A reminder to myself from the inimitable Dear Abbey as the holidays creep closer. As the boxes pile up on the front step and the girls make last minute changes to gift lists and we worry we’re not giving them enough and somehow giving them way too much.
“If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.”
Money can make things easier, no doubt, gifts might make them temporarily smile, no doubt, but there is no substitute for that garbage time.
No pithy parenting anecdotes this week. Like good Donohues, we are spending part of a major holiday going up and down the Jersey turnpike. By the time you are reading this we will (hopefully) have paid an exorbitant toll to get across the Hudson River and are risking our lives on the Merritt Parkway to escape southern Connecticut.
I will say, this article in The Atlantic on how we raise kids did catch my interest this week and is worth a read. The key might be to stop trying to raise successful kids and to change what we give attention to as parents. Instead of spending most of your time in the car or around the dinner table talking solely about school and accomplishments, ask about, or give equal time to, character and excellence.
How were they kind today? How did they help someone?
Simple and actionable. That’s parenting advice I can get behind.
French fries provided me with an important parenting lesson this week. We made some curly fries Thursday night (with the new oven’s air fryer setting, of course). When I took the pan out, Ally looked and pointed out that a few had arranged themselves into the approximation of a smile. Later, Ce came down and pointed to the same group and said it looked like a frowning face.
French fries as personality test. And a reminder.
Parents can’t draw a picture. Not in ink. You can’t even really have a firm plan. Not of parenting. Not of your family. Not of each of your kids. You don’t know how it’s going to go. You don’t even have a say in a lot of it. You need to loosely hold the wheel and be willing to adjust. To be flexible.
To always be ready to learn and to change and to approach each kid on their own terms.
We are coming up on performance season. For someone that loves to be on stage, Cecilia doesn’t actually like to be in the spotlight. The winter jazz concert is next month and the anxiety over a potential solo is ramping up with each passing day.
My advice? Welcome to the club! Everyone is winging it. Pretty much all the time. The sooner you recognize this, the sooner you can relax. Feeling ready is a fantasy, based entirely on what you imagine is going on inside other people’s heads. Just get on with it and do whatever it is you’ve been holding back on until you’re ready.
Did she nod and accept my sage advice? My hard-earned life lesson? No, she retorted, “What about my teachers? Or my doctor? Are they just winging it, too?” Spoken like a true teenager or first year philosophy student.
Yes and no. Of course they’re aren’t winging your lessons or your diagnosis, but they aren’t infallible either. They don’t know what’s coming up next. No one does. Their training doesn’t provide all the answers for every situation. Life is way bigger than any textbook. You just need to cross each bridge as you come to it.
That’s a little scary but also very freeing. Show up, wing it, don’t wait. You’ll be happier for it.
As it grew darker last Tuesday, and the girls got their costumes ready, Ally asked if I believed in ghosts.
No, I do not believe in ghosts or spirits. But I do believe in memories.
I believe in the collective memory of all the people doing what human beings have always done before me. Being a parent, being a Dad, being a son, being a man. Getting it right sometimes. Screwing it up sometimes.
Whether spirits exist or not, we are never alone. Memories, for me, are a benign presence, not a haunting one. They exist to teach, advise, caution, and inspire with all that prior experience.
They protect us. They reassure us. They give us company.
We are just over a month into Ally and the trumpet. It’s noisy and not very good which is exactly how it should be right now. She’s loving it.
It’s also another thing that needs to be practiced.
As a parent, my job is to love and support the girls. To be their number one fan and help them find who they are supposed to be. But that doesn’t come without conditions or constraints. If she wanted to drop the trumpet tomorrow and pick up oil painting, that wouldn’t happen. At least not right away.
Conditions and constraints can be a good thing. They keep her accountable. They make her earn it—take the responsibility of her learning, her interests, and her potential seriously.
And maybe they can help Dads get over worries and doubts, too.
I’ve learned that being a parent only gives you the slightest illusion of control. We don’t control much of what they do, or what they feel, or their heavy glitter pour, or strange distaste for vegetables.
But we do get to control how we look and react to things.
I’ve mentioned before the constant mental wrestling match with the state of our basement. Does messy mean they are slobs? Or does messy mean they are using the room as intended? How should I react?
I’m now having the same struggle with a teenager’s bedroom, the one I look at every time I climb the stairs. The one littered with clothes and other “important”… junk that can’t be moved. Is it worth fighting over? Or is it part of how they figure things out?
If she sees me make my bed every day, or clean up the kitchen after meals, or pick up a random sock, will that practice eventually sink in? Maybe. Better to model the behavior than rail against it. We choose what we see. That’s what we can control.