What I Learned About Raising Children (by Raising Several Other People’s)

My genetics are awful. I decided that I was not going to directly reproduce while I was a teen and I have stood by that. Though switching teams would save me a small fortune on birth control, I also made it a point to refuse requests for my sperm (virtually every gay man with who has ever befriended a lesbian couple has been hit up for some – it’s a rite of passage). 

A common misconception is that this has left me unable to understand any aspect of life with children, including but not limited to child-rearing, prior to adopting my own kids. BAHAHA! Yeah, ok. If I was never around people who failed to adequately raise their own kids, that might come close to true. Fortunately, being there for my neighbors’ fatherless children and my much younger brothers exposed me to common flaws parents make and how to compensate for those shortcomings. Add to this what I learned from my own parents’ failures. The results? My adopted daughter graduated high school early, is happy, and is working towards a career in music therapy. 

How? HOW?! Well, it’s not that damn difficult. A lot of mistakes happen from parents meaning to do well, just falling short of actually doing well. Intent doesn’t carry over into the world of the child, only the results of the action do. Meaning to keep your child safe does very little if the actions result in harm. The greatest example of this is the tendency modern parents have to bubble wrap their children. You might minimize your child’s exposure to things that could cause pain, but this will only lead to a young adult with skin that is highly-sensitive to the elements when they outgrow the wrap. The pain they experience as an adult is heightened. The intent to circumvent pain only resulted in more pain later down the road.

Child band aid
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash | You can rip it off now, or let these pile up for 18 years and rip them all off at that point.

What are some things that we can do, as parents, so that our actions satisfy our desire for what’s best for our children while also resulting in what’s best for the children?

Accept the Role the Ego Plays in Parenting

Let’s start with a biggie – the ego. As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “I know what’s best for my child.” Every parent thinks this. If every parent was right, there would be no such thing as child abuse, child neglect/endangerment, or departments of children services. Having children is the ultimate ego satisfaction. We think we’re so damn awesome that the world should have more of us and who else is better to raise someone like us than we are?

This is not a huge deal – as long as we don’t deny it. We’re hardwired to think this way as a means of keeping the human population going. If we didn’t find a self-serving motivation to raise children, the burden of doing so would make people logically choose to avoid having kids altogether. We chose to have the baby because we wanted to do so and felt capable of being able to raise them. Unfortunately, our DNA doesn’t come with the answers as to how to make the daily decisions that are best for the world we are living in today. Our “parental” instincts are still working under the assumption that our threats are primarily starvation, the elements, and beastly predators rather than economics, politics, and society norms.

Know Why Systems Exist.

What is the common thing that kids need in order to become their best and most productive selves? Most people accept that it’s consistency. How do you get consistency? Rules and structure. Does this mean that by having rules and structure that you will have consistency? Absolutely not. Plenty of parents will have rules for the sake of having rules, but will be incredibly inconsistent with them. Sometimes, rules that parents wish they had thought of before can get pulled out of thin air to suit their needs in a new moment.

Photo by Fengyou Wan on Unsplash | Watch your child’s incentive to behave vanish before your eyes!

It may sound like a good idea to have rules about rules so that the structure is intact. This is not the case. Having a fluctuating set of rules that keeps the child guessing eradicates consistency – the most important thing that the child needs. Having a system of rules for the sake of rules can instead motivate kids to become sneaky. Constantly changing rules to create an environment where the child feels that they can not win by playing by the rules only encourages a child to abandon the rules. If the rules do not create consistency, they are functionally useless and only set up the child to fail.

Don’t skip ahead to doing certain steps. Know why you’re doing the steps or they won’t matter. 

Pay Attention to Your Child.

Not to the pictures or videos you are taking of your child, but to your child. It is no secret that attention is currency to children. There are countless memes saying “Children who aren’t aren’t given attention in loving ways will seek it in unloving ways.” Everyone seems to get this. But, when it’s time to actually do anything, children do little more than distract their parents from getting a high Wordle score. 

Distracted mother
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash | You little bastards! I have to wait until tomorrow to try again!

I had ended a friendship with one woman because her daughter had started self-harm. My experience with BPD let me know that this means the daughter had some issues needing addressed. The mother actually said to me “She’s just doing it for attention.” Do you know how many stages of asking for attention a child has to cycle through before getting to self-mutilation? And you’re still not giving attention? You’re seriously willing to play Russian Roulette with your child’s safety and mental health as an adult just because you want to be right that it’s only for attention? Do you know the next step? Attempts at suicide. I had to end the friendship because I knew that I would be nothing but mean to that mother once things got that bad. 

I didn’t say “if” because I was right. The daughter eventually did try to take her own life. Mutual friends reminded the mother – who was trying to get pity as the distraught mother of a suicidal child – that she practically drove her daughter to this point. The mother’s ego finally broke. She became the mother her daughter needed, but it almost cost the daughter her life.

Your kids will tell you what they want and need. If you don’t listen through your ego, it’s pretty easy to hear them.

Mind the Reality of Your Sources of Information. 

Older generations are often considered the best go-to for help with children. This is great, assuming the elders knew what the hell they were doing. In many cases, just because someone had kids, that doesn’t mean that they were any good at raising them. Having three grown kids means little if two are alcoholics and the third goes through therapists like fast food goes through cashiers. 

Sometimes, it isn’t the fault of the older generations. Many children are unlike what the older family members are used to, so the family’s suggestions won’t apply. Also, many systems that worked as little as 20 years ago no longer work the same way. Parenting requires a lot of being adaptive to what is relevant at the current time.

