Patrick Sallee considers the challenges of the unintended consequences of our actions as parents.
It seems like every week I’m making a choice of how to handle something that came up with my daughters, a new behavior or “phase” they are going through. When I talk with friends who also have children, the general consensus is: we are all just doing the best we can.
I often think about the unintended consequences of decisions we make in parenting. I consider my kids’ behavior and how to positively encourage change or improvement and what I’m trying to teach them. But I know there is often some other outcome or lesson they learn that I didn’t quite anticipate. It reminds me of Newton’s Law of Physics … for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…and often that reaction isn’t something I expected.
Most Saturday mornings start slow, my twin daughters and I having breakfast, watching cartoons and one of them says, “dad, what’s the plan today?” This question still catches me off guard at times. At five they are already thinking about the “plan” as they want to get the day going, where are we going? then what? then what?
But we created this. When they were first born their mom and I made a point we wanted to not slow down our lives and still run errands, eat out, hang out with friends, etc. We wanted our children to be able to behave around adults and be comfortable. So from a few days old we were on the move, every weekend we had places to go each day … now I have kids who want to know the plan and get the day going …
At least for me, it feels impossible to predict what sort of unintended behavior I am creating when I try to encourage one thing over another. But I try to be mindful of what might happen. It often feels like a bowling alley with the gutter rails up … just trying to keep them in the lane bouncing one side to the other.
While I’m constantly reflecting on their behavior and mine, there tends to be three main questions I regularly come back to.
Am I missing an opportunity to teach them?
At the start of the school year, my daughter’s kindergarten had an intro meeting for all parents after the first week. As the teacher was describing how the day usually goes she asked us to make a point to teach our children how to open small snack packages. My first reaction was, of course they know how to do that. But apparently, the first few days she had to open the majority of the children’s snacks, mine included. At five, they should know how. But each of us, in our own effort to be helpful and make things easy, had been in the habit of just opening packages for our kids. We failed to teach a very simple skill that they certainly can do on their own. I hadn’t considered what they weren’t learning.
Is this helping build them as people?
From early in their lives, I never really liked when my daughters were called “the twins.” I felt like they needed to be Avery & Makenna. Each an individual person. It didn’t take long before they showed interest in different things and we encouraged it. I’m more than happy to indulge Makenna in the Princess Elsa toys, dolls and dress up, while also encouraging Avery’s love of Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man. It keeps life interesting … except those times when it isn’t convenient to have separate things … Like the small family birthday party that required two separate cakes, when one would have easily fed the entire party!
What is the risk?
While hard to anticipate I often try to consider the downside to the choices I make. Kids are tough. Early on we decided to let the girls take falls and get up on their own. Now, obviously if it was an extra hard tumble or it was clearly hard on them, we would rush in. But the goal was, they need to learn to fall and get themselves up. I think kids often respond to how their parents respond when they fall, so staying calm and giving them a chance was our goal. Is there a downside? Do the girls feel like we aren’t there to catch them? Maybe. But outside of a distinct glare I received from a mother of another child at the zoo when my daughter tripped and I didn’t rush to her side … they seem to be handling it just fine.
We are all doing the best we can. It is impossible to anticipate every outcome from the lessons we try to teach. But being thoughtful about the approach and considering as many things as we can certainly helps. As a friend reminded me this week, “It’s not what you do for your children, but what you teach them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.”