You’re a parent, congratulations and my condolences. The thoughts hit first-time parents in waves, in the nine months prior to, but when the prospect becomes a reality, it’s a life-altering event to realize that someone is going to be dependent on us for everything for life, and for life. You’ve never had someone dependent on you for everything before have you? Me either. It’s a shocking revelation that occurs in phases and layers. The first layer of dependency involves money, food, shelter, and all of the superficial needs that humans require to survive. Those needs can be hard to fulfill, depending on the situation, but compared to the other, deeper layers of need, the superficial ones are cake. If you are a scared first-time parent, this formerly frightened, first-time parent of nearly ten years, offers ten rules to working your ways through those layers.
Don’t die. This first rule of quality parenting is a result of experience-based wisdom, because neither of my parents followed this rule. My step-dad did. He decided not to die of a massive heart attack, and he did that long enough to correct most of the errors he made as a first-time parent. The explanations, descriptions, examples, illustrations and testimonials of why a parent should live has filled other books, but let’s just say that if my dad died as a result of that massive heart attack, I might be more wrecked than I already am. In the decade between that massive heart attack and his eventual demise, my step-dad went from being a step-father to a dad. He was a flawed human being, but he taught me things, in the decade between, that inspired this list.
Spend time with them. The second rule of quality parenting might be better listed as 1b) because if you’re dead, spending time with your kids becomes more difficult. Those of us who live long enough to see it know that the steps involved in raising, training, refining, and redefining a small human into a halfway decent adult are fraught with failure. First-time parents should know that they will fail, loudly, and often. Quality parents will try to correct those errors, but most of those corrections will be as flawed as we are. The best way to make a bad situation better is to spend so much time around them that they begin to weave our mistakes and flaws in with our accomplishments and admirable qualities so well that they mix them altogether in an enormous soup bowl of memories. (Quick note: We cannot achieve any of this with a nose pointed toward a device.)
Be a Hypocrite. “Do everything you can to make their youth last as long as possible.” I debated making this the first commandment on my list of quality parenting to thematically guide the other principles, but it’s not as important as don’t die and spending time with them. As the parent, you are the dictator, and they are your subjects. This is not a democracy. You have papal infallibility in your home. Papal infallibility, loosely and succinctly defined in the Catholic Church, states that the pope can never be wrong. As most Catholics know this is not a reflection of the man, so much as it is the office. Papal infallibility is also restricted to areas of faith and morals. Your parental infallibility has no such restrictions, for your rule will be hypocritical, unfair, and unjust to help them make their youth last as long as you possibly can.
Kids, preteens, and teenagers want to have fun, and their friends influence their definition of fun. After a certain age, the only role, influence, or power a parent has in the arena of fun is adversarial. As they age, parents know that the gradual redefinition of fun can prematurely age them in harmful ways, and bring about a close to their carefree youth. Your job, as their parent, is to sniff such situations out, slam the door on them, and take all the slings and arrows that follow.
“They’re going to do it anyway,” my friends’ parents said. “I’d prefer that they do it around me, where I can keep an eye on them.” I had some great times in those homes and under those rules, and my definition of fun changed. Now that I’m an old man, I think about how damaging those nights were to me, and I cringe. I heard these parents further justify their actions by saying, “We can’t tell them not to do it, because we did it. What kind of hypocrites would we be if we didn’t allow them to do it?” In lieu of the carnage I inflicted on myself, as a result of these justifications, I now challenge other parents to be more hypocritical.
“Call me a hypocrite, because that’s what I am,” we should say. “Give me the badge, or a scarlet letter ‘H’, and I will wear it proudly. You might thank me one day when you’re old enough to know what I’m doing here and why, or you won’t. I don’t give a bit! I’m not going to allow you to do the stupid things I did to wreck my life and end my youth far too early.” I don’t know if this repetitive messaging occurred in the movies, or daytime talk shows, but some parents I know suggest that they’re willing to permit their children to do the dumbest things, under their roof, with the hope that they never hear their children call them a hypocrite.
“Why do you care if they call you names?” I asked one of them.
“You did it too!” they say with all sorts of exclamation points and index fingers pointed at me, as if I haven’t examined my life properly.
