Friday, November 12, 2010

Parenting Mistakes

After some conversations I’ve had with friends—well-meaning, diligent, loving, heartbreakingly earnest friends--I think that most parenting mistakes—maybe even all—fall into one of two categories: 1) thinking you don’t have control when you do, and 2) thinking that you have control when you don’t. Both failings are dangerous, to the children and to the parents. Both require repentance.

People who fail in Category One are the ones who fail to put in the time with their children, give up on establishing expectations and consequences (or on enforcing them), or possibly aim for being buddies instead of an active force in the development of personality and good habits. On one end of the spectrum they might be just well-meaning people who, when they experience difficulties, give up on doing what they know they should (perhaps because they don’t know what else to try). On the other end of the spectrum are the people who simply put their own pleasurable desires ahead of their family’s needs (such as working more than they need to away from home or at home, or pursuing hobbies out of proportion to what’s needed at home).

Category Two also has a broad spectrum, with authoritarian abusers at one end, and, at the other, people who take undue pride in having produced “good children” (which leads, when their children finally do make bad choices, to the parents’ taking responsibility for those choices to the point of making themselves miserable with grief and guilt).

Many of us have been in this situation for short periods of time when our children are having rebellious times. It’s only normal to evaluate ourselves, asking, “What can I possibly do differently? What factors CAN I influence in my child’s choices?” And, of course, we should make what changes the Spirit prompts.

What I worry about, though, are the righteous, well-meaning parents in Category Two who, out of fear, take on themselves more responsibility than they need to, making themselves sick over trying to control things that they truly have no control over (their children’s choices). When the Holy Ghost is behind a prompting or even appropriate guilt, it feels positive, hopeful, energizing—not fearful and debilitating. Too many people are in danger of mixing these things up.

I worry when I see people take more credit than they should for their children’s choices. This is harmless enough until one of the children makes a bad choice. Sometimes this doesn’t happen until all the children are grown up, and then the parents, who have taken credit for raising “twelve kids and all married in the temple” are suddenly faced with the responsibility for taking credit for the screw-up, too (which, of course, they shouldn’t).

The truth is that we are all on this earth in part to make mistakes and experience the process of repentance. There is no way we can raise our kids in a way that will prevent them from doing so. The thing we are all to learn is that there is only one true, real mistake, and that is failing to repent when you fall short. Even if we could prevent our children from learning this while they are in our care, that wouldn’t be helpful to them in the long run, would it?

So what CAN we take credit for, then? How can we ever feel satisfied with our efforts? The answer is that we should be accountable only to God and only for the things He prompts us to do. If we can answer that we have done our very best, repenting when we’ve fallen short, then we are successful parents. Regardless of how our children turn out. We cannot compare ourselves to others who, perhaps, received different promptings than we did about how carefully to monitor their children’s eating habits, internet usage, etc., or how many hours they can spend on the internet themselves (or scrapbooking, or cleaning scrupulously, or returning to school) without being guilty of neglecting their children. We can never know the differences in temperament our neighbor’s children were born with and how, comparatively, our children might be harder or easier than theirs. We should never take pride in how our children turn out just as we should never take responsibility for their poor choices. We can, however, take pride in following through on what the Spirit has prompted us to do, regardless of outcome.

p.s. I said it is wrong to compare ourselves to others—and it is, if we are doing it to judge others. But I think it is perfectly healthy to be observant about what others are doing around us. It’s how we learn. It’s so hard to learn how to parent, and I don’t think people should feel guilty about observing what others are doing and then evaluating it for possible use in our own homes. The trick is to do it without feeling superior or inferior to the others you are observing, and with the understanding that you can never know all of the factors involved in their decision to act that way. There could be, oh, say, chronic illness in that family that leaves them with less energy. Or mental illness. Or a difficult spouse, etc. “Prove all things,” but never let go of charity.

End of sermon.

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