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Why I Thought Parenting Would Be A Nightmare Before I Had Kids

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What are some misconceptions about parenting that new parents should know?

I bill myself as “Parent of 3 intermittently happy and well-adjusted teens,” but 2 of my kids are already in their 20s and all 3 are in college. So I’ve been through most of the “lifecycle” of a typical teen.

Parenting is a huge topic, and below I take a fairly global view, not focusing on parents of newborns. Many people ask questions about their infants’ or toddlers’ health. My standard answer is always, “Talk to your pediatrician.” Nor do I focus on the many issues surrounding adult children. I try to focus just on some common myths that reflect the typical anxieties and questions of parents from about ages 3 to 18.

Your Job Is To Protect Your Kids

Yes, your job is to protect your kids, but only when they need it. Your real job is to raise kids who no longer need your protection. Most modern parents are overprotective, well past the time and circumstances when it is beneficial. The more you let your kids fail—within reasonable limits — and experience disappointments, the better off (and happier) they will be in the long run. For example, you’ll see parents at Easter egg hunts or pinata parties pointing out the goodies to their kids and trying to make sure they get their “fair share.”

Five years later, these parents will be complaining to the soccer coach how their kid isn’t getting a fair chance at playing time. Five years after that, they’ll be arguing with the teacher about his/her unfair grading, etc. Let your kids experience consequences (again, within reason) early and often. They’ll be happier, more independent, more resilient, etc. And most importantly, it avoids this vicious cycle in which kids resent their parents for hovering too much. Let your kid trip over his untied shoelaces; it will be good for you both.

Kids Are Incompetent

It is quite a revelation when you realize your kids are better than you at many things. The sooner that day arrives, the better for everyone involved. When my son was 6 years old, we were playing a racing game on Xbox. He kicked my butt in every race. I muttered, “It must be the ship!” (because each player’s ship is configured for different strengths/weaknesses). He dutifully switched controllers and proceeded to kick my butt with the other ship. “It’s not the ship, Dad” was all he said. By age 4 or 5, my kids were better musicians than I’ll ever be. By 6 or 7, they were better artists. By 8 or 9, they were better soccer players and board gamers. By 15, they were better at math (and I did go to MIT, after all).

Eventually, I learned to cheat. I once bribed my daughter to obstruct my son repeatedly during a go-cart race so that I could win. They’re not yet better at computers than me, but they are better at certain iPhone and Photoshop things. The lesson is, don’t underestimate your kids. Kids can do amazing things very early in life. Let them plan and cook the meals, groom the cat, paint the basement, make the travel plans, etc. Teach them chess, and soon enough, they will beat you. Take the time to appreciate their amazing accomplishments rather than remind them it might not be good enough to get into an Ivy League college!

Mistakes Are A Big Deal And To Be Avoided

Kids are pretty resilient. You can mess up quite a bit and they’ll still survive and thrive. Of course, you need to be vigilant about all sorts of things (medical, etc.) but you’ll make a lot of mistakes as a parent. Don’t beat yourself up over it. If your kids survived without medical complications, you probably didn’t harm them irrevocably. See Myths One and 2. Furthermore, there is huge value in modeling behavior in which you are not afraid to fail. I work a lot with college-bound students, and the most competitive colleges are looking for resilient kids who are not afraid to challenges themselves. Don’t handicap your kid by never making mistakes yourself or by trying to prevent them from making mistakes. As my brother said when he taught me to skate, “If you aren’t falling down, you’re not learning anything.”

You Are The Primary Influence Over Your Kids

Of course, you have a huge influence over your kids if you are their primary caregiver. But as the kids enter school, although you may remain their largest single influence, at least 2/3 of their waking lives are going to be spent in the company of others. Once you decide where to live, where to work, where your kids go to school, etc., you have less and less direct influence over your kids. If your kid has an eating disorder or stress headaches, it may be primarily due to their exposure to media or the stressful environment in school.

That is to say, it is very difficult to raise kids in modern society without TV, internet, public school, etc. Once we moved to a certain school district, the die was cast. Our kids were going to be in a school with other kids who worried every day about where they were getting into college. Pick your school district and you pick your kids’ friends. Pick their friends, and you pick their environment. Pick their environment, and it influences them tremendously. If you doubt me, go to a hip-hop class or a karate class. Guess what…all the kids can dance hip-hop or perform a karate kick. Sounds obvious, but the same applies to every “group” in life.

Parenting And Relationships Move Uniformly On One Direction

Parenting is not a one-way trip. Some days your kid will need you desperately. One day, they will push you away. Then one day, they will pull you close again. Try to make your relationship about them (or the 2 of you) and not about you. Kids wax and wane. At age 4, you are their entire world. By age 12, they have a life of their own. By 18, they may not be able to wait until they go to college. Once they become sick at college and miss home-cooking, they’ll appreciate something they took for granted. They won’t fully appreciate you until they have kids of their own. (See Myth #11) Get used to it and don’t fight it in the meantime. Trust that your kids, and your relationship with them, will oscillate a bit.

