As some of you know, I’m expecting my first grandchild in the next week. My son and daughter-in-law are expecting a boy to arrive sometime during the first week in March. While I am delighted beyond words for them, I have not yet come to terms with the fact that I’m about to be a grandfather. Aren’t grandfathers supposed to be old men? Am I an old man? I’ll be 52 this year. Me old? No way!
Grandparenting is not about being old – not really. It’s about passing the baton of parenting from one generation to the next. That’s all I’m really doing: passing the baton to my son as he embarks on the journey he’s about to face (also known as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”). For the next 18/22/25/30+ years (they never seem to stop being our children, do they?), my son will be the one in the hot seat instead of me. He’ll be the one who has to handle changing diapers, cleaning up the flying food remnants, cleaning up the spit-up, keeping the house safe for a toddler beginning to explore the world on his own two feet, helping him with his school work, teaching him how to ride a bike, teaching him how to shoot, teaching him sports, teaching him how to drive… all while being a good husband and a good employee. Sounds simple, right?
So many men think this is all that parenting really involves. It’s not. This is the easy stuff. These are the things most fathers want to teach their children, but are not what the children need to learn to be good adults in the future. Real parenting is considerably harder today because the world is considerably harder on children than ever before in history.
Children today need to be taught very different things that what most fathers are used to teaching. They need to be taught respect – respecting others, respecting themselves, and earning the respect of others. They need to be taught how to maintain a high self-esteem and how to keep from damaging someone else’s self-esteem while keeping others from damaging their own self-esteem. They need to learn to be unselfish – the world does not, never did, and never will revolve around them. They need to learn that life isn’t fair – the world won’t give them what they want simply because they have graced the world with their presence; they must earn what they get, and even then they might not get it. They need to learn that the world isn’t a safe place like it once was – they need to be taught to be wary around strangers, but more importantly they need to be taught to be wary around friends who would lead them down the wrong paths. They need to learn accountability and responsibility – if they do something, they are to blame and they need to be punished and accept that punishment as appropriate for their own actions. They need to learn to stand their ground in the face of bullying, but they also need to learn to pick their battles. And they must learn that life is not a competition to be won, but a journey to be taken together.
Thanks to bad parenting, and the near-complete degradation of the foundation of the American family, most kids are not taught any of these things. They are taught that they can have whatever they want. They are taught that they can do whatever they want with no consequences. They are taught to bully the weak and the different. They are taught to emulate actors and athletes – two groups that individually and collectively make the worst role models in modern society. They are taught to respect no one, including themselves. They are taught that they live in a consequence-free environment where they will receive a trophy for just showing up, they will not be punished for breaking rules or laws, and no one has the right to tell them what to do. Teaching our children this is NOT parenting, this is laying the foundation for anarchy – the destruction of civilization as we know it.
But how does a parent prevent this? How can a parent compete against the video games, cable channels, and peer groups that bombard our children with inappropriate images and ideas every minute of every day? The truth of the matter is that parents cannot compete with this. At all.
The good news is: parents get there first. Yes, there will come a time when children will be exposed to everything that good parents would spend a lifetime fighting against. But until that time, parents have the greatest influence over their children and have an opportunity (which is growing shorter every year) to lay a foundation that their children can fall back upon once the onslaught of opposing thoughts reaches out to suck children down into the muck and mire.
In addition to getting there first, parents have the opportunity to set an example by living the way they want their children to live. Parents are the first role models a child has. How a parent behaves is what the child will consider normal. How parents interact with each other, how they interact with the child, how they handle the day-to-day and the unexpected situations that arise will be imprinted on the child and will shape how the child behaves when he or she grows up. Parents who create a loving environment, where each member of the family is supported, stand a better chance of having a child who does the same when he or she becomes an adult. Parents who are too busy with their own lives to give the child the attention that the child needs stand a good chance of raising a child who will either do the same when he or she grows up, or raising a child who will be so starved for affection that he or she will look for it anywhere – often in the worst places possible. Children watch their parents closely, and parents should make certain that what they let their children see and hear is what they want their children to grow up to do with their own children.
It’s never been harder to be a parent, and it’s never been more important to be a good parent. Our children are our legacy. Everything we teach them becomes the mark they will leave on the future. In the end, our children will have to find their own way in this world, but there are some things we can do to help them on that journey.
- First and foremost, all children are individuals. No two are alike. They learn differently, they are motivated differently, and they respond differently to rewards and punishments. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.
