My daughters are grown up now -- both of them in their mid-twenties, both well-adjusted and successful -- but I remember receiving a lot of unsolicited (and mostly misguided) advice and criticism from childless people regarding the way my wife and I were raising them. Many of these so-called authorities derived their expertise from having occasionally acted as babysitters for their nieces and nephews for an evening or a weekend, which is not even close to being the same as raising a child.
According to one inexperienced expert on child-rearing, my wife and I were being too lenient if we didn't insist too strongly on just about everything. "Why are you negotiating with your kids?" she said, horrified. "You have to lay down the law. Be tough. Otherwise they'll grow up to become wild and unruly."
This nugget of advice resulted from an occasion during which one of our daughters was up 10 minutes past her official bedtime hour because she was building a rather elaborate skyscraper with blocks. I recall "negotiating" with her about staying up another five minutes. Hardly the SALT Treaty. Walk softly and carry a big stick might have worked as a foreign policy strategy for Theodore Roosevelt, but it was not our modus operandi in those days.
The daughter in question did not grow up to be wild and unruly. Although she is not an architect, she grew up to be an able negotiator with a lot of creative talent. We felt at the time that allowing her to finish her skyscraper took precedence over insisting that she go to bed at the exact time.
Of course, there are times when negotiation is necessary. An example of a non-negotiable act would be if your child is hitting the dog repeatedly about the head with a croquet mallet. That's when you say no.
I found that people without children tended to be arrogant and smug. They were absolutely positive they were right and were convinced that we were being manipulated. Really? Manipulated? By a three-year-old?
Another one of our child-rearing expert friends complained that we were making a serious mistake by praising every creative thing our children produced. Her theory was that our daughters would grow up thinking that everything they did was exemplary. "You have to be truthful," this sage instructed me. "If she draws a picture and it's terrible, you need to say that."
Really? We were supposed to tell our five-year-old that her crayon drawing of a horse sucked and that she had no creative talent and should give up art forever? (Did Picasso's parents say that when young Pablo drew faces with the noses in the wrong place?) If we lied about her artistic ability would it cause her to be depressed when she grew up and then discovered that not everything she did was wonderful?
No. Regardless of our praise, we knew that she would eventually learn that the world is less kind than her home environment. All of us do sooner or later. Promoting her self-esteem and creativity was far more important to us. Today, she has no trouble taking criticism.
Another friend had read an article in a magazine that advised parents not to respond if their children woke up and cried during the night. The theory held that ignoring them would eventually teach them to keep quiet. We tried that once for about 10 minutes, after which my wife ran to our baby's room, took her out of her crib and let her sleep in bed with us. I'm sorry, but ignoring a crying baby for hours is just plain cruel.
It's a little like letting your dog bark all night to break it of the habit. Good luck with that.
Will I be a meddling grandfather when my kids have children? No, not unless they ask for my advice.
The thing is, nobody really knows how to raise a child. It's pretty much always on-the-job-training, the operative phrase being "on-the-job." And of course there's the profound unconditional love factor which childless people will, sadly, never understand.
In other words, if you don't have kids, you have no clue.
In the same way that volunteering at your child's school makes you part of a community and helps you make friends with fellow parents, volunteering at your local library, homeless shelter, or with a civic group will immerse you in a new community that includes neighbors and empty nesters.
Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't start writing books until her children were grown and with kids of their own? Take advantage of your empty nest and get involved in something that you have wanted to do and previously did not have enough time to do. Take a class, play a sport, or find a hobby.
If you've only ever done poorly paid part-time jobs while the children were at home (or if raising kids for 18 years was enough full time work in itself!), now you've got the chance to have a fresh start. Or you may have an ambition to run your own business -- the 'encore career' movement is rife with fresh faced entrepreneurs over 50. Now is the time to discover what passions live within you and pursue them to the bank!
Now that you're not responsible for getting a kid to school at 8 a.m. five days a week, explore the idea of exploring. Rejoice in the freedom you haven't had in years and see the world. Feel like seeing the pyramids? Versailles? Living in Costa Rica for a year week? Step to it amigo!
If an empty nest means anything, it's privacy. Rejoice in your long-deserved break from acting like a parent and act like an adult. Whether you're married or single, take the opportunity to reignite the sputtering spark in your relationship or get out there and carve out for yourself a love life worth living. It's true what they say, sex IS better after 50.
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