Sometimes I write about the “trees” of parenting, like homework (The Homework Tree) and messy bedrooms (The Real Reason Bedrooms Have Doors). Other times I write about the “forests” such as autonomy (What If Your Parents Controlled Your Life), values (Values. There, I Said It), and letting go (Ready or Not, Let Them Go). Today’s post is about the mother (or, not to be sexist, father) of all parenting forests. Today, I attempt to answer the biggest parenting question of all: What is the main job of a parent?
Wish me luck.
First, I should tell you the story that inspired this post. A long-standing teenage client of mine was recently very upset about the team he had been assigned to for fall baseball. The league does not allow players to request coaches or teammates, but the young man’s mother works for the youth sports organization that sponsors the teams. After telling me how upset he was about his coach and teammates, he stated, very matter-of-factly,
My mother could fix this if she wanted, but she would rather see me suffer. – Micah, age 15
To be perfectly honest, my first thought upon hearing this story, including Micah’s comment, was “Way to go, Mom. Of course you shouldn’t use your affiliation with the organization to make sure your son gets the coach and teammates he wants.” For the sake of rapport, I kept this thought to myself.
It is not a problem in this situation that Micah wants his mother to “fix” things for him. What kid doesn’t want Mom or Dad to make things right/fair/easy for him? Why wouldn’t a child ask her parents to request a preferred teacher/demand more playing time from a coach/complain to the parents of the mean girls about their behavior if she thought it would make her life better in some way?
It would be a problem, though, if Micah’s mother yielded to his wish for her to fix the situation. The reason why is the answer to the question I posed above.
Ready? The main job of a parent is to prepare a child for adulthood. Yea, I know. It is neither exciting nor glamorous. It is not even fun much of the time. And it is certainly not easy. As parents, we prepare our children for adulthood by teaching them how to find contentment and deal with disappointment, by modeling effective coping strategies, by making sure they know that there are multiple definitions of and pathways to success, and by providing them with the tools to solve problems and affect change.
We do not prepare our children for adulthood by protecting them from disappointment, by preventing them from feeling challenged, by allowing them to quit, or by solving problems for them.
Micah’s mother understood all of this intuitively. Still, doing what she knew to be right was not easy. She had to endure her son’s complaining, pleading, and guilt-tripping and ultimately, his unhappiness. She had to give up her hope that Micah would understand why she refused to get him reassigned to a different baseball team. By the end of my discussion with Mom, she was clear that the experience of accepting a situation he did not prefer and learning to make the most of it would teach Micah a far more valuable lesson than for her to use her influence to give him what he wanted.
If there is only one thing you ever learn from my blog, I sincerely hope that it is this simple truth. Good parenting is not about smoothing the road for a child; it is about making sure the child knows how to navigate the bumps and twists he encounters along the way.
If you want to read more on this topic, check out the work of Wendy Mogel. Her books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, draw on Jewish teachings but contain valuable lessons for parents from all (or no) faith traditions.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]