Friday, September 18, 2009

Of Life and Parenting

I remember as a young girl planning to have the perfect family. I was going to be done making mistakes by the time I was grown up. (Go ahead and insert a big hearty laugh right here!) When Erica was a baby I decided I'd just live perfectly today and then get up and live perfectly again tomorrow. I wouldn't worry about the future because all those perfect todays would create a perfect past and set a habit for future ones. (Another laugh.) Because I would be living perfectly, of course my family would as well. (And another.) My children would always do what was right and have clean bedrooms without my asking. (And another.) Now, this isn't a confession of any major sins, but somewhere along the line I missed a day or two (or 10,000) of those perfect days. Despite my best intentions I keep making mistakes and so does the rest of my family. I'm not including a clean bedroom count for today on purpose because it would not be a very large number by any measure!

Having a child who has as many months left in high school as I have fingers and toes has led me along some interesting thought paths lately. I've been thinking for the last little while about helping children grow and be independent- and not just financially. My mom told me once that one of their goals as parents was to have their children be completely responsible for themselves by the time the reached the age of 16. That way they could have two years of making decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions while they lived at home and had a huge safety net around them. I've always thought that was a good idea. My oldest is almost 16 and I find myself wondering how we're doing. There are lots of questions. Can she wash clothes, buy and prepare food, handle a bad day, find a job, maintain grades, safely drive the car, make good choices, be responsible, choose to be happy? I'm realizing that no one is going to show up and hand me a "parenting diploma" when each child reaches the point of independence so I know we're done. We have to hope we've done enough when it's time for them to spread their wings and fly.

The darn thing is that each child is different. Erica is great in certain areas while each of the boys have their own strengths as well, but none of them is the same. Each one also has their own, individual, weaknesses- alot of them handed them by their parents! That means that where we step in to support one child will not be needed for another. I think "one-size-fits-all" parenting is easier! This different personality thing leads to too many questions. Where does one draw the line? When does helping out your family members and doing something nice cross the line to enabling? How do we make it "fair" for everyone? How do you know you've taught lessons well enough that your children will be able to live healthy, productive lives on their own? I don't pretend to even come close to having any, much less all the answers, but there are some things I'm slowly beginning to understand.

1) I wasn't perfect starting out on my own, so why should I expect my children to be? It's ok to make mistakes, hurt feelings, and bounce a check in the process of growing up as long as we learn from the experiences, change, and don't make them habits. Sometimes one returned check will do more to prevent any others than all the discussions and teaching by a parent. As a perfectionist, though, it's hard to allow mistakes to happen when there's something I can do to prevent it. Too bad my children's lives are theirs and not mine! Experience is one great teacher.

2) Heavenly Father loves me, warts and all. The least I can do is pass that along to my earthly children. I want them to understand and forgive me when I make mistakes, I can do the same. We love each other, no matter what.

3) The Atonement. Do we REALLY understand the amazing blessing it is? Do we REALLY understand what it means to have a mistake- large or small- removed, gone, cleaned up, paid for; that each of us can be clean and have a fresh start from wherever we happen to be? There is work involved, to be sure, but it's possible. The absolutely amazing part is that Heavenly Father wants it for us and has done everything He can to make it happen. He doesn't turn His back at mistake #1 say, "Forget it." and move on. He comes back everytime that we let Him. The other part of that is that He promises to make up any shortcomings we have as long as we're trying the best we know how. My best effort will be different than any of my children because we're different people, but the shortcoming will still be made up. Amazing.

4) There is nothing more valuable than knowing and doing for ourselves. I heard on the radio yesterday that studies show that paying children for grades or rewarding them with cash or treats for finishing schoolwork does absolutely nothing to help them scholastically. I think life is the same. If I choose to help out a neighbor because I will get a reward, I have very little chance of doing so a second time unless a reward is offered again. If, however, I help a neighbor because I love them and like the good feeling it brings, then my chances of repeating that behavior goes up dramatically. The same holds true for any choice we make. If we choose to do what's right because we want it and not because we're bribed or forced into it, we repeat it and become better people along the way. The key is it takes time and experience, neither of which is in huge abundance at the age of 18. Hopefully there has been enough before then to keep us trying afterward.

5) Keeping your eye on the end goal does wonders for motivation. Reaching that goal does wonders for confidence. Watching your kids do both feels fabulous. The only way it really happens, though, is to step back and encourage them from the sidelines. They have to decide for themselves what path to take and then move along it. I can advise, direct, and bounce ideas, but as they grow my job shifts to cheering, supporting, and encouraging.

So, two months to 16 and 20 months to "adulthood". Where are we? Pretty good in some ways, some work to do in others. Erica has done pretty well, despite the lack of experience on the part of her parents! How come I don't have all the right answers at this point that I seem to remember my parents having?! Guess we all keep trying our best and trusting our shortcomings will be made up in the end.


Jenny said...

Steve really likes the 16 thing. Even if they can't make all those decisions you're setting the expectation that they will and you're there to help them if they can't. I haven't ever thought of that. Thanks for being my older sister that I never had! I love reading all your experiences to prepare me for what's coming. I really can't believe Erica is almost 16!

Those are really good thoughts. If I break up the goals of what I should make sure my kids know, what should my age landmarks be? 8? 12? 16? or more?

Shannon said...


I don't know. That's the hard part for me. I know we started the kids doing their own laundry at age 8 and that worked ok for a couple of years. Then we had all those moves where it didn't happen and we're just now getting back to it. They started cooking their own breakfasts sort of early because thy didn't want to wait for me to get out of the shower. Erica was 7-ish, but Joseph was only 5 when he learned to fry an egg. Ryan still won't, but he's somewhat afraid of the fire on the gas stove. I can understand that. He's getting more brave (or is that braver?).

Some things are just a maturity issue- like voluntarily going the extra mile on their own. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. I like to think I'm flexible and supportive at all those teaching moments, but I'm not. Somehow people learn all this stuff, anyway!

Then there's things like checking accounts, etc. I didn't get one until college, but we set one up for Erica last summer. I'm still trying to figure that one out. What "bills" should she have now? How much do we push her to keep it balanced or do we let her deal with a bounced check, etc. Hopefully I've done that before Ryan gets to be her age.

I think every child is different and every parent has a different skill set as well. So, there's probably going to be gaps somewhere, they'll just be different for every child and every family and I just have to come to grips with that.

Joy For Your Journey said...

I didn't laugh at our comments about thinking you would be perfect. I was totally sure I would be perfect at 27. :-)

And about teaching your children everything they need to know . . . I have worried about that with each of my children, but in the end I had to accept that I could not teach them everything and somethings they would have to learn on their own. So far they have all done well. Enjoy your next couple years. :-)

Shumway Family said...

Loved this entry!! Cameron made a comment in one of his letters after he left on his mission that said he always wondered why we hadn't pushed him harder to learn things. Thinking I had, this came as a total surprise to me that I hadn't taught him everything he needed to know. But then he went on to say that we had taught him the basics and he realized that we had let him use his agency and it was up to him to learn whatever we hadn't taught him. Still not sure what it was that we didn't teach him, but glad that he realized that he needed to be able to learn things for himself. You are such a great example for me, I love reading your ponderings. Love ya

kyleandbeth said...

Um, I was perfect at 18, you should have just asked me. I guess I just screwed up that perfect self over time. Marcus is perfect at 11, just ask him, can't wait to see what time does to him!