This parenthood gig is often filled with joy and laughter and delightful rewards.
But it is also filled with challenge, grief, and whopping doses of guilt and insecurity. Am I doing it right? Will my kids survive my parenting? I know I'm supposed to be consistent, but what if I don't know exactly what I'm supposed to be consistent about?
Underlying these questions is a deep confusion about what the goal of parenting is, and it seems to me there are three options.
If I listen to the conversation of the culture around me, I might think that parenting success is measured by having an achieving child. I don't know many parents who would admit that this is their definition of success, but the underlying belief is revealed by the questions we ask and the humblebrags we trade: "Is Janie reading yet?" "Oliver can already do a forward roll." "Clara has mastered the piano." "I'm signing Joe up for baseball camp this week; get him in shape for the years to come." "We chose Tweedledee Elementary rather than Tweedledum; it gets better rankings and is a feeder school for the program with more AP options." All this unwittingly prepares us for the adult life characterized by the identity-forming-question: "What do you do for a living?" as if this was the most important thing about us.
What we do isn't the most important thing about us, and it isn't the most important thing about our children either. We want to offer our children opportunities, but we don't want to over-schedule them, which means we live in the constant tension of wondering whether we are making the right choices. And what if our child struggled with a disability? What if we, like most of the world, were not financially able to offer any education alternatives? What if college, or sports, or internships are not available?
Winning at parenting can't be measured by our children's achievements. Nor should it be.
There is a second option. If I listen to the chatter in religious circles, I might think that parenting success is measured by having an obedient child. We use the words "listen and obey" frequently in our house, and are intentionally and regularly trying to teach them that "if you obey, you have a better day." We talk about how, as moms and dads, we are training our kids to live joyfully and well and to model for them a relationship with God: we explain that even as adults we are God's children and we, too, need to listen and obey our heavenly Father.
But my children disobey frequently and publicly enough that I feel I am losing at parenting if this is the yardstick. And besides which, to take the view that my success as a parent is reflected by my child's behavior is to have a very unhealthy view of personal responsibility. I am responsible for my own behavior, and my children are responsible for theirs. If I yell and scream and threaten and intimidate my children into terrified submission -- they may be more "obedient," but is that a "win"? And if I suffer the heartbreak that other friends have of having raised their children as law-abidingly and responsibly as possible, but then still see them drift into a series of painful and poor choices -- does that mean I was a bad parent?
Winning at parenting can't be measured by our children's behavior. Nor should it be.
Which leaves this, the third option. If I listen carefully and well to the message of seasoned parents, I need to hear that parenting success is measured by having well-loved children. My children need to know I love them when they do well, that I love them when they fail, that I love them when they try... and all the permutations in between. They need to know I love them when I'm disciplining them. They need to know I love them when I'm helping them reach their goals.
My children need to be loved, not managed.
They know I love them when I listen to them. They know I love them when I laugh at their jokes, and engage in their world. (Right now that's a world of unicorns and dump trucks, but one day it will be a world of dating and navigating the internet and battling acne.) They know I love them when I'm still there holding their hands after a colossal brouhaha. They know I love them when we spend time together.
Somehow, I need to remind myself to put the "I love you" words into the dark moments of parenting and not just the joyful, giggle moments. To my tantruming pre-schooler: "I love you and we need to work on better ways to fix this." To my picky eater: "I love you and I want to help you make healthy choices." To my ashamed mess-maker, to my sullen pouter, to my discouraged non-participant... I can tell them I love them, always and forever, no matter what.
Winning at parenting has to be measured by my sold-out, fully-committed, warts-and-all love for my children. And it should be.
I'm pretty sure that's what the Bible was talking about when it said "love covers a multitude of sins" (both mine and theirs).
I don't often feel like I am winning at parenting. The days are long and the struggles are huge. I want them to succeed, and I want them to behave -- but the achievement milestones are onerous, and the behavioral bar is high. On days like that (which is most days, in truth), it's good to remember:
Whether or not they succeed, and whether or not they behave...
We are winning at parenting if our kids know they are loved.