We recently attended a kindergarten info session. We were in the 5% minority of people in attendance who brought children. As other parents dragged the meeting on past its scheduled end time by interrogating the teachers and asking lengthy questions about the tenure of the faculty and the extracurricular activities available to kindergartners (yes, kindergartners) our children grew restless. When my attempts to occupy Ellen with my phone failed and she announced “I’m not being quiet right now!” in a high pitched voice, I took her to the back of the room. I suddenly felt guilty for bringing my offspring (to a school for children) and suspected there were several people giving me the stink-eye for not leaving our kids home with our nonexistent nanny. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel like other parents watch me a lot. It makes me feel self-conscious about my daughter who doesn’t have an inkling what an inside voice is and my son who is stubbornly particular. But maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe we’re all just watching each other and hoping no one suspects the truth: that most of the time we don’t have a clue what we’re doing.
For the most part, I avoid anything that might be categorized as parenting advice, mostly for anger management issues, but every once in awhile something makes its way to me. The other day Noel emailed me a link to an article titled “Six Tips on Disciplining Children from an Experienced Teacher,” prefacing it with the remark, “I’m not sure if this is good advice or if it angers me.” Noel is not as well acquainted with the world of parenting articles where there is an overabundance of advice and general judginess and I was curious what had upset him. I clicked through and quickly saw what he meant. The tips were good and made me think of ways I could improve as a parent, but the author’s matter of fact examples of how she implemented them with her Stepford children was maddening. The calm interactions they had that always ended in the kids doing exactly what she wanted were almost incomprehensible to me and probably any other person who’s ever spent anytime with children or teens. Maybe this woman really has the magic touch or her children are genetically engineered, but it just felt like there was something missing or that there was a truth that hadn’t been fully told.
Cooper’s preschool sent home a flier for a parenting class put on by a community organization. It had a picture of a boy with crazed eyes riding a Hobby Horse and read, “A Parenting Manual: Because kids don’t come with instructions” and promised that the class would answer your toughest parenting questions. I rolled my eyes and decided it was best I not go and poison all the optimistic parents who were so earnestly looking for the clear cut answers to how to raise children. In the Ted Talk “For Parents Happiness is a High Bar,” Jennifer Senior asks, “Why is it that raising our children is associated with so much anguish and so much confusion? Why is it that we are at sixes and sevens about the one thing human beings have been doing successfully for millennia, long before parenting message boards and peer-reviewed studies came along?” I think about that sometimes and vow to relax and just parent from the heart, but before the thought is hardly finished my brain starts to panic asking, “What exactly does that mean?” I’m still working on figuring it out, but the words Senior spoke to her son the day he was born have at least given me a mantra I think I can live by. As she held him in her arms for the first time she whispered in his ear, “I will try so hard not to hurt you.”
I always hesitate to give parenting advice and have no intentions of ever calling myself an expert. When my sister calls me in hopes of gleaning some wisdom from me on how to raise her growing son my heart always breaks because I know I probably don’t have the answers. I hardly know what to do to make her son sleep anymore than I knew how to make my son sleep, so I blather out suggestions of things I tried or read about or heard other people did and then tell her the only thing on the subject I know with certainty, “I know this hard, but you’re doing a good job, really.”
One time I was talking to my mom about gardening. My mother is a Master Gardener and I was trying to express to her how unknowledgeable I felt about our yard. “It just feels like this huge experiment,” I said, “I just keep throwing things out there and hoping something works.” I waited, expecting her to give advice about what I should do differently, but instead she simply reassured me, “That’s gardening.” I think parenting is a lot like that; a huge experiment that even the “experts” haven’t completely figured out. We’re all just out there working hard and wiping the sweat off our brows as we tend what’s growing on our plots of land. Despite our best efforts though, there will always be a neighbor that doesn’t like our methods of landscaping and maybe we won’t like theirs, but we can’t let that drag us down because the truth is we’re all just trying our best to make something beautiful.