In every sense that matters, parents are just bigger children. The things we did as children we mostly still do as adults, wrapped up in elaborate disguises and accepted norms. My children, if I let them, would eat snacks all day long. The only thing preventing it is the fact that they are too short to reach the top shelf or too good to disobey. As for me, I eat snacks whenever I want. I’m an adult, after all. No one can tell me what to do.
Many things about us mature. Our bodies, certainly, get older, fatter, slower, and creakier. Our tastes may become refined, preferring a glass of wine to apple juice and craft beer to kool aid. We may even learn to eat vegetables and appreciate a good salad without the incentive of desert. We may stop wasting time on childish cartoons and turn to more mature television, as defined by nuanced (aka violent and sexual) content. We might gain the knowledge and skills to be productive and self-sufficient in society. We may use our minds to think about and discuss world-changing topics in politics and religion and culture. But our hearts are still more or less the same.
When my daughter doesn’t get a toy she wants, she pouts and cries, and when she is done she moves on without it. When I can’t afford the house or car or appliances or vacation or whatever else I want, I don’t cry. I’m an adult; I get depressed. When my son doesn’t want to go to school, he screams and yells and clings to my shoulder. I go quietly to work everyday, because I am an adult, but his behavior accurately reflects my attitude plenty of days. I grumble as much about doing the dishes as my kids do about picking up their toys. I’m not as different from them as I like to think. The exact objects of our desire may change, but we never stop wanting.
And yet, this same effect leads to one of the unequivocal goods of parenting. Our children make us witnesses to a whole world of joys. Though they cry and scream, by the same impulse children laugh and dance and shout for delights large and small, from little playgrounds to sprawling zoos, from quiet cuddles to raucous tickles, from tiny trinkets to the wonder of Christmas morning, all pleasures of which we’d long since grown tired. And we do not become mere viewers as of a movie but active participants in a grand pageant. Children force us to make their joy our own. And we find that though we buried it with responsibility and drowned it in anxiety, the longing for joy still exists with us, too. I’ve never danced so much in all my life as I have since my daughter discovered music.
Where did we go wrong to get in such a twisted state? How can we, as adults, take everything we wanted as children and yet experience none of the pleasure on our own? It’s significant because our claim to authority is based off our ability to examine our desires and decide which are good and healthy and which are harmful or excessive. I can eat snacks whenever I want because I know the importance of eating healthy and limiting portions. I have freedom to snack because I can control my impulses. That’s the theory, anyway. In reality it’s more of a practical matter. Our children don’t have anyone else. We have authority because it is necessary, not because we deserved it. When I look at my own life and especially my parenting, most of my mistakes and troubles come from believing in my own righteousness to rule. I parent like a king, in service of my own unexamined desires.
For most of us, parenting is the first real taste of authority we’ve ever had, so it’s little wonder we let it go to our heads. I finally get to tell someone (my children—I tried with my wife, but it didn’t go well) what to do, so I make them do all the things I want them to do. So much of the way I treat my children is designed to make my life easier. Of course, as an adult, I am very good at rationalizing these things. I say, “it’s important for children to get enough sleep,” as though I’ve read all the latest research, instead of “I want more time to relax and watch TV,” when I make them go to bed as early as possible. I get upset and tell them to quiet down when they scream and cry not because I really care about public manners, as anyone can see, but because I am embarrassed of what other people might think of me. I lose my patience when they don’t obey, don’t come to the table, don’t get dressed, won’t sit still, won’t get their own things, or whatever not because where we are trying to go or what we are trying to do is especially important, but because I hate being late, I’m annoyed at being made to wait, I’m reluctant to put in more than the minimum effort, and I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. I’m the parent, dammit, and those little twerps should do as they are told.
When I examine all my actions and motivations, I find that I do all of that and more in the little interactions with my kids, because I believe it’s my right to use authority how I see fit. I tell myself it’s for their own good, and sometimes it may be, but more often I seek for myself what I do not want for my children. I abuse my power and call it love.
None of this is to say that there is a problem with wanting comfort or relaxation or to be on time or to do personal activities. We all want good things in life, and not everything a parent does must involve parenting, but it is a problem to use your authority over your kids to try to get those things at their expense. Nor is it to say there isn’t a proper way to exercise authority. Kids need authority in their lives, as we all do. And since we happen to be their parents, we are the main source of such authority. But it’s hardly a lesson that needs to be reinforced. Life is abundant with unpleasant necessities that must nevertheless be done, such as taking baths and eating vegetables and going to bed. The life of a child, even under relaxed parents, to say nothing of helicopters, is one of constant prodding and unending directions. They are always being made to do something, go somewhere, say this or that. Almost nothing they do, outside playtime, is of their own free will. We may want to teach our children that the world (including, especially, their parents) does not revolve around them. But that’s already a lesson everyone gets, if few ever learn.