As an example, my sister and I are dramatically different people. If you give her a rule, she will immediately internalize it and conform to its requirements; if you give me a rule, I have to experiment to understand why it’s a rule and if it works in all situations. If you give her a building block and tell her how it’s used, she can build great and beautiful things; I have to see the great and beautiful things first before I can understand the building blocks and then find new and different ways to use them. Punishments made her stop doing things to get in trouble; punishments made me even more determined to find ways to keep from being discovered doing things that would get me punished. Nothing that my parents did had the same effect on us or produced the same results. And yet they continued treating us exactly the same instead of treating us as individuals and trying to understand how to motivate us individually. This is “lazy parenting,” but it’s the most common parenting mistake that’s made.
- Don’t surrender your children to the world too early. Ever since the 1960’s and 1970’s, when televisions became normal items in every home, television became the principal babysitter for children. Parents who wanted some time to themselves would park their children in front of the TV and allow the children to become mesmerized by whatever images were being broadcast at the time. Parents never paid attention to what was on TV that their children were picking up – they were too busy or too caught up in themselves to care. With the invention of cable and satellite TV, VHS and DVD players, and video games, the television became even more influential while the parent became less and less engaged with their children. Children are exposed to crime, violence, nudity and sexual situations at very early ages – ages where they are not sufficiently prepared to understand the ethical or moral implications of what they’re seeing and hearing. If children are our legacy, then there is no more important job for a parent than to be a parent – active in every aspect of the child’s life. The job of parenting should never be abdicated to television, schools, nannies, friends, or anyone/anything else that may not have the best interest of the child at heart. Put simply, if you’re going to have a child, raise the child yourself – don’t turn over that responsibility to someone else. It’s astounding the number of parents who wake surprised to find that their children are out of control when they never did anything to raise that child properly in the first place. Play with your children, read to your children, talk to your children and explain the images they are seeing on television so they can understand the world the way you need them to. This is your job. Do your job to the best of your ability.
- Don’t do anything to injure your child’s self-esteem. In the latter half of the twentieth century, belittling was a common tool used by parents. They thought that shaming a child would get the child to want to do better. In most cases, however, it produced the exact opposite result. Children would begin to think of themselves as failures, and would then think that they had nothing to lose by misbehaving more. They began to become the slackers and hooligans that their parents accused them of being. A child’s self-esteem is a fragile thing, and it needs to be raised and reinforced as often as possible. This does not mean that bad behavior is to be tolerated, but correcting a child’s behavior must be about the behavior, not the child. You cannot tell a child that he or she is a bad person because they did something wrong. You must focus on the behavior, tell and show the child what they did wrong and what they should have done, and then punish the behavior without injuring the child’s sense of self.
As an example, my mother was raised that belittling a child was an effective form of punishment. What it actually accomplished, though, was to make me feel like a worthless person who could never succeed and could never make my parents proud of me. So, I stopped trying. It wasn’t until I moved away from home after college and began to get some success under my belt that I first began to rebuild my self-esteem. Even today, I find myself doubting my self-worth, which has hurt me in my career and in my personal relationships. I have even found myself belittling my own children when they misbehaved. In the heat of the moment, I found myself reverting to what I had seen from my parents, even though I knew it was the exact opposite of what I should have done. I can only hope my son will be able to break the cycle and learn not to do what I did with him and what my mother did with me.
- Never let your children doubt for one second that you love them, support them, are proud of their accomplishments, and will be there for them whenever they need you. This doesn’t mean that you will give them everything they ask for or be a pushover when they misbehave, but it does mean that they know they can count on you to create for them a safe haven where they can live and grow and be nurtured. The storm of society’s self-destruction may be raging all around, but as parents, you are the light guiding them home to the one place where society cannot reach them. There is no higher purpose as a parent, and there is no parental purpose more overlooked or abandoned than this one.
Like I said before, if you’re going to be a parent, then BE THE PARENT! You, and no one else, are responsible for raising your children, and however they turn out is entirely your doing. Every waking minute of being a parent is about parenting, and the time you spend pursuing your own ends is time you are not doing your job as a parent. Being a parent is an all-consuming occupation, and once you have a child, your life is no longer about you. It’s about the child, and everything you do must be for that child and, to the extent possible, with that child. Children need their parents – even when they are throwing a tantrum and shouting that they hate you. This cannot be an excuse for pulling away from your child – it is an opportunity to be an even better and more active parent.
Children are our future. How we raise them will determine what the world will be in the future. Looking around, it’s plain to see that we are all living with the results of generations of bad parenting, as evidenced by the state of society today. This makes it even more important to be good parents. We cannot change the world, but we can change one person who will be in the world and, by their influence, can change others around them.
Think of it like ripples in a pond when a stone is thrown into the water. We cannot see all that the ripples cause, but we see those ripples spreading out in all directions, changing the surface of the pond. The pond is the world and our children are the stones we throw into the pond. Our parenting will create ripples that we will never see as our children go into the world. What do we want those ripples to accomplish? The best in human nature, or the worst in human nature that we see displayed all around us? That’s the impact our parenting has and the responsibility, as parents, that we carry.