The Best Parenting (and Marriage) Advice I Have to Give
This is my contribution to my own alternative to the SOPA blackout taking place today. I’m calling it Free Advice Day. I didn’t make a fancy badge because I literally came up with this idea as a response to why I’m not participating in the blackout. If you would like to participate in order to celebrate the good of the Internet as a protest to SOPA, please go to your blog and write a post giving your best advice (truly, it will help if you read this post first to understand what sorts of things people can write), and then use the linky feature at the bottom of this post in order to add your advice to Free Advice Day. Oh, and you can feel free to stick around and read my advice, which may not really be good advice at all. It may actually be crap advice. As with so many things, it’s all in the point-of-view.
The advice I’m about to give stems from a friend joking that I should write a parenting book because I convinced the ChickieNob that she likes math (when she did, in fact, find it torturous), and in turn, she became good at math. I realized in talking with my friend that my parenting advice is the same as my relationship advice, and pretty much all of my life advice that involves other people can be boiled down to a single thought. That thought then plays out in various ways. This is it:
Every relationship is just a relationship.
The core of this is a belief that no relationship is a given. I need to work at being a good daughter, I need to work at being a good wife, and I need to work at being a good parent. Literally no one in life is “stuck” with you, and beyond love flowing from parent to child, we are owed very little unless we invest ourselves enough to earn that return. Therefore, I put a lot of effort into all my relationships — friendship and family — that matter to me and never lean back on that idea of “well, you have to care about me.” Because they don’t. The flip side is that no relationship is sacred — how I am treated entirely decides for me how I invest myself in that relationship. Regardless of how the person is related to me, if they’re going to treat me poorly, they won’t be a large part of my life. So it goes both ways — you can both screw yourself and save yourself by remembering that you need to actually work at all relationships and never think that you can skate by.
Josh and I have a goal: we want the kids to be friends with each other and wanting to spend time with us when they’re older. We also would like to still be married to each other when we’re in our nineties. And these are a few ways of how we’re trying to make that happen, knowing full well that every person is in charge of their own destiny and they can be pointed in the right direction, but it’s up to each child to actually get there. If these resonate with you at all, I can write down more ways that we think through our relationships to one another. It is such hubris to think that I have it all figured out. I really haven’t. Every relationship is a work in progress.
Give Them My Time
You know how there are some friends that you never see, who seemingly blow you off? They put all their activities and other people first? You know how you can tell the difference between a friend who is honestly busy and one who isn’t prioritizing you? Well, I believe that your kids and partner can tell the difference too.
This doesn’t mean that I need to cook from scratch three balanced meals each day, all the while twirling around the kitchen in my apron as if my entire purpose in life is to serve other people. I work full time — albeit at a non-traditional job with flexible hours — and the twins know that I need to put in about 40 hours a week. Which means that sometimes I phone in dinner. Which means sometimes I need to get work done instead of play.
But the time I have to give, I give to the people most important to me. When I am with them, I am present. I am not looking at my blackberry the entire time. I am not walking away from the activity every two minutes just to take care of one little thing. The twins know that I am going to be in the kitchen with them while they do their homework so they can ask their questions. They know that I am going to listen when they want to tell me a story. Josh knows that when we’re eating dinner together, I am focused on him. I participate in activities that matter to the three of them. I volunteer in the twins’ school, I lead some of their after school activities, I bake for Josh’s office — and I do these things because I want to send a clear message that their lives matter to me. What matters to them matters to me. It’s how I treat my close friends too. I close email and listen to them talk. I make sure that if I am giving them my time, I am actually giving them my time.
It needs, of course, to be a balance so that I am not lost in the shuffle of obligations (work) and relationships. The twins have seen me not answer the phone because I want them to know that they are so important, I would skip phone calls because what they’re saying matters (the same idea that the actual customer in front of you is more important that the potential customer calling from their home). And at the same time, they see me take phone calls because they need to know that there are more people out there than them.
And all of this extends to a larger idea: there are people I would and have dropped everything and flown to be with (even though I am terrified of planes) because they needed me. I can’t give everyone that level of care, but the people who are in that inner circle know that they can take my time if they need it. And I’m always grateful when they do. People like to be needed.
This ties into that whole idea of convincing the ChickieNob that she’s good at math; I am there when she has math homework. I try to think through how to make it fun for her. I think about the attitude I bring to her homework, because she usually picks up on how I feel about something and mirrors it. I don’t act as if spending time helping her with math is a chore; I let her know that it’s just one more way I can be there for her. And she in turn embraces it in the same way she embraces her tuck-in at night or how I leave her lunch notes. It is a way of showing care, and when you care about something, the people who love you tend to care about it too.
