Everything I Need to Know About Parenting I Learned After my Kids Left the Nest

In her poignant book, The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion writes, “Time is the school in which we learn.”

I know few parents who do not reflect on various parenting choices they might do differently given the chance.  Be it choices around education, discipline, charity work, screen time, food… it’s inevitable to look back and wonder. Nonetheless, in the big picture such decisions probably would not have made a tremendous difference. Time, hindsight and my children, who are now adults have helped me see that that there exist parenting choices that while we may believe impactful in the moment, are actually not so monumental;  Yet there exist others that while, less immediate, are actually profoundly important foundations of our children’s wellbeing. Love is of course the most obvious but, what I’ve discovered is that love in and of itself is not enough. No amount of love can cushion our kids from life’s pitfalls and too much love, while well-meaning; can even be detrimental if and when it actually does cushion them from life’s pitfalls. It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that the goal is not to feel good about our parenting, but rather to help prepare our kids for challenges.  If we wish for our offspring not just “happiness” (for what is happiness anyway but a fleeting emotion) but also, resilience, self-awareness, peace of mind and purpose, then these ten bedrocks, I believe, deserve more attention than most of the day to day worries over which we so often fret.

  1. Boundaries – Many parents grew up in homes in which we never felt “heard;” Homes in which the parenting style was punitive and authoritarian.  Consequently, the tide didn’t just shift but about faced. By allowing our kids unfettered entry into our worlds, sharing our struggles and our feelings, we were going to forge a deeper connection. They would have a “voice,” they would feel “heard.” We would negotiate rather than dictate.  Should kids have a voice and feel “heard?” Absolutely. However when the parent/child relationship begins to more closely resemble a friendship – while this may feel “special” to the parent, it builds confusion and anxiety in the child.   In the book, Blessings of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel writes, “By refusing to be authority figures, parents don’t empower their children, they make them insecure.”  It can also create “enmeshment.” Enmeshment is what occurs when a child’s sense of self is merged with their parents in turn hindering their burgeoning sense of identity.  
  2. Accountability – Another fallout from the previous generation:  a reluctance to impose consequences fueled by the belief that kids could be “reasoned” out of bad behavior.  I’m all for including dialogue in the equation but, clear, fair,  and consistent consequences when not overly punitive (definitely not a proponent of spanking) and age appropriate, can help a child learn how changes in their behavior can positively influence changes in the environment. Consequences also help them feel safe. And, if they momentarily hate us for it, we are doing our job.  
  3. Compassion can sometimes be more effective than empathy – Empathy is a valuable and important tool to teach children. It differs from compassion however, in that empathy is when we can relate to or feel someone’s pain, compassion is when we simply sit with them in their pain. We all feel pain when our kids feel pain, but they may not want to know it. It can be scary when they are little to know that we “hurt” too and downright irritating when they are older. Too much empathy can blur boundaries (see “enmeshment” above) and leave kids feeling without a strong parental figure on whom to lean. While empathy can be useful in helping us understand how they feel,(remembering the pain of being teased, heartbroken or embarrassed) if resurrecting  this pain makes us uncomfortable, it can cause us to withdraw or, alternatively rush in too soon to “fix” their (our) unease. Feeling their pain can also drain us of the energy needed to simply be there for them – to be a compassionate container for their angst rather than a fellow sufferer.
  4. Validation of Feelings – Emotions heal when they are heard and validated not when we try to “fix” them.  If kids are taught to see negative emotions as “bad” they may squelch feelings of insecurity, shame, anger and sadness only to find those feelings ferociously erupt in adolescence. In an effort to foster a “happy” environment, we may not realize we are subtly communicating frustration if our child is irritable or distressed.  We do not have to agree with the reasons behind a feeling to validate it. Feelings cannot be right or wrong. They are feelings. Communicating that a child “should” not feel something only strengthens the feeling. When a friend’s teenager shared that he felt his parents favored his older brother, I suggested that rather than try to console him with how wrong he was, she instead ask why he felt that way and even validate some of his perceptions. Or, share a time she felt that way as a child. (Empathy can be useful here.) I was surprised at the difference this effort made in my own family. I found that if my child declared he was “stupid,” allowing him to further express the feeling went a lot further in assuaging the sentiment than did pointing out how “smart” he is.