Don’t Ignore Parenting Suggestions From Solid Sources for Superficial Reasons.

I’ve been helping raise other people’s kids since I was a teenager. Before I graduated high school, I had taught kids how to tie their own shoes and wipe their own asses. By my early 20s, I had given the birds-and-the-bees talk a couple times and was guiding my much younger brothers into adolescence. Brothers who were, like me, adopted out of foster care and came with issues. Many people, though impressed with the impact I had on these kids, wouldn’t accept suggestions from me on their own situations.

Fire fighter
Photo by 余 平锋 on Unsplash | Caption: So what that you’ve put out other people’s housefires. If you’ve never had your own house catch on fire, I’m not listening to your suggestions.

While all of this was going on, I applied all of what I learned to my own parenting. During my daughter’s younger years, I would hear about how mean I was for making her help around the house at an early age. Apparently, many think that 5 is too young to pick up small things around the house that are not in the right place. I was called “cruel” because I let her work for money rather than just give it to her. Fast Forward: She held her first job from age 16 all the way through graduation and takes out the trash when it is full without me ever asking. All of the people who were criticizing me and ignoring my suggestions for the past couple decades: How do I get my kids to do that!?

You can’t. Not now. Your teen could have wound up more like mine if you did what I was doing. But, that window has passed. When you ignore good advice until years later, you’re only left with a path of course correction. Most of the episodes of Dr. Phil with parents saying “My teenager is a monster and I need your help!” can be translated to be “I turned my teenager into a monster and I need your help fixing the mess I made!”

Children Are Not Clones of Their Parents.

It’s perfectly normal to dream about doing your favorite things with your kids. Nostalgia can easily creep in and convince you that the things you and your parents did are the best ways to bond with your child. The fact that this happens so often can make it easy to believe that it’s the only way. This can make life miserable for children who are born with different interests and personality traits from their parents.

It is entirely possible for two athletic parents to have an uncoordinated bookworm for a child. Genetics decided that this child wasn’t going to be a jock. What the child finds interesting isn’t related to sports or the outdoors. Many parents refuse to accept this, instead choosing to shame the child for being so different and treat this child as “less than” compared to siblings who are more like the parents. Time goes by, and then these parents wonder why the child they shunned has little to do with the family. Gee…such a mystery. 

It is on the parent to accept the child for how they are born and to learn how to cultivate the strengths of that child even if those strengths are different from the parents. If your child loves basketball, but you didn’t, now you do. Many people don’t seem to dispute this. If your child likes science, but you didn’t, now you do. This is where many go off the rails. 

You Think You Get 18 Years to Teach Everything Important, But You Really Get 12. 

Puberty blocks off a lot. A lot of parenting actually has to be done before those hormones start telling kids how stupid their parents are. If your relationship with your child is strained as they enter puberty, that relationship isn’t getting fixed any time soon. Puberty is not the time for fixing. Puberty highlights things as they are. You can fix things before puberty, you can repair damage after puberty, but the fixing window is closed as tight as a teenager’s ears during it.

Puberty is designed to help humans separate from parents and form our own groups. They are flooded with a bunch of new hormones that make them confused and ambitious while also convincing them that their parents don’t know anything about anything. This is why teenagers are constantly asserting their interest in independence regardless of their level of dependence. “Can I have some money so I can get out of here and go hang out with my friends?” On the surface, independence is seen as “Getting to do what I want, when I want.” As adults, we know that’s far from true. Many important concepts, particularly cause and effect, are important for a kid to know. Those must be taught before the window closes. 

Bored teen
Photo by Debashis RC Biswas on Unsplash | Totes fascinating, mom. Do we have any pizza rolls?

This means that your child needs to learn the most important aspects of decision making younger than many expect. Cause, effect, actions, consequences, how to know if your friends like you for you or are just using you…these things are best taught to preteen kids. If puberty hits before kids are familiar with these topics, you wind up with impulsive fools making mistakes that carry on into adulthood.

The Cruelest Irony

You will want these humans to love you more than you will ever seek the approval of another living being. Nothing will bring you more joy than being the god-like person who can solve any problem in their worlds. For a brief while, we have little humans who put us on a pedestal and feed our egos in a way that can not be replicated without starting a cult. That’s why it can be so painful when they grow up and stop coming around. 

Photo by Karina lago on Unsplash | This is how I processed the grief when my son moved out.

We never want those days of usefulness to end. Many parents wind up making their children excessively co-dependent in order to keep their bond strong. It isn’t uncommon for parents to make things so easy on the child that they struggle with adjusting to adulthood. At this point, they turn on their parents, having realized that the people they trusted most turned out to be the ones who set them up to fail at life. Then, everyone wonders why those kids are such angry adults. Another mystery. What’s to be upset about when you learned that the people you trusted to prepare you for the world chose to not do that? 

Ultimately, the better we do our jobs, the less our kids will need us. If we’ve done our jobs well, we won’t be getting random calls for basic assistance in the middle of the night from young adults asking “How do I jump a car?” “My tire is flat. What do I do?” If we’ve done our jobs right, when they come to visit on Sunday to do their laundry and score a free lunch, they’ll take out the trash while they’re there. 

The best result possible: Our kids won’t need us, but will want us around. 

Journaling prompts: What are my goals as a parent? How have the adults who raised me impacted my parenting style?

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