“I did,” I say, “and I know how it wrecked me. Why would I allow him to wreck himself in the same way?” I could’ve drop the narcissism charge on her, but I knew this woman, and I knew narcissism didn’t drive her.
“Well, he’s going to do it anyway,” she said.
I could’ve asked her how she knows that, or I could’ve said no he won’t, but the truth is they don’t know, and either do I. I do know that I’m not going to concede to this supposed inevitability to such a degree that I permit him to do it in my home, with the fear that if I don’t he might call me a name.
Get old. If it’s too late for you to get old, physically and mentally, I suggest you try to get old spiritually. What’s the difference between old parents and young? We can answer that question with a question, what’s the difference between parents and grandparents? Older people, in general, have more of a ‘been there, done that’ mentality that suggests they no longer have that unquenchable need ‘to do it so often that they become it’ anymore. They’re more settled, readier, and happier, generally speaking. Older parents and grandparents give young kids their time and their attention. They actually listen to the nonsense that comes out of a kid’s mouth, and they interact with them on a level we never do. They also don’t resent this new ball of flesh and bones standing before them, asking stupid questions, for taking up all of their time and limiting their freedom with such nonsense.
It’s not about you anymore. This fourth rule of parenting is more of a mindset than anything else. Your life’s not over, of course, but if you’re going to try to be a decent parent, you should at least concede that your time in the Sun is.
“It was never about me,” a parent said. “My parents never paid attention to me, my whole life, and I turned out just fine.” The very idea that you would say such a thing tells me that even if your parents didn’t pay attention to you someone else did. Someone felt so sorry for you that they filled the gap. They showered you with sympathy, because your parents didn’t pay enough attention to you, and you now want us to feed your sympathy fix. We’re talking about devoting attention to your kids, and you want us to pay more attention to you? My first response to someone who offers me such a figure eight is, ’So, due to the fact that your parents did nothing, you’re going to do compound their error by doing nothing?’ Before I say that, however, I realize that as confused as I am by such a reply, I’m probably not half as confused as the person who gives it. If it’s possible, I suggest we try to stop the narcissism and realize that in the grand scheme of your life, it’s not about you anymore.
Do no harm. “My actions aren’t harming the kids,” one parent said.
I’m going to make an outrageous, bold, and opinion-based (as opposed to fact-based) statement that just about everything we do affects our children. They might not be paying attention to us, and they might not react to what we do, but some of the whims we have to be something other than a good parent have a collateral damage effect that might not be apparent on day one or week one, but like those old dot-matrix selfies we used to make of ourselves in the 70’s, the tiny, insignificant things we do, could end up forming a relatively dysfunctional portrait over time.
Read, listen to, and talk about parenting. The very idea that you’ve read this far suggests that you’re probably a good parent. The idea that you’re open to considering another person’s ideas on parenting, no matter who they are, suggests that you’re interested in learning, developing, and eventually becoming a better parent today than you were yesterday. Being interested in others’ ideas suggests that you’re trying, and you’re probably already doing a relatively good job as a parent.
Become wise. The difference between becoming intelligent and wise is the that latter involves learning from experience. Our grades in school suggest that if we had any intelligence in our youth, we rarely applied it, and some of the moronic decisions we made after school suggests that our scores never improved. The eighth rule of parenting suggests that if we learn anything from our past, and we’re able to pass that along, we’re imparting wisdom.
As a parent, we are our their beacon in the darkness. They’re as confused about the way the world works as we were at their age, so they ask us questions, and we answer, and they learn the ways of the world from us.
Keep it Simple Stupid. The ninth rule of quality parenting leans on the eighth in that our kids view the world through our lens. They will learn from teachers, their friends, other family members, and they’ll learn nuggets of information from too many people to list, but their parents are their primary influence. If you’re doing it right, every piece of knowledge they learn will pass through you, both positively and negatively.
“Don’t underestimate them,” was the piece of advice a three-time parent told me when I became a first-timer.
I valued that advice at the time, until I realized that a better course of action might be to underestimate them and let them surprise us. If we underestimate them, we keep it simple. This is not to suggest that we dumb it down for them, but that we exhibit some patience for the gradual time frames it takes a young human to learn.
