committing to the growth of each child, not just our own. Not all people or youth activities have committed to this, so it is vital to take time to seek out and create situations where our children can have respect for and find safety with adults other than us. Spaces like this communicate the idea that the world is not as “dog eat dog” as it seems, and that in order for one person to truly thrive, the rest of the community must also.
Support other parents—always.
Never get to the point where you think just because your kids might not act a certain way—or aren’t at this particular moment—that you are above dealing with the public meltdown. Dealing with a screaming child in the store, managing an active and handsy toddler at the cafe, or just being consumed by the overwhelming feeling that this parenting thing is too hard—we have all been there. And during these moments, knowing and seeing that there are folks judging us never helps. We can help one another through these times and remove a bit of burden from parents when they are frazzled and overwhelmed. A genuine word of encouragement, a nod of “I’ve been there, and it’s going to be OK,” or a gesture like opening a door or lifting a stroller can do immense good for the psyche of any struggling parent. You know what is is like both to be judged and to be helped, so always strive to do the latter.
Let other people parent your child.
Trusting someone else with your baby at any age is difficult. This struggle to let go is not only about the physical caretaking of your child but the emotional, spiritual, and psychological aspects as well. And while we do believe that 90 percent of the time parents know their kids the best, there will be times to let go and let others care for our kids. We have always found it helpful to have adults in their lives whom they can trust. This can be anyone, including other school parents, good friends of the family, an aunt, an uncle, or another relative. We want our kids to have another adult perspective to go to when they are struggling, and they also need to have adults in their lives in times of emergency or when they need a ride home from school because their parents forgot to pick them―not that this has ever happened.
When we allow other adults to parent our kids, the adults are reminded of the of the joys and hardships of growing up, the children learn how to navigate the world outside of their immediate family, the parents may learn new things about their children that are only made evident when their children are not with them—and most important, all are given the gift of seeing and experiencing the world in new ways.
Expand their world; don’t narrow it.
This may be the most influential perspective that has formed our parenting. The world is an interesting and complex place, and while we have certainly had the urge to actually and metaphorically bubble wrap our children’s bodies, minds, and spirits in order to protect them from the dangers of the world, we have always felt that our number one job is to help them explore the world and equip them to thrive as they do so. This has to do with pretty much everything: travel, politics, faith, food, culture, art, and activities. This does not mean that we are foolish or that we put them in harm’s way—all relative, we know—but it does mean that we see more value in exploring the possibilities than limiting them.
So, there you go. As you begin this journey, we hope these thoughts will give you a good foundation upon which you will begin to build your own style and posture of parenting. It is a lovely journey, so blessings and good luck.