I was 37 years old when I had my first child. I had wanted to be a parent many years before this, but this was when the stars aligned in my life to make it happen. Before I had children, I imagined the perfect little family with well-loved little ones with whom I was perfectly attuned. While the well-loved part certainly became true, the perfect attunement was fantasy. In reality, my husband and I have done our best to prepare our children emotionally and otherwise to eventually leave us, a bittersweet goal at best. This takes both appropriate boundaries and unconditional love. Throw in a little good luck and you can watch your children grow into interesting confident and kind young people. Still there are those occasional hard days. . . . because parenting is not for the weak of heart.
I became a teacher, parent educator and psychotherapist in my pursuit to learn as much as possible about what young people need. I’ve read books and books, some professional, some for parents, and some more helpful than others. (And some counterproductive because they just make it seem easy which leaves you wondering what you are doing wrong.) After my many years of working with other people’s children and now my 17th year into parenting my own, I offer the following as the most important aspects of parenting well. (And still there will be those hard hours, days and sometimes even years.)
Send your child out into the world with love and confidence. Be their cheerleader and delight in their delights and accomplishments. Don’t overpraise but notice deeply what they like and who they are. Welcome them back when they are tired, hungry, defeated or scared with love, comfort and reassurance. Work on your own stuff, because as much as possible you have to be the steady one, with emotions regulated and the wisdom of having lived longer and seen more about the joys and pitfalls to life. Understand that you will often get the worst of their behaviors because they feel safe with you. Don’t take what they say to you personally (especially when they are teenagers) but set gentle limits so they know there is a basic level of respect that everyone deserves. Treat your children the way you want them to treat you (at least eventually). Punishment will ultimately back fire if you want to grow children who enjoy your company as an adult, and are neither too passive or too aggressive. Trust that a gentle voice is ultimately more powerful than a raised, angry one.
Finally, and this is more for you than your child, be gentle with yourself. The above is all worthwhile doing, but thankfully we don’t have to do any of this perfectly. At times, we may not be steady and emotionally regulated. (I certainly would not claim that I have always lived up to my aspirations.) The ghosts from the past can occasionally possess us, leading us to make poor choices with our children. When we do make mistakes, for whatever reason, apologize and then without beating yourself up, assess how you can do better next time. If you are sincere and concerned, your children will always forgive you. Trust that the bond between yourself and your children is the most powerful tool that you have. Your children will want to please you most of the time if you have seen them and delighted in them, and loved them enough to say “no” when it was in their best interests. This is both very simple and very hard to do.