A large part of a parent’s job is to teach the children. Humans don’t arrive on this planet socialized, they have to learn it from others. Many studies and articles reiterate the idea that parents are the largest influences on how their children turn out. The pressure of that is huge. I feel it every time I have to make a decision involving my kids. The trouble is that any action I take could teach multiple different lessons. If I buy them a treat after they’ve been pleasant at a store, am I teaching them good behavior is rewarded, or am I teaching them Mom can be manipulated? When we choose to stay home from a church event because going is too stressful, am I teaching them to opt out when things are difficult or am I teaching them valuable mental health coping skills? Even when I am very clear in my own head about what I want them to learn, they don’t always receive the message the way that I intended. In more than one high-emotion interaction I’ve looked at my child’s face and worried about what story they are telling themselves about the events we experienced.
There is a space between intention and reception. What happens in that space is influenced not just by the words and actions of this moment, it is also colored by my past relationship and history of interactions with my child. It is affected by the thing their friend said yesterday and the amount of sleep they got and that video they saw on the internet two weeks ago. That space can be terrifying to a parent who wants to do well, but isn’t a hundred percent sure of the path they should take. To increase the worry, there is also an awareness that as children grow, they will re-evaluate their childhood experiences and come to new conclusions about them. So even if the intended lesson is received in the moment, further along in time the child may decide that the lesson is wrong because they now see us differently or have a different framework for life than they had before.
One thing I’ve learned with writing is that I have very little control over the reception of my words. I try to be clear, but people respond in ways that I do not expect. Any attempt on my part to control their reaction only leads to hard words and hard feelings. I think this is also true of parenting. Ultimately I have so little control over the adults my children will become. I have influence, not control. It is not that the studies about parental influence are a lie. Parental influence is critical to child development. The lie is the one the parents tell themselves based on the studies. We tell ourselves that because we’re the biggest influencers in our children’s lives, it is crucially important to do parenting right. Then we run around frantically trying to figure out what “doing parenting right” means. This is where we end up judgemental of other parenting choices. Each of us spends so much time and energy developing our methods of parenting that when we encounter someone doing the opposite of what we chose, the fear creeps in. “What if I am wrong?” One way to squelch that fear is to double down and loudly proclaim how wrong the other parent is. Any time I’ve found myself judgmentally angry at another parent, some introspection shows me that my emotion is rooted in fear.
Parenting is actually a mutual language created between the caretakers and the child. The parents are changed by it as much as the children are. The relationship is influenced by their surroundings, their community, their support structures, or the lack thereof. I felt this as I raised my children through their youngest years. My responses to my children had to change as the children did. What worked to help one child was ineffective with another. Any time I figured things out, a kid would turn some developmental corner and I’d feel lost again. I was making it all up as I went. We are all making it up as we go. The process only gets harder if we believe that we have to make up elaborate lesson plans and instructional moments. If we try to control what gets learned. Instead of making sure we teach the right lessons, we should be the sort of people we hope our children will grow up to be. Who parents are matters far more than what parents do.
I’m not certain if that makes the parental pressure any easier, but it does shift it. It does mean that instead of being a dispenser of lessons and discipline, I can bring my children inside my indecision. I can say “I’m not certain how to answer that, here are all the thoughts rolling around in my head about it. Perhaps we can sort it out together.” Sometimes I do have to give a firm no, and sometimes I regret that response later. Other times I give in and regret that. It makes me feel like a wishy-washy failure, until I remember that having a perfect parent who does everything correctly all the time, means a child will never get to witness failure and recovery. They will never see how to be humble and apologize unless adults make mistakes where they can see, and then apologize for those mistakes.
We’re all muddling through together, parents, children, teachers, friends, young, and old. None of us has all the answers. We don’t need to. Instead we need to share the knowledge we have and be willing to admit when others know more that we do. I’ve learned some amazing things from my children, probably just as often as I’ve taught things to them.