Before I had kids, I thought I knew everything there was to know about them. I did, after all, graduate from college with a degree in Family Science. During those college years, my life was filled with classes about human development, parenting, psychology, family dynamics, and marriage. I thought that my degree was going to give me some advantage in the world of raising children. All of that studying, researching and writing papers would surely provide me with the answer to nearly every parenting dilemma that would arise…or so I thought.
That theory was blown out of the water in the first week of life with a newborn. No amount of studying for tests or writing research papers could have adequately prepared me for the real work of parenting. It had little to do with psychological theories, and everything to do with figuring out what made this unique little one tick (and how to get him to stop crying for even a few minutes).
If you, like me, have ever wished you could request a copy of the instruction manual that was missing when your child was born, perhaps you can gain some wisdom from this list of things that I wish somebody would have explained to me before I had children:
1. Children all develop at their own pace. Resist the urge to compare your child to other children his age. Try to enjoy each stage without being anxious for the next milestone to arrive. All milestones come (and go) soon enough.
2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Parenting is messy, but laughter can cure a host of ills.
3. If a child does not like your answer to their request for something, they will not like your reason for it either. Explain your position if you must, but don’t expect them to understand.
4. All of your children will be completely different, and you should not parent them all the same. One may need more attention to thrive. One may need more patience and understanding. One may need more encouragement. One may need more motivation to remind them that success is determined by hard work. Prayer is your guide to understanding them as individuals, for God knows them better than you do.
5. Avoid the temptation to micromanage. It backfires every time, especially when you have teenagers. Good leaders give people room to breathe, and parenting is all about leadership.
6. Parenting is not a game of manipulating rewards and punishments. Offering rewards for good behavior may improve behavior for a time, but only until the kids tire of the reward.
7. All children (and teens) are capable of doing something horrible at any given moment. That doesn’t mean that they are bad kids, or that you are a bad parent. It just means that they have their own agency and are still learning how to use it wisely.
8. Embrace imperfection, for it will be your constant companion. The sooner you learn to accept that, the happier you will be.
9. Weigh your activities carefully. You don’t need to be constantly running your kids to sports and lessons just because that is what everybody else is doing. Do what feels right to you. Some busyness in family life is to be expected, but it is not meant to be worn as a badge of honor.
10. Teenagers are so much fun! They are the reward for all of the hard work of teaching little ones to behave. Don’t fear them.
11. If you are doing your job right, your kids will not always like you. Don’t take their outbursts of “I hate you,” “You are not my friend anymore,” or “Whatever” seriously. It’s all talk.
12. Life with children is an emotional roller coaster. Don’t beat yourself up if you do not enjoy every minute of it. Everybody has bad days and stages that tax them to the very edge of their patience.
13. You will be a much better parent if your batteries are fully charged, so take some time to do something that you love on a regular basis. It will be not only good for you but also good for the kids to see that you have interests outside of caring for them.
14. Don’t judge other parents based on their children’s behavior. You have no idea what battles they are fighting.
15. The magic of parenting is often found in moments. Even if things are challenging overall, there are magical moments of joy and growth on a daily basis. Pay attention, or you may miss them.
16. Be flexible and expect unpredictability.
17. Do not feel guilty when your children make bad decisions. Let them feel guilty for their mistakes so that you don’t have to.
18. Don’t even think about trying to keep a spotless house when there are children living there. It is pointless. Keep it as clean as you can, but remember that there are little people living there, and sometimes playtime is more important than a clean floor.
19. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It is perhaps the most challenging thing that you will ever attempt, but also the most rewarding.
20. You will feel like a failure more times than you can count, but don’t ever stop trying. Turning children into good adults, which is the whole purpose of parenting, takes years to complete. One mistake…or a hundred…does not a failure make. It’s getting back up, apologizing when necessary, learning from your mistakes, and pressing forward that makes the difference.
Above all, remember that you are doing the most important work of your life within the walls of your home. You are, after all, in the business of shaping lives, and I cannot think of a single thing that is more vital than that.