I wish you bad luck… from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved…
-Chief Justice Roberts in his June 3, 2017 commencement address to his son’s middle school graduation
Parenting has been our biggest job and the one for which we were least prepared. As relatively new empty-nesters, now we are enjoying watching our daughter, age 22, and our son, age 20, compose their lives. Here are three principles that have informed our parenting and helped our children tap their potential.
Acceptance, aka unconditional love, takes work. We assume everyone is on a unique trajectory through life. This idea keeps us in check whenever we find ourselves trying to steer our kids toward the path we think is right for them. At our best we see ourselves as facilitators, or even as midwives to what is being birthed, rather than as standard-bearers cajoling our kids to meet someone else’s definition of success. Our job as parents is to look in our children for a spark in the form of an interest, natural talent, or dream, and then help them fan the flame.
Too often we try to make our kids into the people we want them to be instead of opening to what is naturally emerging. The result is confusion, submission, resistance, or resentment thanks to what their parents have chosen for them. Though we are well-intended, we’re also hooked by our own unfinished business related to our fears, failures, wounds, and dashed hopes. One surefire way to have your kids feel judged, unacceptable, and unlovable is to attempt a vicarious childhood do-over and mandate your kids live your lived or unlived life.
Grandparents are often the source of unconditional love—maybe this is because they have grown to accept themselves more as they’ve aged. As we develop the capacity to accept ourselves, we develop the capacity to accept our children and foster their ability to also accept themselves.
Love the Other Parent
Our daughter was two when Brian first heard the advice, “The most important thing you can do as a parent is to love the child’s mother.” As he recalled his own parents’ rocky relationship, it was clear to Brian that certain relationships were more important than others and that these relationships were related. He committed himself to living according to an unwavering rank order: his relationship with God, self, Tricia, and then his kids. He also realized that to be a good parent he needed to be a good son, so he set out to clean up his relationships with his parents (a topic for another article).
Tricia’s dad died when she was young and her mother never remarried. Brian’s dad was focused on his career and emotionally distant; his parents divorced when he was 22, many years after the marriage was over.
Tricia knew we were leading by example and our kids were going to learn about relationships by watching us. To create a safe family container in which our kids could experience love and see what a healthy relationship looked like, we needed to find new models for our marriage.
We sought ways to better communicate, fight, and be vulnerable. We learned how to take responsibility for our emotions and to recognize when we were projecting our insecurities and self-criticism into our marriage.
Relationships challenge us—maybe that’s their purpose. Some marriages don’t last. It takes guts and effort to make a marriage work or to end it consciously. This is personal growth work we do for ourselves that directly benefits our kids. This work transforms our hurt, anger and sadness into wisdom so we don’t transmit our unresolved issues to our kids and leave them with the task of healing what was ours to heal in the first place.
When Tricia says, “I am going to let our kids have their experience, especially the pain,” she is reminding herself that most of the help parents offer their kids is not helpful. A couple of months ago Brian asked our son what he thought of unsolicited parental advice. He said, “There’s no upside and a lot of downside.” What parents consider “helping” is actually rescuing, controlling, and enabling, all fueled by an inability to process our own anxiety and pain. Helping robs your children of both the pain that hones their souls and the life experience they need to become wise, mature, and resilient adults.
Your “help” sends a clear message that your children can’t do life on their own. Parents’ addictions to intervention causes many twentysomethings to avoid risk, sidestep launch, or fail to discover a meaningful purpose to their lives. Kids’ beliefs that they can’t do life on their own become self-fulfilling.
The best way to convey confidence in our kids is to let them fail. Step out of their lives and into your life. Stop finding the one area in which you think they are falling short, and instead work on breaking through a stuck spot in your own life. It’s our silence that screams I believe in you and allows them to believe in themselves. Cheer them on for what’s working. They know where to find you if they get in a pinch that qualifies for your support (mostly in the form of listening or a small cash advance). Get curious about how they are approaching their challenges so you come to see how they approach the world.
Think of all the time and energy that goes into worrying about your kids. What would your marriage and life look like if you put that energy where it belongs?
It is never too late to change your patterns and clean up your past messes. It takes a heap of self-forgiveness to be a parent. Brian recalls his bad parenting moments all too well and trusts that those wounds were somehow predestined. The self-coaching and healing we do help reduce the toxic guilt we could carry from unconscious parenting moves. We remind each other, “You had the awareness you had in that moment… you can’t undo the past… you know better now… give yourself permission to be human.” We make a deposit into a fictitious therapy fund we created for our kids so they can get over us and then we go have fun.
Our biggest job as parents is not to be teachers, problem-solvers, or protectors. Our job is to create safe places in which kids can thrive while we as parents remember to focus on our own potential. We take a ringside seat to our kids’ lives and enjoy watching them win some and lose some—while hopefully together we all grow wiser with experience.