Being a parent is a task that is super charged with emotions. I recall one of the principals with whom I worked always telling us to remember that in most cases the parents of our students were sending us the best children that they had. What he meant by that statement was that they were working hard to do the right thing even if they sometimes made mistakes. He wanted us to be gentle and understanding with them because as a dad himself he understood how difficult parenting can be. Through the long days and nights of nurturing our offspring from infancy to adulthood we display our human frailties to them again and again. We pray that our moments of weakness will not harm their development, but rather that the strength of our love and good intentions will be the things that mold them into strong and confident individuals of good character.
Our children are a puzzling combination of nature and nurture. Even members of the same family who have essentially been raised with identical routines and beliefs will turn out just a bit differently from one another. We sense that our little babies are born with particular traits and personalities that we attempt to cultivate to bring out their best. Some parents are masterful at helping their little ones to become happy and healthy and hard working adults. Others find themselves puzzled that their efforts sometimes seem to be riddled with problems and frustrations. The art of parenting is complicated when genetics leave our little ones with health problems and learning challenges. It’s so much easier when they appear to be little geniuses with pleasing personalities and incredible athletic abilities. We have all known such children and wondered what their parents may have done to create those incredible kids.
The truth is that many times even the moms and dads of seemingly perfect little babies have no idea why those children are so innately wonderful. I remember asking the mother of a particularly remarkable little girl to give me some parenting tips. Her surprising response was that she had six children and all but the sweet child that I knew had taxed her patience. Her conclusion was that her daughter was simply born the way she was. She insisted that she had done very little to produce such a lovey person. I have since seen a great deal of evidence that supports her theory, but I also realize that even the most potentially wonderful baby needs proper guidance to fully develop into an amazing adult.
Over time I have come to believe that there are certain keys to good parenting that may not appear to be particularly difficult to enact, but in fact require a full time commitment. Foremost is the need to love a child for the person that he or she is, a willingness to be supportive rather than directive that is sometimes easier said than done. We each have preconceived notions about how we want our offspring to be based on our own preferences and dreams. If we have been studious and mathematical we may be disappointed when one of our children struggles with numbers. If our background includes success in athletics a child who is mediocre in such pursuits may baffle us. If we are outgoing we will be confused by a shy and awkward youngster. Our job as good parents is to patiently love our children and help them to develop the interests and traits that are most natural for them while also demonstrating how to cope with their struggles in other areas. We need to provide them with opportunities to explore, and when they stumble we need to be there to help them understand how to deal with mistakes. In other words we must allow them to find their own purposes in life and demonstrate that we are behind them all the way as long as what they are doing is not illegal or harmful.
I once worked with a woman whose children were identical twins insofar as appearance and DNA, but they were polar opposites in almost every other way. One was quiet, studious and talented in science and mathematics. He wanted to attend Rice University or MIT and spent his weekends closeted inside the house with close friends who bonded over experiments and research projects. His twin eschewed advanced classes in the STEM subjects and even had pronounced difficulties with mathematics. Nonetheless he was the class president, editor of the newspaper and a star athlete. He was popular and social. His weekends were spent performing community service and partying with friends. He was a bit unsure of where he wanted to attend college and what he wanted to choose as a major.
The boys’ mom was utterly delighted with both of her sons. She never compared them nor did she allow anyone else to do so. She bragged about her gifted sons even though their talents and academic successes were so very different. Eventually one of them became an engineer and the other works as a communications specialist at a nonprofit organization. They are still her two peas in a pod who are as different as night and day. She fairly beams when she speaks of them and continues to be their number one fan as they follow two very different paths in life.
My friend’s insistence on allowing her boys to become the adults that they were meant to be was not nearly as easy as just deciding to be there for them. She often spoke of teachers and even family members who would criticize her methods. She was told that the quiet twin needed to develop more social skills. She was warned that the twin who favored the arts and leadership roles might have difficulty earning a degree from a reputable university. She was thought by some to be too permissive and easygoing. She worried and sought counsel from those of us that she trusted while still maintaining her insistence that each young man would always know that her love was not predicated on pleasing her. She realized the importance of being an encourager and not a tyrant. She was a wonderfully understanding parent and when all was said and done her efforts resulted in helping two very fine young men to find both happiness and success.
It saddens me whenever I witness parents who literally inflict cruelty on their children by refusing to respect their choices. I recall a parent conference in which a father hurled insults at his son simply because the young man was quiet and awkward in his eyes. He called the boy “weird” and even said that he sometimes wondered if the two of them were actually related. He did all of this in front of the child, inflicting deep scars that would have a damaging effect. I have known gays whose families ostracized them. I have listened to them describe the pain of such rejection. I have sat with adults who recounted how inept they felt around parents who questioned their intelligence and viewed them as losers simply because they chose to pursue careers or life choices that family members considered to be inferior. I have observed emotionally abusive parents who demanded the right to be in charge even long after a son or daughter was living independently. I suspect that some of these adults have good intentions but their unwillingness to accept the differences in their children and see them as being flawed ruptures relationships and creates needless emotional distress for everyone.
Our children are delicate while also being strong. It is in our love and acceptance and support that we help them to become happy and productive adults. The rules and routines that we use as they are growing provide the structures within which they may safely grow and bloom in many different directions. As parents we have to know when to directly intercede and when to let them range freely. If we truly and unselfishly love them our instincts will tell us how to know the difference. We will learn to fully enjoy the beauty of their individuality and will watch as they take on the world in their own unique ways. It’s a rewarding process fraught with so many pitfalls. Just as we should be kind to them as they stumble and fall and succeed, so too must we feel good about our own efforts, knowing that we too will now and again falter. We’re all only human and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact it is a truly beautiful aspect of who we are.