Let go of the perfect parenting dream

For a long time now, I’ve been guilty of wanting to be the perfect parent.

Full disclosure: I’ve failed.

Set yourself up for failure, and you will, indeed, find it. Trying to be a perfect parent is as pointless as trying to be a perfect spouse, friend, or employee. It’s not going to happen, yet we continue to expect ourselves to reach the unattainable ideal.

Is there a parent out there who doesn’t look back over the years and grimace with regret over bad parenting moves? Can anyone reflect on the past 15 years or so with certainty that every decision, every word, every action worked to the benefit of your children? Of course not, so why do we beat ourselves up over human error, best intentions, or loving our kids too much to see what was right in front of us?

Most of our mistakes come from our own backgrounds, our personalities, and our inherent weaknesses. We expect our kids to be like us (which would make them SO much easier to understand!) and when they’re not, we have no idea how to deal with them. Or, they ARE like us and similar tempers ignite arguments or shared stubbornness leads to face-offs. None of this makes us bad parents. It just makes us human beings, trying desperately to do a good job in the most important role we’ll every play.

We can’t do that, though, unless we let go of our past mistakes. There is not a single thing we can do about them. What’s done is done. We forgive ourselves our mistakes because we’re not so arrogant to believe that we are infallible. Most of us do the absolute best that we know how to do, and when we know more, we adjust accordingly. We may lament our past ignorance and we should definitely learn from it, but self-flagellation is not only unnecessary, but destructive.

Don’t waste any more time wishing you could change the way you parented in the past. Make the changes now, from this moment forward, and let yourself off the hook.

It’s okay. Move on.

The enchantment of sittin’ a spell

We are too busy. We work, we volunteer, we try to stay in shape, we take care of the house, we pay bills, and we collapse into bed at night. If we are parents, we keep a running laundry list in our heads of carpool duties, scheduled activities, homework assignments, and topics we need to discuss with our kids.

If I didn’t keep a to-do list and three calendars, I would undoubtedly miss appointments, live in a filthy house, and subsist off of peanut butter. I’m sure you’re the same. But while everything we do is important, little is as relevant, truly, as knowing when to be quiet. Because when we’re quiet, we can hear our kids talking.

Yesterday, I popped into my daughter’s room and found her reading on her bed. I sat down for a minute to ask her about her Valentine date with her boyfriend, and from there, the conversation evolved, organically, to whatever either of us wanted to discuss. I let her talk. I listened. She let me tell her a story about the time I traveled with her squirming one-year-old self on my lap on a long flight to California. We weren’t on a time table, no one was rushing out the door, and we weren’t confined to the time it takes to eat dinner. We just sat there, shooting the breeze, letting the conversation meander through a rose garden that yes, contained thorns, but mostly was filled with the heady scent of love.

Surprisingly, this same week, my son emerged from his room to join me for a walk. For once, we didn’t talk about his job search or the fact that he didn’t clean up after himself. Boys, young men, and grown men use much fewer words than the average woman, and when there is no agenda to the conversation, no goal that needs to be reached, it doesn’t matter one bit. We weren’t squared off, facing each other, resolving an issue or solving a problem; we were looking out over the water at the whistling ducks, talking about the coarseness of grass under our bare feet, and wondering how color blind our dog could possibly be if he were able to find the one red post on which to pee.

Both of these very different conversations with two very different young adults brought a closeness and a connection that is hard to come by as we rush through life. The content of the conversation wasn’t weighted and the moments weren’t planned.

In the South, we like to “sit a spell.” In the olden days, and sometimes even today, it involved sweet tea, rocking chairs and a front porch. The idea was to just relax, let the conversation proceed and veer naturally, and be comfortable with silence, because silence meant reflection. As hard as it is for us to step away from calendars and cell phones and everything else that demands our attention, we need to. We need unfettered time to let the conversations with our kids take us wherever they like.

So just sit a spell with your kids, and trust me, you will fall under the enchantment of the unplanned conversation.


One damaged car, one commendable teenager

Last night, I attended a social gathering at a house on a quiet, residential street. I was eating guacamole and chatting with another woman when I noticed the host quietly asking individuals if they happened to be the owner of the jag parked out front. I spoke up, “That’s me. I drive a jag.” He bent over and said, “A kid’s at the door. Apparently he ran into your car.”

My immediate impulse was to assume he was joking. I had been involved in some friendly “my guacamole is better than yours” jibing with a friend just a few minutes before, and I figured it was his little practical joke to get back at me. But no, the host was dead serious, much to my chagrin. You see, I love my car. It was a present I bought myself when I finished my doctorate, and I have loved it like it had feelings ever since. A scratch will send me to the body shop faster than you can say, “You have an unhealthy relationship with your car.” So this news devastated me.

I went to the door and found a tall, terrified young man staring back at me. He was a senior in high school – maybe 17 years old – and he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry, but I backed my truck into your car. It’s definitely damaged. I’m so sorry.”

Do you know how many people (grown adults included) would have backed into the car, seen the damage, and taken off as quickly as possible? And here was this young man, likely in his first accident, standing tall and taking responsibility for his mistake. He didn’t try to make excuses or transfer the blame to me for parking where I did. He never told himself that he didn’t know the owner of the car and therefore was justified in leaving. Instead, he knocked on doors until he found the owner and bravely admitted what he had done.

Well, I couldn’t help but throw an arm around him, tell him it was okay, and thank him for being so honest. His reply? “I would never walk away from something like this. I would never want someone to do that to me, so I won’t do it to someone else.”

Now, I ask you, can we all say the same? Do we treat others the way we would want to be treated and have we taught our children to do the same, even when their natural inclination is to protect themselves first?

I wanted to cry when I saw my car, but part of my emotion stemmed from gratitude that there are teenagers out there who will step up and do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. I can only hope that I was as gracious in return, that I played some small part in making him feel better for showing his true, wonderful character.

If I were his mother, I would be incredibly proud. The media may focus on shallow, materialistic, selfish teenagers, but there are plenty of good ones out there. They quietly own their decisions and their mistakes, and they grow from them. Let’s be the kind of parents who raise our children to do the same.