Parenting Truths 18: You can (and should) say “no”

When they’re really little, we’re so afraid of harming their gentle spirits that it can be tempting not to say “no.” Ever. Instead we redirect, or give two choices, or do something else that guides them into doing what we want them to do without having to say “no.”

But being a parent is about teaching your child how to be a person in the world, and in order to have harmonious personal relationships and contribute to society, a person has to understand limits and boundaries and appropriate behavior. And the only way to learn boundaries and appropriate behavior is for loving adults to make and enforce age-appropriate boundaries from the time you’re tiny.

So it’s ok to say “no” when it’s not good for your child to do something. Or even when you simply don’t want your child to do something. It’s ok to wean, to limit cookies or screen time or jumping on the couch, to force them to write thank-you notes, to give up their seats for older people, to let you eat your meal in peace. You don’t have to justify saying “no,” either, although you’ll do more teaching if you tell them why so they can start sorting out what is and isn’t acceptable. Kids need boundaries. They’ll push against them, for sure–that’s what growing and developing is for. But if you don’t enforce any boundaries they won’t have any to push against, and they won’t develop the way you want them to.

So say “no” with love, and stay firm, and your kids will grow up with healthy senses of themselves in the world.

Parenting Truths 17: You can ask for help

Parents aren’t meant to do this alone. Children are a common good, for one thing, so it benefits everyone to help parents raise children. And this whole nuclear-family-one-or-two-adults-alone-in-a-house-with-children-24-7 thing is extremely new historically and totally maladaptive, IMO.

So ask for help when you need it. Ask for help before you need it. 

You may be emotionally hurt by parenting, or lonely, or just done. That’s all normal. A chat with a friend or relative who loves you and will let you vent without telling you to be grateful can be just the thing to give you the strength to get through bedtime. Reach out when you need validation, commiseration, or just someone to tell you they like you.

If you have a partner, make sure your partner gets as much of a chance to do childcare as you do, so they can develop their parenting skills and form a bond with your child that doesn’t go through you. And then if you’re feeling fried, you can ask your partner to wrangle the kids while you recharge. (If you’re being proactive, you’ll work it out so each of you gets alone time regularly, so neither of you gets to the fried point.)

And whether you have a partner or not, you should start building a support network of friends and neighbors you can ask for help sometimes. If they like you, they are probably willing to take your kids for a few hours while you go to an appointment or recharge. But they probably don’t think to offer, so you don’t know until you ask.

Parenting is long, hard, tiring, occasionally demoralizing work. You don’t have to white-knuckle through it alone. Reach out, whether you need emotional support or the physical presence of someone else, and your friends will be there for you. You don’t have to do it alone.

Parenting Truths 16: It hurts you more when they leave than it hurts them

Expanding on what I said yesterday about knowing that it’s good when they don’t need you anymore, another truth is that it hurts you more when they leave than it hurts them.

When your children leave you it’s to go to a fun babysitter, or preschool, or summer camp, or college. Someplace fun and new with things to do and learn and new friends to make and wings to stretch out and theories to test. In the meantime, you’re stuck at home alone or on a plane somewhere or at your desk at work. And it’s not that thrilling and you wonder how your child is doing and you miss their sweet little head.

Yes, there are times when you’re dying to get away from them for a bit, when you’re jumping out of your own skin from being touched or want to rip your ears out rather than hear “Whyyyyyyy???” one more time. And there are times when your kids really, really, REALLY want to be with you. But for the most part, your kids are more excited about leaving you than you are about their leaving. And when they’re gone you feel more of a hole than they do.

That’s good. It means you’ve given them enough to have confidence in themselves and to feel secure without you. So while it can sting a little that they don’t feel as homesick for you as you do for them, it’s all part of creating wonderful people who can go into the world with confidence.

Parenting Truths 15: The better a parent you are the less they need you

This one hits me hard every few months: The better a job I do at teaching my kids to love and trust themselves and find home within, the less they’ll need me eventually. The measure of my success will be that they don’t need me to lead them or buffer things for them anymore. Whether they go away geographically or not, they’ll take the reins of their own lives.

Kids need to grow out of needing their parents. As much as we want to keep doing things for them, keep helping them with their emotions, keep owning the sweet smells of their heads and their gorgeous peals of laughter, it’s not healthy to hold on so tightly. We scaffold and support and nurture and teach, until our children can do everything they need to do to be functioning members of society. Without us.

So the better we are at parenting, the more able they’ll be to fly away from us.

The good news is that the better a parent any of us is the more they’ll want to be around us later. Eventually. Once they’ve done doing everything they want to do. And when they have kids of their own. Wanting to be near us is better than needing to be near us, because it implies choice, and deep love, and interdependence instead of dependence.

Keep going. Keep doing it right. 

Parenting Truths 14: You owe your kids the truth

If you were watching all the feeds and then the media blackout from Ferguson, MO, last night like I was, you were thinking about how you’d explain what happened to your kids. And maybe you thought you wouldn’t have to say anything to your kids about it. If they’re preschoolers or toddlers, you don’t, but if they’re elementary school and above, it’s one of those things they’ll hear about whether or not you tell them. You owe your kids the truth, and your owe your kids guidance dealing with the hard things. So talk to them about it.

I wrote this post last year when I was thinking about what my white kids needed to know about the Zimmerman verdict, and I think everything in it is applicable to what happened in Ferguson over the past 6 days. It’s really REALLY important for kids to know what their world is about. Even when that’s unpleasant. If you tell them, you can help them think about it. If you let them hear about it somewhere else, they have no help from you to process it.

So please, talk to your kids about racism, privilege, institutionalized bias of all types, and the fact that we can all stop it, but only by exposing it whenever we encounter it.

