Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The Finished Product
Parenting can be the most rewarding, frustrating, exhausting, overwhelming, fantastic thing in the world but it is a job with a clear start date and a fuzzy end date. Sometimes we choose to be parents, sometimes parenthood chooses us. Sometimes we are excited, sometimes we are terrified, but forever we are changed. Before we have kids we look at and judge the frantic shell of a woman pushing a cart through Walmart with her hair undone, puke on her shoulder, and a screaming tyrant of a child who is blowing snot bubbles on the tile floor until a suitable tribute of M&Ms is offered and smugly think it will never be us. Before we actually live with a real live teenager we assume it is crappy parents that create disrespectful, belligerent, little monsters convinced of their own superiority in all things regarding intelligence, morality, and dating decisions. No matter how prepared for parenting we are, everyone looks at their kids from time to time and wonders if they truly have any clue how to parent based on the unfinished product, and usually this comes when we don't have a clear goal of what we want the finished product to look like.
Let me start with a clear caveat that I do not in any way believe that good parenting creates good kids that become good adults, because that is not something that is within our power. Too many books, sermons, and smug neighbors assert that if you just do the right things in the right way you can create great kids that become great some day. The truth is that it is our job as parents to set the best possible environment and put the best ingredients into the product we are working towards, but that fantastic parents often have worthless kids who reward their hard work with defiance, and just as often horrible parents do everything wrong and end up with fantastic kids. Ultimately what they become is up to them, so stop blaming their friends for corrupting them and stop blaming yourself for every wrong decision they make. God is our heavenly father but he isn't responsible for the bad decisions we make.
That said, I think it is important to determine an end goal as early into parenting as possible - what end product am I wanting to put out into the world at the end of 18 years of parenting? You have some options here and some pitfalls to avoid. The first is training your kids to avoid annoying or irritating you by snapping at them when they do anything out of line with your constantly shifting whims and desires - make everything a battle from how they chew their food to what grade of gasoline they put in their tank. This creates a finished product that learns to avoid you when you are in a bad mood, placate you in your presence, and do whatever the heck they want when you aren't around and unless they have a boss some day with all the same annoyances and preferences as you then they haven't really been prepared for life. The second option is to immediately do anything and everything you can to make them happy non-stop every day which creates a very frustrated adult that walks into life as a dictator who has lost his only subjects. Another goal might be just trying to make them look good in comparison to other people's kids - are they better dressed, act better at parties, get better grades, score more touchdowns, and have more Facebook friends? This is the parenting message our culture gives us which is to focus exclusively on the achievements of our kids and look at them as a walking report card of our parenting based on what they are able to accomplish. When asked about our kids we will likely spout off their GPA, sports involvement, relative attractiveness and such like we are a promoter describing a boxer or a headhunter raving about someone's resume.
What if our focus and goal was on our kid's character rather than their achievement, what if when asked we described our child as responsible, compassionate, respectful, and hard working? Rather than letting kids do whatever they want or trying to perfectly mold them into a telepathic robot that can read your mind and always do what you want, maybe we should pick our battles and just fight hard on a few things. What are those things? Well, that depends on what values and character traits are most important to you and your spouse. I say pick like 3-5 character traits and enforce them over 18 years with rewards and consequences and you might have a shot at making them stick. The Prasse family is shooting for Respectful, Compassionate, Responsible, Faithful, and having Integrity but your family may include things like being a Servant, being Hard Working, or Generous. Get on the same page between parents or else you will bicker and cut each other off at the knees constantly because you have two different goals in mind and if you sabotage each other then neither set of values stick. Whatever your main values are catch them doing it well, catch them going against them and if anything bugs you but doesn't correlate to one of the values then it is your problem not theirs. Kids are supposed to be annoying at times, we're just supposed to have maturity, grace, and the ability to see our kids as distinct human beings from us.