“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.” ~Walt Whitman
It was a chilly afternoon, and my older son had pulled in the driveway after a vocal performance test. Eager to hear how he thought he had done, I raced outside without a sweater. “I nailed it,” he said. As I began to warm in the sunshine, he followed quickly with “and then I changed my major.” Shivering, I scrambled to find the right words and the right reaction to the unexpected news. Eyes full of tears, I replied, “I want you to be happy,” and I meant it. Having watched children cry because they were forced to remain in a sport they hated, a dance class they loathed, or later in life a job that suffocated them, I know that no matter what I want for my children, they are on a road they must travel for themselves. I cannot travel it for them.
Maybe you should reread that paragraph or just the last two sentences. I could end right there and leave you with the shortest column I’ve ever written, but what would they do with all of the space?
I have been a good mother to our children (my husband has been a great father to them, too) — I have loved them with my whole heart and I have smothered them when I should have let them breathe. Research shows there are things I could have done to be a better mother and that many things I did were spot on. Imagine, if I had had another mother or father sit down and say what they wish they had done differently. Imagine, as you read this in a season of new beginnings that you could offer yourself a pat on the back and a kick in the pants to help yourself be a better parent of any age child.
It seems there are a few categories of parents:
- Tiger parents, pushing their children to succeed according to their parents’ terms.
- Helicopter parents, taking over every aspect of the child’s life.
- Snowplough parents, removing obstacles to make life easier for their child.
- Free-range parents, allowing children a great deal of freedom.
- Attachment or gentle parents, relaxed but set limits in line with the child’s needs and character.
Where do you see yourself? Most of us have moved through several categories, depending on the ages of our children and our openness to change. What do you want most for your children (and for yourself)? I have always wanted my kids to be happy and to be successful people, but what that looks like to me might look different to them and to you.
- Don’t assume that what makes you happy or makes you feel successful will be the same for your children. In fact, don’t assume those things for anyone other than yourself. Marketing people work hard to tell you what they believe should define success and happiness, but don’t let them. Decide that for yourself, and encourage your children to do the same. In fact, take the opportunity to have a conversation about what those things look like.
- Allow them to make mistakes, allow them to fail. Maybe it is as simple as failing to pick up favorite toys that will be taken away as a consequence or as uncomfortable as missing the field trip because of a forgotten permission slip, or a costlier consequence of receiving a ticket because a driver’s license wasn’t renewed — there are times to rescue, but there are many times to allow a child (and adults) to experience the sting of failing.
- Never say never. Just before you utter the words, My child would never ______, I would never make my child do ____, I’ll never let my child ____, You’ll never _____, or I’ll never _______, stop. One of two things is going to happen, either you’ll make another person’s life miserable because you are going to not back down when you really should, or you’ll make a liar of yourself. Neither is a great choice. Think before you speak.
- Say I’m sorry and Forgive. There is nothing more meaningful than genuinely apologizing and nothing more powerful to offer another person than your forgiveness with no strings attached.
This is the season of new beginnings, and this is a great time to be a better person and a better parent. My son still isn’t doing much singing, but he’s doing a lot of smiling and making a difference where he is. It’s his road, as is my other son’s road his own. In fact, even my mother is on her own journey that I, nor anyone else can or should try to choose. Unlike Whitman, though, I’m happy to travel the road with the people I love whenever they ask.