So while it’s good for kids not to be self-centered and expect everything to be done for them exactly how they want, somehow I doubt the best way to teach them that is to be, as parents, self-centered and expecting our kids to do things for us exactly how we want. I can guarantee it’s not the best way to live as an adult.
I’m not a parenting guru. I can’t give you 8 tips on raising grateful children or 9 methods to talk to an argumentative child or 5 ways to be a fantastic parent. I’ve always thought the only sure way to be a good parent is to have good children. But it can’t hurt to model in yourself what you want your children to be. You are also subject to authority. All your longings and disappointments and hurts and joys in life apply equally to your children, only they don’t hesitate to express them. Feel with them, and give them the grace you both need; they are capable of returning it. In short, parent like you’re still a child. Because you are.
What children of every age need is infinite patience and unlimited mercy. The number of times your children will disappoint or irritate you is exceeded only by the number of times you will disappoint or irritate your spouse. You wouldn’t appreciate your spouse giving you till the count of 5. When you’re going on a date, you may be annoyed how long she takes to get ready, but you wait for her however long it takes because you know the end result is worth it. You give up your personal time and schedule for the sake of the relationship. That’s what a date is. Yet we often demand our children operate on our schedule, using warnings and threats and bribes as though getting to school or work or the store at some exact minute is more important than the time we spend or the places we go with our children. We think our children aren’t able to understand why it is important to leave at a certain time or sit down at a restaurant or be quiet in public, which is why we have to tell them what to do so forcefully, but perhaps they understand what is important more than we do. It’s our convenience they are consuming and our authority they are flouting, nothing more. Eventually they will have to get in the car or go to bed or stop jumping off the coffee table, and the final enforcement of these big necessities falls to us as parents, but it’s when we add our own times and our own little rules for our own sake that we risk becoming petty tyrants. Children are great at seeing through the little rules, which is why they are as effective at charming us as they are at getting on our nerves.
Legitimate authority is always other-focused and self-sacrificing. It is not exercised for our own benefit but for the benefit of others at the cost of ourselves, the cost in this case being time and hassle and frustration. Like most good things, it often takes a long time to show any fruit. How many times can we instruct our children? How many chances should we give them? Is there any number at which we should give up? Children will make mistakes. They will get upset and cry. They will scream and throw themselves on the ground. They will cling to us when we have to go. That’s because sadness and anger and loneliness are natural reactions to the world. Or do you not feel them too? Our job as parents isn’t to prevent them or to fight them or to control them for our own comfort. It’s not possible, which is why it leads to so much frustration. Our role as parents (or as spouses or as friends) is to absorb that emotion, to take it onto ourselves, bearing the pain of their loss and disappointment, withstanding the brunt of their anger, correcting the consequences of their mistakes. Mourn with the child who mourns. Comfort the child who is hurt. Endure with patience the child who is angry. Let them kick and scream and flail—it’s cute, honestly, if you don’t take it personally—and when they are done, pick them up and carry them on. Take an extra minute to assure those who are scared. Correct their mistakes with mercy. Rebuke their wrongs in love.
It’s not about letting them do whatever they want or trying to ingratiate them. Like in our own lives, there should be no getting away with what is wrong, but there should be freedom in doing what is right. You might think my daughter wanting her Mama and Daddy to sit in bed and rub her back every night is unreasonable. It’s true I’d rather be doing other things. Or maybe I shouldn’t bother with the effort letting my son take forever to crawl into his own car seat. We are often late for school. Perhaps it is crazy that my daughter prefers her yogurt topped in a very certain manner. You might think her special order yogurt will spoil her. But I disagree. I consider it a service of love. I encourage them to eat yogurt and go to school and sleep at night. What is it to me, except a little extra time or labour, to let them do it as they please? Especially when it makes them smile or lets them learn or gets them a few extra minutes to spend with me. I’d wait for them forever, if it means we get to spend a life together.
A strange thing happens, though, when you start giving more of yourself away. It’s freeing not trying to maintain control. The more time you spending giving yourself to your kids the less time you spend trying to push and prod them. This is the problem with both the strict parents and the cool parents, who fully occupy themselves trying to influence and control their children either through discipline and scheduling or friendship and permissiveness, which can only end in greater effort and anxiety. Trusting and serving your children, like your spouse, takes that burden away from you. So relieve yourself of the stress. Then all the little things that used to worry or bother you, when you had to struggle to enforce them for your own sake, can be seen for what they are: pieces of the multitudinous joy of being a parent, which is, as it should be, like the joy of being a child.