A while ago, a reader emailed me asking about my parenting philosophy because she thought my way of raising my children seemed unusual. I am not sure how much of my philosophy I can articulate in a blog post, but I will give it a try.
Twenty years ago, pregnant with my first child, I was reading every parenting book on the planet. And my head was swirling with conflicting advice. Let the baby sleep with you! No, make sure that baby sleeps in a crib! Your children should see punishment as a logical consequence. No, don't ever punish your child. Don’t yell. Always talk in a calm voice. No, let the child see your anger. Don’t bribe. No, offer rewards. Above all, never lose your temper because if you do so even once, your kid will grow up to be an axe murderer.
Oh, I’m exaggerating, and I did glean all sorts of useful information from the books, but the most useful revelation came one night at an open house for the sixth grade students I was teaching. What surprised me is how I could figure out which kids matched up with which parents before the parents even introduced themselves.
The quiet smart girl? Yep, that quiet smart woman must be her mother. The obnoxious kid who interrupts class with stupid jokes? I could find his father immediately – that man over there loudly telling an inappropriate joke. Again and again, a parent would walk over to talk to me, and the likeness would startle me.
And that’s when I figured it out. Children grow up to be like their parents.
I know exceptions of course. I have friends from abusive homes who managed to distance themselves early on from their parents, who chose other role models in their community or even sometimes role models in books they read. I do know people who are nothing like either of their parents.
But in fairly stable homes, more often then not, children grow up to become adults who are surprising like their own parents. I’ve seen it over and over again as my friends’ children reach adulthood. And it has confirmed the realization that I had on that night of sixth grade open house twenty years ago: the best thing a parent can do for her kids is to be come the person that she wants her kids to be.
Parenting books so often focus on the children, and what you should tell them or what you should do with them. Sometimes young parents get the idea that there is just one right way to parent, and if only they could find that perfect parenting manual, their kids will turn out perfect. This is silly, of course. My friends cover a range of parenting styles – all over the board – and yet their kids have for the most part all turned out well.
Probably the most important thing parents can do is work on themselves, their own issues, their own stuff. I admire parents who do the hard work of going to therapy or 12-step programs or intensive transformational workshops – who are determined to break patterns and to not pass their baggage on to their children. I admire parents who work hard at their relationships, who cultivate nourishing friendships, who read self-help books, who take time periodically for introspection, who think about their own emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs.
Sometimes the best thing parents can do for their children is to focus not on the children, but on themselves.