You Will Royally Screw Up This Parenting Thing

Children can withstand imperfection.
Publish date:
November 18, 2013
parenting, parenting challenges

Growing up, my mother would chase me around with a wooden spoon. I was too quick for her back then and the spoon never connected with any part of my flesh. Sometimes she would pull the kitchen drawer out like the blowback of powerful rifle in its intensity, scavenge and come up empty. I did get the Tabasco sauce once. I vaguely remember the inferno, but not the word.

With my parents, the threat of physical discipline was scarier than the reveal. Maybe I was spanked -- I think so--but these moments were uneventful. The greatest thing to materialize out of a belt or hand was the decision to never hit my child.

And I haven't. She's 10 now.

Memories of my early childhood are probably happy; which is why I can't remember them. I see pictures of me as a toddler with a Tinkerbell cut and big smile. I was a happy kid. Thrilled, even. That's comforting; it means that for a time I was genuinely looked after and snuggled close, a joy and all the things children are supposed to be to their parents: the heart that beats outside of oneself.

For many of my generation and the one before that, divorcing parents meant all that happiness and love came crashing down; where two parents -- if you were lucky enough to have two of them -- set their wooden spoons and Tabasco on each other. Parenting became second to winning the war, revenge took over the bitterness of the loss and ambivalence defined the parents-to-child relationship.

My clothes went into trash bags that I carted with me to my mother's apartment and then to my father's every-other-week. I became a tween nomad without a place, but with two of them. Before cell phones, friends would memorize two phone numbers and reference at what house on what week.

My mother bought me clothes on layaway every season while my father insisted the purchases were excessive. My father took me to the ballpark on Sundays and my mother chain-smoked and cursed him for making his outings more fun than her only-day-off Sundays. When I was 16, my mother bought me a car with the prerequisite red bow.

My father never let me drive it.

The bow went into the basement and the car sat in the driveway for two years. My father got her back when he gave me his hand-me-down General Motors Celebrity to make a point. What it was, does it even matter?

I can say with certainty that at one point my parents absolutely loved me up until they loved themselves more.

Last month, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh released a study in The Journal of Childhood Psychology that suggests disciplining children through yelling may be just as harmful as hitting or spanking. The researchers tracked 967 middle-schoolers for two years from 10 different public schools and, according to Slate, found:

“1) Yelling and bratty behavior reinforced each other, 2) yelling increased the likelihood that a child would become depressed, and 3) even kids in homes that were otherwise “warm and loving” were not immune to a raised voice’s damaging effects.”

To re-cap, pretty much all methods of discipline have been ruled out as harmful: yelling is the new throwing sticks and stones, spanking is the old version, time-outs barely work, re-direction takes a saintly level of patience that's impossible to withstand and bribery means you'll end up with the brattiest of Verucas.

So how does one parent now? How does one guide in the rights and wrongs of the universe?

Love your children. Love them from the moment they are born until your last breath. Children can withstand imperfection. This life is meant to be felt in all of its awkwardness and bad decisions, pain and outbursts. Parenting is the most optimistic pursuit anyone will ever endeavor, and it's filled with as much joy as it is disappointment for all the things we know how to do better, but don’t.

Our children, if we love them, have a job and that job is to love us, too. To look beyond our tyranny and, within the cracks of freedom, discover who they are and how to navigate a small version of the world before they go out and try to grab it.

No one, absolutely no one, gets out of this alive or without a scar of some kind. If we, as parents, think our children can make it to the other side without feeling shame and disappointment, we're kidding ourselves. My child, and I have told her, has no idea what real screaming sounds like. She thinks a raised, stern voice is "yelling."

I did her a disservice, in many ways, by not letting her hear the kind of home her father grew up in. Because then she would know our "yelling" is a soft whisper by comparison. My child would have never survived the threat of a wooden spoon let alone an actual connection.

And I wouldn't want her to live in her father's house or even mind as a child. My parents were misguided, but they weren't monsters. For a time my parents loved me in all the ways you can love a child and then it ended. It was the last day I never saw coming without a celebration of balloons or favors or even a wish. The ambivalence, by far, has crippled me far more than any smack or scream.

Everyone's worst problem is their own worst problem and many of them begin with a parent. Absolve yourself of perfection and immediately burn any and all parenting books. You will fuck this up. Royally. Set your standards low and proceed accordingly.

Don't hit. That's non-negotiable. But when that baby's born, know there is no way to get parenting right. Or wrong. There is only the best you have to offer. And your love. Never compromise on the latter. It's your children's job to know you did the very best you could with an impossible task and to love you back.

By not putting you in a home.