Your Kids Are You

Your kids are not you. It is not a good idea to live vicariously through them (sports, grades, prom queen/king, etc.) Seeing them as a second chance to fix everything you are unhappy about in your life is a recipe for disaster. Avoid parents who are continually comparing your kids and theirs. Don’t become one of those parents. Don’t make decisions for your kid so you can “save face.” Don’t brag, “Look, my kid got into Harvard!”, or, “My kid was state champ!” Except for your spouse and the grandparents, no one else will react positively to this news. Your kid is your kid, but they are their own person. The sooner you recognize that, the sooner everyone will be happier. Refer to this rule whenever you don’t approve of someone they are dating!

Kids Need To Be Disciplined In Order To Behave

Kids are not wild animals requiring domestication. That said, sometimes parents are naive about what constitutes age-appropriate behavior, so do some reading on the subject. (Tip: It is normal for your 2-year-old to act selfishly at times.) The natural state of children is to be wonderful, curious, and engaged. Misbehavior, absent a medical condition, is usually a result of learned (negative) behavior. Your kids will turn out exactly as a reflection of you. That means, if you make excuses, so will they.

If you treat people with respect, so will they. If you have friends, so will they. If you are stressed, so will they be. So spend a lot more time paying attention to your own behavior, and your kids’ behavior will follow. Hypocrisy won’t fly. So, if you tell them to get sleep but you stay up late, or you tell them to eat healthy and exercise but you do neither, they’ll imitate what you do, not obey what you say. And before you criticize their habits with phones and other electronics, look in the mirror! Set a good example, establish mutual respect, know when to treat them as an adult and when to recognize they are still a kid, and you won’t need to discipline them much.

Teenagers Are Hell

Kids can certainly be a lot of work at times, but if you invest the time when they are younger, they don’t suddenly turn insane as teenagers. The people I know who had trouble with their teens either had trouble with them from a young age, were in denial earlier, or just never devoted the time when their kids were younger. (And I include myself in some of those categories!) Granted, teen years present new challenges like drinking, driving, sex, etc., but it hopefully is another phase in a long process not a sudden shock. You can’t suddenly pop up in your teen’s life and expect them to take your word for everything. It takes years to build a mutual understanding.

You know you’ve done it right when your kid asks you to be the designated driver and they ask you for birth control rather than hiding the fact they are drinking and having sex. Kids become interesting when they become teenagers. They suddenly have problems you can help them with, like “How do I find a summer job?” or “Can we go visit a college?” or “Can you teach me to drive?” If your teenagers are hell to be around, you have probably contributed to the dynamic through nagging, hovering, or a power struggle. Re-examine the root problem. Maybe your kids are incredibly stressed and you are inadvertently contributing to it, if only by having a successful career they can’t live up to. Let your kids see you fail (see Myth #3). Let them be a help to you by, say, driving younger siblings (see Myth #2).

You Can “Want It” For Your Kid

You have to let your kid find their own passion, and then you need to get out of the way. The minute you want something worse than your kid does (whether a grade, a starting spot on the soccer team, a job, or a particular college), it is just a matter of time until failure. For example, you may want your kid to become a doctor, and they might become one! But if it wasn’t his/her dream to be a doctor, 20 years later, they will still be unhappy. Don’t mistake your happiness and wants for helping them find their own passion. Your kids may be lost for many years. Don’t try to find them too early.

Sooner Is Better, And More Is More Better

Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t need to try everything. You don’t need to burn out on everything. Let every kid take life at their pace. Don’t get in a pissing contest with your kid or other parents over when something needs to be achieved of completed. When a parent says, “My 8-year-old is already a black belt,” just smile and say, “Good for her!”

Don’t turn to your kid and ask rhetorically why he is only a yellow belt. Many of the happiest, most accomplished students I know were relatively late bloomers (i.e., didn’t take up their passion until at least HS or into college, which is late by today’s standards). It is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll realize this when all the kids who were gung-ho soccer players at age 8 quit before HS because it “just isn’t fun any more” (see Myth #9). Be patient with your kids. They are learning to be themselves and it isn’t their fault that you are still learning how to be a parent.

Kids Today Don’t Appreciate Anything

Did the sun rise this morning? Pretty amazing, huh? You know, sustainer of life, giver of warmth, and all that? But you probably spent more time resenting that you had to be up in the morning than marveling at nature’s wonder. You take the sun for granted, because you don’t need to do anything to ensure that it rises each morning. You have nothing invested in it. So, when was the last time your kid paid her own cell bill, or cooked his own dinner? (And what about cooking for you once in a while?) When was the last time your kid had to walk to school when he missed the bus, or determine the directions to the soccer game on her own? Did you even make her plug in the address in the GPS or print out a Google map?

At best, they maybe put the address into their iPhone, which you provided. If your kid isn’t appreciative, it may be that give everything to your kid without question because that is what parents are supposed to do. Not really. (See Myth Number One.) But kids can’t do it for themselves! (See Myth #2.) But what if she get the directions wrong and we are late for the soccer game? (See Myth #3.) Kids are extraordinarily appreciative, but only if they have something invested in the process. And they are most likely to appreciate something you do for them — like drive them to soccer practice — if it is their passion, not yours. (See Myths #6 and #9.) If your kids don’t appreciate you, you are probably making it too easy on them. Try charging them rent or let them do chores for their allowance. Yes, that’s right. Sacrifice some time away from schoolwork, skip the soccer practice, or miss the music rehearsal to do some chores around the house. See this story about the rich man and appreciation for what you have: Eating Stones

Bruce A. Epstein has three college-aged children and has worked for many years as a technologist and as a college counselor at First Choice College Counseling:

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