I’ve heard social commentators talk about the learning process that animals go through. “How long does it take a horse to learn how to walk after it falls out of the womb?” they ask. “How long does it take for a young chimp to learn what it needs to know? It takes the human being eighteen years, sometimes longer, to be able to competently exist in the adult world of their species.” I considered that a profundity, initially, until I compared what these species’ need to learn. If we choose to underestimate them, they will surprise us with their knowledge, and when they drop the big questions on us that hint that they’re ready, we should leap to action.
I prefaced my answer to one of these big questions with a word of caution. “I’m going to launch, until you tell me to stop, and I want you to stop me when this becomes too much for you.” He did tell me to stop, and he added, with a pained expression, that he thought he waited too long. “Ok, when you’re ready for more, don’t go to your friends, or any other adult. You come to me.”
Another element to keeping it simple is to try to avoid introducing our confusion into their thoughts. The confusion involves fact versus opinion and all of the variable truths we know that underly our definition of fact. We might think we’re helping them achieve some of the advanced intelligence it took us decades to achieve. Depending on their age, of course, they’re still trying to grapple with how one plus one equals two in math, and we’re trying to teach them our advanced knowledge on human interaction. There are all sorts of exceptions to the keep it simple rule, of course, as we need to test them and push them if we want to help them learn and advance, but if we allow them to dictate the pace of their learning, we might increase their retention level tenfold.
Lie to your kids. When one of my friends got pregnant, she was glowing internally and externally. One of the beautiful, wonderful things she whispered to her newborn was, “I will never lie to you.” The thing with beautiful and wonderful whispers is that they often turn out to be flawed. There’s nothing wrong with being honest with your children, but there’s honest and there’s brutally honest. There are some circumstances when the truth has diminishing returns.
Example: Your daughter is a strong, independent woman who has strong ties to her flawed father, your ex-husband. She has become a relatively successful woman, and a well-rounded adult that other people enjoy being around, and although it grates on you, you know that 50% of her admirable qualities are due to her strong relationship with him. The next time she swerves into some sort of character assessment of your ex-, however, you’re going to drop the bomb on her. You think she finally deserves to know the truth about the man.
If you view this in an objective manner, you’ll know that it does nothing for her to learn the truth, but you think she’s been in the dark for too long, and you think she’s old enough now to know the truth about him. Stop right there, before we go another further, does she love him, and will she love him forever, and does she need him, and will she need him forever? Will he make her so happy for the rest of her life that your testimony might actually do more harm than good? Are you going to drop this bomb on her for her own good, or yours?
We all have competitive instincts in any given situation, and this is a situation in which our loved one does not know that we were the good guy all along, because we’ve been fudging the truth to her for so long so she could have a good relationship with him. These competitive instincts kick in when she constantly reminds you that she sees your messy, spiritually devastating divorce as an amicable one, and she’s done this for far too long in your estimation. She deserves to know the truth, you say to yourself, or do you want vindication, validations, and all of the terms we could loosely define as synonyms of narcissism?
Now she won’t talk to him, and the other day she said something along the lines of “Why didn’t you tell me all this sooner? It feels like my whole life has been based on a lie.” And she now has a hole in her soul that’s as deep as yours that threatens to eventually mirror your wound, but you got all of the validation and vindication you wanted, as she now sees her dad as a father, and a bad guy. Congratulations, and my condolences. Some of the times the truth has diminishing returns.
I write the latter, because I met a woman who would never disparage her ex-husband to her daughter, even though he wasn’t a good guy, and he was largely an ambivalent parent for much of her daughter’s maturation. Her daughter apparently didn’t remember examples of his negative attributes or characteristics, and her mother never did anything to spark those memories. The mother thought the uninformed relationship the daughter has with the father proved beneficial to the daughter, even when, EVEN WHEN, the daughter’s memory could prove falsely detrimental to the mother.
“I think I’m going to nominate you for parent of the year,” I jokingly told her. “I know I couldn’t do it. Over the course of years of enduring such things, I think I might break sooner or later, and I think most of the normal population, who happen to be parents, would too.”