Last week I had a call from a very dedicated and devoted parent who has a teenager who is suicidal, and she told me that she can’t understand how she did everything right and her child is doing worse than homes where there was serious dysfunction. While sharing my thoughts with her, I was reminded of this post that I wrote about 6 – 8 weeks ago that was sitting in my drafts file. So now’s a good time to dust off that draft!
I have the opportunity to speak with a good number of people about parenting, and I think there’s a critical point to be made. Too often parents get gung ho about this approach or that approach to parenting, thinking that they’ve found the answer. If they just (fill in the gap) – have a natural birth, breastfeed, hold their baby all the time, discipline effectively, show lots of love, homeschool, make sure their kids have lots of extracurriculars, build up their confidence, teach them appropriate social skills, work on themselves to be good role models, etc, then they’re hopeful that they won’t face difficulties as their children get older. I think that’s a big appeal of a lot of parenting books, that it seems there’s a way to make parenting easy.
Sorry. It’s just not like that.
You can learn lots of great insights and apply them consistently and appropriately, and it can make a big difference. It can make a huge difference! But it won’t guarantee a smooth and easy path with every child through every stage of life. I’ve learned a lot over the years from a variety of sources, but one thing I’m certain of is, there’s nothing that will guarantee the ‘perfect’ family. I have a special affinity for several authors whose work I found very insightful and powerful, and have incorporated a lot of this material into my life, which has been beneficial for our family. But to imply that by doing this my family has had smooth sailing throughout the years would be misleading. Yes, it’s much easier than it would have been without those tools or insights. But not painless or struggle-free.
I think we have to be very, very cautious about giving the impression that if you just do ‘xyz’ then your kids will turn out fine. There are a lot of challenges as parents, and nothing is going to prevent you from having some. Nothing. And here’s another point I think is critical that I shared with the mother above – if our child has a struggle, it doesn’t mean we did something wrong. (It doesn’t mean we did everything right, but that kind of guilt and second guessing – “If only I did something different it would be different” isn’t helpful.) The spiritual reality is that every child was put into the world for a unique mission and he must develop his soul to achieve his individual life purpose. That can’t happen without him facing challenges and growing into a better person from them.
No parent can do everything right. We have children with different needs and personalities, we have better and worse periods that we go through as adults, and it’s a very painful thing to even intimate to a parent, let alone say outright, that if they followed a particular approach, they wouldn’t have these problems. It’s just not true.
Even in the absence of hurtful comments of others, we can cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain when we have unrealistic expectations of achieving the perfect family. It doesn’t exist. The best families are those who are striving to do their best and grow with the challenges every single day, who have the humility of knowing that the final results aren’t in their hands, that G-d is an active partner in the parenting process.
What we can hope for is that we’ll learn effective tools that even during hard times can be applied. We can strive to grow as people no matter how hard the parenting situation we’re in right now is, and to help our children grow through their difficulties as well.
As parents, there’s nothing we want more than a good life for our children. We spend our lives trying to give them everything we can, to iron out life’s wrinkles and spare them the difficulties we’ve had in our own lives. A friend shared a wonderful quote with me a few days ago when we were discussing this topic: “As a parent you want to carpet the world for your child, but sometimes you need to give them slippers.” While we want to make it easy and spare our children suffering, often the role we need to play is to give them tools to get through tough times, and to trust that they have the inner reserves to get through the difficulties.