I’ve only been at this parenting thing for 4+ years so I’m no expert, but I have learned a few things along the way. And, in honor of Mother’s Day, I want to share my (current) 10 guiding rules of parenting.
Take them or leave them.
1. Be their parent, not their friend. When they are 16, you can tell them about your first real date. When they are 21, you can buy them a beer. When they’re 25 and getting married, you can kid with them about how your husband never learned to boil pasta. And then when they’re having their first child, you can finally reveal some embarrassing family secrets. But, for now, they are not your friends; they are your children and it is your job to parent them. It is up to you to teach them how to interact with every other authority figure they will have–teachers, friends’ parents, bosses. If they do not learn to take instruction from you, you are setting them up for a world of hurt when they have to learn to take instruction from people who don’t care nearly as much for them. Your children are not your peers and they are not competent to make decisions about what is best for them. Yes, your 4 year-old can help you decide between spaghetti and meatloaf for dinner, but he may not decide whether or not he eats said spaghetti or meatloaf. That is your decision. Make it for him.
2. Go ahead and indoctrinate them. Don’t buy the lie that children should “decide for themselves” what they believe about God and the universe and the difference between right and wrong. Even if you never have those conversations with your children, they will learn something from you and, when they are young, what they learn from you will be the only thing they have to guide them. So, go ahead and be bold in the way you define it for them. Don’t be afraid to give them something to believe in. Sure, you might not have all the answers or they might rebel or they might decide, at 18, that you were wrong. But that all comes later and that will happen, regardless. Unless you want them to approach their adolescence believing that they can simply feel their way through big decisions in life, you’d better decide now what philosophy they’ll need to guide them. Give your children a foundation and don’t apologize for it.
3. Teach them social skills beyond their years. Teach your children to do “adult things” like shake hands, say “excuse me,” carry on a conversation, and look another person in the eye. They should know how to approach strangers to ask a question. They should know how to ask for directions or pay for their own snack or ask for a napkin. These skills don’t happen magically–they are learned. Teach them early and you’ll enjoy a much more pleasant experience in public with your children.
4. Expose them to diversity. Create a life for your children in which they are regularly exposed to things they wouldn’t normally see in your own home. Let them rub shoulders with all sorts of people and places. Feed them foreign food. Fumble through books in foreign languages. Make it normal to know people who eat those foods and speak those languages. The same goes for people who look or act or believe differently. You are their parent and it’s up to you to help them interpret and understand those differences. But, the differences should not be a novelty to them.
5. Let nothing be taboo. Instill in your children, from the very start, an open door policy. Answer your child’s questions with age-appropriateness, but honesty. Don’t make up fake “kid words” for sex or anatomy or other difficult issues. You don’t have to give a complete philosophy or science or sex ed lesson every time an issue comes up, but don’t shoot down an honest question. Answer simply when they’re young (they’ll be happy with simple answers) and then your answers will get more complex as they grow and mature. This includes questions about culture, death, sex, disabilities, alcohol, etc.
6. Turn off the television. Seriously. Turn it off. Especially when your children are young, let tv, phone, and computer use be a treat, not a staple of family entertainment. Cancel cable and buy some more books.
7. Model proper behavior and attitude. Do you want a child who respects others? Who speaks kindly? Who shares generously? Who controls her emotional responses? Then you’d better model that behavior for her in the way you interact with your spouse, your parents, strangers, and her. BTW, this includes the way you speak about people–not just to them. Good luck trying to rid your preteen daughter of her snotty attitude if you let her get away with it when she was five, especially if you speak to her father the same way.
8. Say more than, “I love you.” Say it more than you think you need to, more than they probably need to hear. Tell your children you enjoy them, you appreciate them, you are proud of them. Tell them you noticed when they followed instructions or did something great for their sister. Tell your daughter she’s beautiful, but don’t praise her too much for physical things or she’ll think it’s her job to remain beautiful to you. Tell your son how happy you are for him when he wins the big game, but remind him that you’d love him even if he had lost. Teach them about both unconditional love and love that makes them better by encouraging them when you notice them growing and changing.
9. Never take too much credit or too much blame for your children. I can’t remember who shared these wise words with me, but it was sound advice. If your kids are simply fabulous and someone praises you for making them so fabulous, be thankful and gracious but don’t take all the credit. The second you start to take all the credit for having a great kid, he’s sure to sucker punch a stranger. And, if your kid is more the type who sucker punches strangers, be apologetic and tackle the issue at home, but don’t kill yourself over it. In the end, children make their own decisions about whether or not they’ll take your advice and instruction. Some kids respond better than others to consequences. To a certain extent, you can only do what you can do. Your children will always be your responsibility, but they aren’t really your fault.
10. Let them play. This might seem obvious, but I think it’s important to note how important it is that children be allowed to direct their own play. Encourage creativity and exploration, even if it gets “dangerous” sometimes. Take your kids outside and let them go off the path–alone. Let them make up their own games. Allow them to use boxes, sticks, straws, and rocks for things other than what they were intended for. Give them space to be kids. Watch over them when they’re young, but don’t feel the need to play with them. They probably don’t need you. If they want you, they’ll ask.
Paring my “Essential Rules” down to only 10 was no small task. I’ve left out an awful lot.
What would you add?