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Thoughts on Parenting, no Kidding

The Goal?

Understandably, caring parents view their offspring as beings which must be trained, counseled, re-oriented, tested, monitored, programmed, always seconds from disaster, needing to be defused before they detonate, and thus installed into time-digesting activities, maybe sports, martial arts or music, like uranium-235 placed gingerly into a nuclear power plant before its unchecked instability has a chance to destroy itself and life around it. It is good to keep your child safe and busy but there is more to raising a child.

Installing Values?

People talk about how parents should impart their wisdom into their offspring so they have the right values and thus become principled citizens, who live thoughtfully under a reasoned system of self-imposed rules. And therein lies the problem: a child does not become a principled citizen via their parents enacting some kind of “wisdom delivery service,” expecting the child to simply absorb a bunch of values that the child did not assimilate on their own. Children must construct their own value system and discover their own truths. Personal truths are not like physical laws, which are experienced to be the same for everyone. Rather, personal truths are unique aspects of individuals and their connections to the rest of the world. Children are not just “tanks” needing to be filled up with the “laws and values” over their eighteen-year maturation period. Many people believe that if parents can just “keep the tank full” with advice and activities and authority then their kids will be successful.

Parent-Centered?

This aforementioned method is not necessarily wrong, but parents should consider a richer perspective. The question parents need to ask themselves is not about the best “process” to manipulate their kids into adulthood. Fearful of being parental failures, parents load up their child-rearing “toolbox,” ready to perform the necessary operations upon the little ones at the “right” times during their childhoods. Depersonalized rules and instructions and anecdotes around careers, marriage, drugs, alcohol, sex, education, health, relationships, god, the world, all according to and experienced by the parent. In other words, many parents undertake parent-centered child-rearing.

Child Centered!

Instead, parents’ efforts should be child-centered. Parents must commit to be careful observers of and listeners of their children, instead of just throwing open the “House Rules and Advices” toolbox upon receipt of certain “cues of impending difficulty” from their kids. Parents must ask themselves: Am I willing to learn all the things my children have to “teach” me so that I can understand their world-views, gently sharing my life experiences and views with them for their perusal? Do I view my children as vessels I must shape in my own image or do I have the courage to patiently watch and seek to understand them as they develop into whoever they are becoming, carefully intervening with authority and advice and activity?

The Sandwich

My once very young daughter once asked for a sandwich for lunch. Upon opening the refrigerator I discovered that there was no sandwich meat. Irritated at this, I informed my daughter, who looked at me and said calmly, “you can make the sandwich anyway.” My mood was such that I missed the wisdom of her words and she had to explain it again to her impatient old man. “The sandwich will be fine without the meat.”

“You mean, you…just want lettuce… in the bread?” I stammered, still irritated.

“With mayonnaise please, and mustard.”

The Sandwich Lesson

I have never forgotten what she taught me that day, nearly twenty years ago. Think outside the box. Make the best with what you have. Try new things. Understand others before you impose your will. Fortunately, I had the calm wherewithal and listened to her and made her that stupid sandwich. She ate it, happily. But I, still languishing in my lazy mental stiffness was thinking, a sandwich without meat… ridiculous! But something in my heart that day allowed me to be a child-centered parent even though I did it begrudgingly. It felt totally wrong to violate my “tried and true” reaction-decision process and not head to the store for more sandwich meat. My daughter was the unwitting adult that day and on other days as well. I did not like being the child but I had just enough sense to take my place, calm down and wait for the new knowledge to sift in through my bricked-up cranium and into my squishy control unit. Yes, my daughter was a good “parent” to me at times.

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A big part of raising a child is to facilitate guided exploration, and genuinely learning about them as they share their observations and conclusions about their world. And being open to let them teach you valuable things that seem ridiculous and stupid until you realize they aren’t, as I did in the kitchen that day. Good parents raise their kids and their kids give their parents free lessons on life.

Commit to Accompanying Your Children

When I was about a decade old, my mother told me that if I wanted to try recreational drugs that I should do it when she was present, in case something happened. That was 60 years ago in the 1960s when adolescent drug use was on the rise with the emerging counterculture. I still remember how impressed I was with my mother’s seeming rejection of the “drugs bad” mantras zipping around society like static electricity. The wisdom she had, way beyond the public-service mantra blathering, was her realization that kids are risk-taking explorers full of willful zest for experiencing living. Instead of just saying “no drugs allowed in this house,” the lazy, parent-centered method of addressing the issue, she responded rationally to the reality of young people growing up. She cared about her children as future adults instead of as “stupid kids who must be kept in line.” The message my 10-year-old self received from my mother that day was one of respect and togetherness instead of one of judgements, threats and consequences. Oddly, or maybe not, I have never desired, nor have I tried any illicit drugs. This is not to say that children should not have consequences, but childhood must be more than a growing pile of rules slathered upon disaffected young ones.

Enjoy Your Children's Missions!

If you genuinely agree to “accompany” your children on their dangerous “missions,” often the “missions” will simply be aborted by your children. I don’t think my mother wanted to supervise me using drugs and she never had to. But she took that risk and was willing to be that engaged child-centered parent for my safety and because she respected me as a future adult, not just a kid who needed to be "stopped." That dangerous mission was aborted by me because my mother gently guided me there. I realized that illicit drugs were probably not worth the time, money or effort. Other missions you will embark on with your children will turn out better than you thought or not as painful as you were sure they’d be. If your child gets fed up and wants to leave home at age 5, standing by the door with a suitcase, offer to go with them and see where they take you. Just down the street, ask what’s for dinner and which hotel they want to go to. Tell your child that you too wish life were easier and ask them what could be done at home to achieve this. However, you do it, rest assured that successful parents “accompany” their children on their children’s “voyages” being ready to provide non-judgmental, carefully chosen authority, activity and advice as they “travel” together with them. This is not an easy process but you will be rewarded for the rest of your life as you watch your children move into adulthood and thrive.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 John Sebastian

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