Never Talk About One Child with Another (or Your Partner with Either Child)
If you are having a problem with one of your children — and you will one day have a problem with one of your children — never speak about that problem with another child in the family. This is mostly, obviously, sibling to sibling, but it also applies when you have one parent who has a problem with a child whereas the other parent doesn’t. And it certainly applies to never discussing your partner negatively with your children.
When we vent about another person, what we are doing is establishing an us-against-them attitude. It’s totally fine when I bitch to my friend about a person she doesn’t know. My friend’s job is to have my back and support me. She doesn’t have anything at stake, therefore, there is no choice to be made — she will pick me, her friend. But what about when the two people know each other and have their own relationship with each other? What you are doing is putting the listener in a position where you are silently asking them to make a choice. And it’s the fastest way to destroy a relationship between two other people.
My parents were fantastic in that I never knew when they were pissed at my siblings. I may have known that my sibling was grounded and why, but my parents never spoke directly with me in a negative way about any of my siblings nor would they really entertain discussing my fights with my siblings with me. If I went to complain to them, they would listen neutrally and not get emotionally involved in the discussion. They simply repeated the same idea over and over again, and let us do with it what we will rather than try to micromanage our relationships: friends will come and go, but your siblings will be the people who could potentially be there for you your entire life.
And it’s true: to this day, friends have come and gone, but my siblings (and a few select sisters-by-choice who are fictive kin) are amongst my best friends. They’re on my list of people that I would drop everything for and fly across the country to be there for in an instant even though I hate planes. Which is why I would never complain about the ChickieNob to the Wolvog nor vice versa because I want them to be good friends in the future. If I need to complain, I call a friend. If I’m complaining to a family member, I make sure that I am focusing on disliking the behaviour and not complaining about the person as a whole. But most importantly, I would never share with one child how I’m feeling about the other one nor would I ever tell my children if I was angry with Josh. Because in doing so, I would send the silent message to that child that they should side with me. Or inadvertently, they could also decide their loyalty lies with their twin or father and push away from me.
This applies now and it applies in the future, when I’m in my nineties and they’re in their sixties. No relationship is a given: I can’t treat their relationship with each other poorly and then say, “but they need to stick together! They’re siblings.” They actually don’t have to stick together, and they won’t if I don’t take active steps to make sure we all respect our individual relationships to one another.
Give Them Power
If I want my relationship with my children to constantly evolve, I need to let the relationship evolve. In a parent-child relationship, that means empowering the child more and more as they move towards adulthood. Which, of course, guts me. But just as I let every other relationship in my life ebb and flow, I need to let this one too.
Which means that I have to remind myself not to hold on so tenaciously because I don’t want them to feel more tied to me than to their own life. It means I need to be realistic in how they spend their time: they may not always choose to be with me, and that might not have any reflection on me just as I sometimes prioritize them over everything else and sometimes prioritize another activity that needs to get done before them. It is hard to watch them form their own friendships and run off with other people. But it’s also what I want because I know that if I allow this relationship to evolve, I have a better chance of Josh and I reaching that goal of still having them want to include us in their life.
It’s not a given that they will still need me or want to be with me when they’re older. I need to create a relationship that they want to return to, that bolsters their self-esteem; a place where they feel good about themselves. I like to treat my relationship with them like the bar at Cheers. The characters didn’t spend all their time at the bar — they had other things in their life — but they always wanted to end up back there because it was a place where the people knew them. Where they felt safe to be themselves. And letting go and empowering your child is the best way to send the message that your heart is a place where they can be themselves, where they won’t be judged, where their life choices will be accepted, and that they never have to pretend to be someone they’re not.
All of this is what I learned from observing my parents. Which is not only to give them credit for instilling this in me, but also to point out that yes, your children and partners are watching and incorporating what you put out there. How you act now shapes your relationship as well as how they comport themselves in the world. I think Josh makes me a better person with how he treats me, and I hope that I make him a better adult by the way I treat him. But I’m also always mindful that how I behave shapes the adults and parents my children become. Scary thought, but also a pretty damn exciting one too. No strong relationships are by accident.
Last Last Thought
Thought this entire post was crap advice? Well how about this: I leave a set of cleaning supplies in every room of the house so I can quickly grab them and clean for a few minutes rather than setting aside a specific time to schlep a set of supplies from room to room, dusting and bleaching.
I just wanted to make sure you were leaving this post with something useful.
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Now go read some great advice above.