Although I’ve been a freelance writer for 18 years, I intentionally haven’t made parenting one of my beats. It just seemed like presenting myself as any type of a parenting expert was tempting fate or would be some kind of bad luck.
That said, quite a few people have commented on the fact that my kids seem to have turned out exceptionally well. Now that they’re all young adults, I guess I can say that. And to be clear, I mean that in terms of the kinds of people they are, rather than traditional measures of success. So I thought I’d share what some of my “secrets” are.
Are you ready? It comes down to two things: conversations and respect. Not surprisingly, these are the exact same things required to make any other relationship succeed.
Treat Them Like Individuals
I think we tend to do things backward when it comes to raising kids. So many people view their kids as extensions of themselves and are overly concerned with how their kids’ behavior might reflect upon them.
A lot of parents also get really caught up in the role of authority figure and think that their kids owe them obedience by simple virtue of the fact that they gave birth to them.
I wasn’t concerned with either of those things. Rather, I treated each of them as individuals with whom I had a relationship. For me, that was more challenging when they were pre-verbal, so I just treated them how I would want to be treated. I didn’t feel that you could really control another person, even if you gave birth to them.
Treating them like individuals was most visible when we were in the car together or around the family dinner table, which we did every night. We truly valued what they had to say and sought their opinions on whatever we were discussing, which ranged from topics as mundane as which place serves the best pizza to as serious as how to address social inequality.
Sometimes, they brought up the conversation topics, too. I learned about the things they were dealing with and what was important to them. I’m honored to be a sounding board for my kids because so many kids don’t have that kind of relationship with their parents.
We had a family dinner together every night and still do with whoever happens to be at home. It’s a TV-free, cell phone-free space where the focus is on the conversation. It wasn’t uncommon (and still isn’t) for that conversation to continue long after the last person has cleared their plate.
One of the things that were important to me and my husband was that our kids would have a strong sense of social justice. That meant that we had age-appropriate discussions as the kids grew about racial and gender equality and the fact that every person is equal.
We modeled that equality in day-to-day life by not treating them as though they were inherently less than us.
Similarly, it was important to us that they have empathy and compassion for others. Obviously, the best way to teach that was by having empathy and compassion for them and each other. No one in our household has ever had a habit of mocking or making fun of each other; we strive to make home a safe place.
One of the things we did differently was carefully monitoring the media they consumed.
Our biggest concern was that we didn’t want them to become desensitized to violence, so we limited exposure to violent media. Like most kids, they had Nintendo DS gaming systems and other gaming platforms, but they never had any experience with first-person shooter games.
They also didn’t watch rated-R movies before they were in middle school, and the ones we allowed them to watch were ones that we thought had some value. My oldest daughter saw her first R-rated movie at 14; it was the movie “8 Mile.” Even though the movie had sex and language concerns, I felt that the overall message of standing up to your haters would be helpful to her, especially at an age where she was dealing with a lot of bullies. (It was and I still think this was one of my better parenting decisions.)
But we never censored any of the music they listened to or that we listened to ourselves. In a way, that was part of our whole philosophy about swearing, in particular: there was a time and place for it. Not so much in front of your teachers or hanging out with Grandma but it was acceptable in music.
This became more challenging when my oldest was in middle school and developed an interest in rap music (a genre she still loves.) I knew this was tricky territory and I didn’t want her just diving into it headfirst without any guidance.
I played her a lot of rap that I liked myself. And when she got into Eminem, I actually gave her his CDs. I knew that some of his songs had some very problematic messages, so I wanted to get out ahead of it. If I banned it, I knew that she’d seek it on her own anyway.
We sat down and listened together to some of Eminem’s most disturbing and violent songs, like “Kim” and “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde.” I asked for her initial impressions of the songs and then I was able to explain why I thought they were so messed up. I used it as a teachable moment about my values instead of leaving it up to her to form her own impressions.
I don’t feel like I did everything right as a parent. For one thing, I didn’t go to therapy before having kids, and I think that working through your own issues before you have kids is really important.
But the one thing I think I did right was never pretending that I was perfect. I did and still do apologize to my kids when I mess up, especially in a way that affects them. They feel free to tell me when they think I messed up, too. They’re respectful about it because I raised them to be, but I never wanted them to think I was untouchable.
A lot of parents seem to think that if they apologize to their kids, it weakens their authority. I treated my kids as I would any other relationship, owning up to my mistakes and holding myself accountable. In turn, they didn’t feel they had to hide when they themselves messed up.
They’ve seen that I’ve grown as a person and as a parent over the years. They used to think I was kinda stressed out and uptight, but I also made it clear that this was a personal flaw that I was working to overcome. Now, they all describe me as “pretty chill.” I hope that in this, I’ve modeled that you should work to grow as a person and gain mastery over your less desirable traits.
If I had one defining philosophy that guided my parenting, it can be summed up in one word: respect.
I never felt that my kids deserved less respect than I did, simply because they were younger. I don’t think I have ever once used the phrase “because I said so” when asked a question. I’ve always made an effort to answer all of their questions honestly.
One way or another, you’ll eventually have to accept that your child is a sovereign individual with their own tastes, interests, and philosophies. You can have a role in shaping that, as I’ve tried hard to do. But your children still ultimately have autonomy over themselves, whether you recognize it or not.
I think the world would be a much better place if parents saw their relationships with their kids as two-way streets, where eventually they could learn as much from their kids as their kids learn from them. By treating my kids as individuals with valid opinions of their own, I think that built a foundation of trust between us.
I’m lucky that they respect my opinions enough to ask for them before making decisions, even though they may not always choose what I would. Yes, it took a lot of time and effort to build this kind of relationship with my kids, but I’m hopeful that it will pay off in making them the kind of people who have a net positive impact on the world.