Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Parent's Job

I do love Bart's blog, and I really love his most recent post. He struggles to express what I think of as loving detachment.

Most of us think of parenting as an activity in which we direct or change a child's character. I said to my own kids when they were small that I my responsibility was not to their happiness, but to their character. My goals as a parent were to help my children to grow up to be strong and caring, to love justice and do kindness. My parenting often fell short of my ideals, but those where my ideals. I wanted them to be truthful, empathetic, and courageous.

When I first started doing foster care my bioboys were five and ten. I was still engaged in that project with them. I still thought that that was my job, and I still think it was. At least to an extend it was. When they were small parenting with the goal of shaping their characters made a certain amount of sense. It was less realistic than I once imagined, but it was not completely inappropriate. When Carl moved in he was 16. My feeling was that I had lost so much time. If I was going to help him to become a better, more responsible person I had to get cracking.

In parenting Carl and David I was frustrated by my inability to help them become the people I knew they could be. I saw so many opportunities for them that they missed. I fought against the choices they made. I argued, cajoled, pleaded, persuaded. And they did what they did. I don't have any doubt that their lives were different because we were in them, but their lives were not different in ways that I had control over. I really don't know how my presence in their lives changed their paths. I don't know what their path would have been had I not been there. I do know that that I had very little success in trying to control or direct their journeys. My presence may have affected change, even positive change, but it was not the generally change I was trying to affect.

Because of Evan I went back to Alanon and that is where I learned how to parent, especially how to parent teens and young adults, most especially how to parent teens and young adults with complex and traumatic histories. It was there that I learned that my job was not to mold them or even guide them. It was not for me to choose their paths, or decide for them who they should be. My job is almost entirely to love them and provide them with safety while they grow up to be the people they are supposed to be. Instead of trying to force them into a mold, I get to watch with wonder and surprise as they grow in ways I had never imagined.

Of course, this is all easier to say and believe when my children's lives approximate what I want for them. The further away from that they are, the more I worry and the more I wish I could direct them, lead them, transform them. I want to direct the show, but that is not my job.

And I want to end the post there, except that I imagine people with younger children wondering if I think they should not insist their children do their homework, or apologize after hurting someone. I don't. The younger a child is the more appropriate it is to parent with the goal of influencing character. Even in the youngest children though I think that has to be tempered with a respect for who the child is, as opposed to who you imagined she would be. And as children get older, that sort of parenting becomes less and less appropriate. I have no guidelines to tell you when and how to shift, I do know though that when a young man of fifteen or sixteen moves into your home, it is not your job to set about trying to make him be the sort of young man you want him to be.

The job is simpler, though not less difficult. It is to love him and support him while he becomes the person he is meant to be, even if that person is someone who makes choices that break your heart.


  1. I've read two or three blog posts this week that imply that most parents today feel the need to direct and train their kids. One post even went as far as to say that it's a change from the more natural and nuturing parenting of the past. I guess I just don't agree. There's something about the implication that bothers me. Maybe it's because Slugger has special needs. I don't know.

    Ultimately, Slugger's choices and actions will be his own. I don't feel a responsibility over that. He will become his own person. In some ways he'll become the adult he'll be because of my influence (and the influence of other important figures in his life). In other ways, he'll become the adult he'll be despite all of us.

    But I don't think accepting and understanding that means that you don't have to give your child the tools he needs to succeed. I do think it's a parents job to teach and to guide. Whether the child chooses to use the tools we give them is their choice. And we have to let them make their choices. But why does that have to be to the exclusion of teaching and guiding them?

  2. I don't think it does Maggie, and it is difficult to explain what I am trying to say. In part I think because the balance shifts as our kids grow up. The older they get the less we can teach and guide unless they want us to, you know?

    Slugger is at an age where it makes complete sense for you to be making goals for you to teach and guide, while understanding (as I know you do) that he is a person with his own personality and choices that ultimately you can't control.

    Brian is as at an age where he is appropriately beginning to resist that. Increasingly my opportunities to teach and guide come occur with respect to goals that he has for himself. We are going through that early teen struggle.

    Andrew is a young adult. With him the balance is in a very different place.

    I wrote the last two paragraphs because I was trying not to sound too one-sided, but perhaps I still did.


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.