  5. Mastery  – A plethora of material goods can’t measure up to a feeling of accomplishment. Long term studies on predictors of future success and happiness show a sense of usefulness and of control over one’s self and one’s environment as being more influential in long term success and happiness than even love and affection.  Though stacking the wood, or cooking a family dinner or being in charge of the pets may take longer or be done less perfectly than we like, if we allow kids agency over their environment, it’s well worth what it offers them internally.
  6. Our Own Self Respect –   If we really want to help our kids we need to help ourselves; not at the expense of their well being of course – there is a difference between helping ourselves and being narcissistic, however,  some parents may equate making our kids the center of our lives with good parenting.  As the poet Rumi wrote, “What will our children do in the morning if they do not see us fly?” Also some parents may wish to avoid conflict or “allow their child their feelings” by tolerating disrespectful behavior and language (validating feelings does not mean enduring disrespect – see accountability).  Our kids need to know we respect and value ourselves enough to let them know when something crosses a line.
  • Self Reflection – We all have ghosts in our nursery that impact how we parent. As a wise therapist once said to me, “if you are hysterical it’s historical.” Getting in touch with how our upbringing influences our reactions, our perceptions and our emotions can be life changing. No matter how much work we’ve done before having kids, being a parent will ignite feelings for which we are unprepared. Many of us worked hard to get to know ourselves before having children yet allowed the personal growth stuff go by the wayside in order to focus on the family. Our kids know when we are growing and when we are stunted.   For parents who suffered trauma as a child, it’s important to learn about parenting with PTSD.  I recently heard a man explaining how before giving their toddler son a time out his wife was offering the child a loquacious, confusing and detailed explanation of why he needed a time which was only serving to make the boy more agitated. When asked why she was doing this, this mom explained that no one ever communicated with her as a child and she wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with her son. The man pointed out how this was her, not her son’s issue and that she was conflating healing her own wounds with disciplining her child. He simply needed a time out. Such insight can be invaluable.
  • Failure and grit– Let them fail. Let them feel pain and sorrow.  When they don’t get picked for the soccer team because the coach is “unfair” – ask them how they plan to handle it.  When a teacher gives them a C on a paper that they (and you) feel they deserve better on – welcome them to the world of teachers (bosses, colleagues, etc.…) with whom they will disagree and suggest they find ways to advocate for themselves.  I’m not implying there are not times we legitimately need to step in and support our kids.  I’m grateful that we have lessened the many egregious abuses of power that took place when kids were taught that adults were always “right.” Again however, the pendulum has swing too far.  Colleges are seeing large numbers of withdrawals and wilderness programs are seeing high numbers of enrollment in part because  kids become crippled with anxiety by the thought of failure.  We can sit with them in their anxiety or disappointment rather than working to solve it.
  • Encouragement over praise: Blanket praise (“you are so smart, talented, strong, etc…) is not only useless and counterproductive but for some kids, downright harmful.   One of my kids now tells me that our telling him he was “smart” made him feel more insecure and fearful of failure. One study, detailed at length in the book Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, showed a definitive link between parental praise and lying in children.  Kids who are repeatedly told how smart or talented they are often stop trying to achieve for fear of exposing that they are not as smart as we think they are. “You worked very hard on those math problems” or,  “your timing in that game was impeccable” offers specific feedback without making them feel they need to live up to some grand ideal.
  • Sharing Our Stories: I’ve come to appreciate the profound power of storytelling – as both a healing tool and a way to connect. I’m not talking about reading books. I’m talking about our own stories. Not just young kids but teens and young adults love to hear about things we experienced with our own parents or grandparents , hardships we faced, hurdles we overcame – or didn’t. Stories offer them a bridge between the past, present and future and can help ground them in an understanding of where they came from, who they are and where they are going. Stories can also be a great backdoor way of making a point when a lecture or conversation is going nowhere. More and more the sharing of personal stories is being used as a healing tool for people suffering from anxiety and depression. The restorative power of sharing our stories cannot be understated.