Being a parent has been the single best experience of my life.
My wife and I have been in that role for more than 13 years, raising our two daughters and a son. During that stretch, we’ve made mistakes along the way (as all parents do) and we’ve learned a lot as well.
While we can’t claim to have learned everything there is to know about good parenting, here are five difficult lessons that I believe all loving parents will ultimately learn.
The Hardest Lesson
1. ‘Doing Nothing When You Are Able’ — As parents, we want to help our kids whenever we can. It’s easy for us to do multiplication, write a book report, and ride a bike; however, we can’t actually do Math and English homework or ride bikes on behalf of our kids. Our kids won’t learn what they need to if we do if for them.
Metaphorically speaking, we can’t let our children have training wheels forever, which means they will inevitably fall down and fail at times.
Those failings usually result in pain and frustration that parents might have prevented, but we can’t always protect them from such experiences because they need to develop mastery of life skills on their own.
That kind of parental restraint is necessary so kids can learn important coping skills for themselves. This continues to be a difficult, ongoing lesson for me to learn as a parent.
The Most Painful Lesson
2. ‘Not Being Able to Help When You Feel You Must’ — When your child is in the hospital or sick in bed at home you are usually pretty helpless, yet you would give anything to switch places with the child to help them avoid the pain and discomfort they’re experiencing.
Any loving parent would swap with their suffering kid in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works—we can’t swap out pain like we’re changing a shirt or a light bulb.
Those painful moments don’t always involve catastrophic illness or medical emergencies but they’re something parents need to prepare for mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually to make it through.
The Most Sobering Lesson
3. ‘Each Day, They Need You Less’ — During the first several years of life, most everything a child knows about life has been learned from their parents or close family members. But once they begin going to school they continue to learn and grow independent of you the parent.
Some of what they learn might run crosswise to the values you’re trying to instill in your children (e.g. the first time your child uses the F-word; asks about sex or questions why they have to go to religious services on weekends when no one in their class does … etc.)
It’s sobering because your position and authority as a parent is being challenged, and that type of push back is only going to increase as the child’s friends gain more influence during the teenage years.
However, the more our kids push against parental authority, we need to proportionately love them that much more.
The Most Frightening Lesson
4. ‘You Can’t be With Them 24/7’ — This is challenging because you have to hope that you’ve equipped your kids to make good, safe decisions when you’re not around—especially in the face of potentially negative influences that are close to your children.
Parents need to establish internal behavioral boundaries for their kids using love and consistent discipline.
Pressure testing their decision making skills in small areas (e.g. clothing selections, food choices, time management … etc.), and letting them deal with the consequences of those decisions, will help them fine tune those decision-making abilities when they’re older and the stakes are higher—such as whether or not they should get into a car with someone who’s been drinking alcohol after a party.
The Saddest Lesson
5. ‘You’ll Have to Let Them Go’ — Personally speaking, this is by far the most difficult lesson for me to grapple with as the father of two daughters and a toddler son. Our oldest is currently 13 years old, but in three short years she’ll be driving a car, then attending prom, then leaving for college and so on.
I want all of my kids to be strong and complete individuals.
Preparing them to be self sufficient, ultimately prepares them to set out on their own—which is uncomfortable and sad for me as a dad but comes with the territory of being an engaged parent.
It’s worth repeating that being a parent has been the single best experience of my life—filled with laughter, tears, pain, fun and wonderful memories.
The painful irony is that when you’re really engaged, loving, and committed to your kids—you tend to manage yourself out of that role.
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