Parenting Truths 13: The past is your ally

All of us had childhoods. Those of us who were lucky want to replicate a lot of what the people who took care of us did, or build on it. Others who weren’t so lucky want to do everything differently. Most people want to do something in between what happened to us.

This means that the past is our biggest help, because it’s our biggest teacher. You know what happens when you treat a child the way you were treated under the conditions you were raised in–you’re the outcome of that treatment. (If you have any siblings who were treated the same way, they’re the outcome of that treatment, too.) If you account for the differences between your childhood situation and your children’s situation, you can predict what will happen to your children if you treat them the same way you were treated. And you can adjust your parenting from that to get the results that you want tot get.

The past can hurt and be hard to confront. But it’s the best information you have about how children grow and develop, so it’s worth putting in the time and analysis and friction to consider carefully how you were raised and how that affected you.

You can choose any future you want. But only if you look at the past with clear eyes and learn the lessons it teaches you. You and your kids are worth it.

Parenting Truths 12: You’ll have to talk about hard things

I have depression. So I’ve talked to my kids about depression for years, so they know what it is, and that they have a risk for it, and how it may or may not affect them.

It’s only one of the hard things we’ve talked about (divorce is another one that we live every day) so they’re used to my sitting them down and telling them we need to talk about something that I trust them enough to understand. 

You are going to have to have some hard conversations with your kids. I hope you’ll talk to them about depression and divorce, even if those don’t touch your family as intimately as they touch mine. But you’ll talk to them about all sorts of things that happen that we wish we didn’t have to confront. The only way for them to learn about the world is either to hear it from you or to live it. And I’m guessing you’d rather have their introduction to the bad things be with you to help. So don’t be afraid of the tough conversations, because that’s where you build trust. You can do it.

By request: I’ve been asked to link to my post about my friend Ray’s suicide, “Don’t go.” I wrote it five years ago for Ray, but it’s for everyone who’s gone or who’s ever considered going:

Stay crisp.

Parenting Truths 11: No one comes out unscathed

No matter what you do, you aren’t going to parent your children perfectly. And even if you could be the perfect parent, there are too many other things that happen to people in their first 18 years that hurt them. No one comes out of childhood unscathed.

Everyone could go to therapy. A lot of us roll along, functioning decently. But we’d probably all be better off if we spent six months seeing a good therapist who could help us identify and come to terms with the stuff that happened when we were kids, and then help us make a plan to act in ways that lead us to connection and fulfillment instead of re-enacting old hurts and patterns.

This is just life. No matter how many things you do correctly. No matter how many good decisions you make. No matter how attentive or correct or research-backed or selfless or good-enough you are, your kids are of this world, so they’re going to be hurt somehow at some point.

You can feel despair about it, or you can realize that this releases you from having to be perfect and instead allows you to be better. Knowing that SOMETHING is going to hurt your kids, you get to minimize the big things that are in your control. You get to pick what you protect them from and what you let them experience. What they learn to handle early and what you scaffold them in for longer. Being mindful of their individual personalities, and of your own resources.

And you know that there are some things that you can’t control. All you can do is be there to help your kids through them, so they don’t have to process alone.

And then, when your kids are adults, and they start working through the stuff that happened when they were kids, stay close. You know you did the best you could, so you don’t have to justify yourself. Listen with open ears and an open heart. Be willing to analyze and debrief when your kids need to. Apologize if things got past you that hurt them. Know that as your kids come to terms with things you can stay close if you stay open.

Life is hard. But we have each other.

Parenting Truths 10: Your kids are going to think about things you don’t know anything about

I remember when my older son was a baby and I couldn’t wait to find out what he was thinking about. And then he started talking, and I knew what he was thinking during every waking moment. It was strange, this intimate knowledge of someone else’s inner life, but I loved it. And then suddenly he started talking about things I knew nothing about, and I realized he had a life that didn’t involve me in every moment anymore.

It happens with every child. Eventually they develop an interest in something you know nothing about, and you suddenly know that at some point that child will have a whole big wide life that isn’t anchored to you.

Maybe it’s dinosaurs. Or Greek myths. With my son it was baseball statistics. He was five years old, and he became obsessed with baseball and baseballs stats. I don’t like baseball and I have no interest in baseball stats, so I wan’t even tempted to try to cram to catch up to him. I just let him tell me what he knew, and feigned interest so he knew I always wanted to hear what he had to say. And you’ll listen and marvel at where your child’s interests lie, and let them talk and talk and talk (even when you really don’t care about the content of what they’re saying).

One of my friends attended her son’s PhD dissertation defense last week. Someday this will be you. Or maybe it won’t be a dissertation defense, but it’ll be a promotion at work, or some sort of award, or even just listening to your kid explain something they’re really good at to someone else. You’ll be just as proud then as you are the first time, and a lot less surprised.

It’s good when you get to the part of the conversation in which your child is teaching you new things.

Parenting Truths 9: Parenting hurts (physically)

This is something no one tells you: Being a parent is like doing CrossFit with a really strong, risk-taking, ill-tempered-but-adorable monkey trainer. You will sustain physical injuries.

Let’s not even talk about pregnancy and delivery. Let’s talk about tennis elbow and tendinitis from carrying the baby. Back problems from hunching over while feeding the baby. Concussions from toddlers and preschoolers. Chronic sleep problems.

This is no joke. It’s painful, and it’s hurtful, too. Physical pain hurts your feelings. And most of this pain happens long before your child is old enough to understand and be careful of you physically.

There will be a day, however, when your child begins to understand that they can take as much care with you as you take with them. When your child starts protecting you and your body as much as you protect your child. It takes years, and a lot of stress on your body, to get to that part of the conversation. But you’ll get there.

In the meantime, lift with your legs.