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A Decade of Lessons in Parenting


The day my older son, Zander, turned, as he called it, the big one-oh, I hit a milestone of my own: I officially entered my second decade of being a mother. And while there was no denying Zander's metamorphosis from fuzzy-haired, gray-eyed infant to grubby-kneed fourth-grader, my transformation was no less significant.

And Zander was only one part of my learning curve: My second son, Thad, was born when Zander was 6. Looking back on those first ten years, there were clearly a few lessons that repeatedly saved my sanity. I hope they do the same for you!

Lesson #1: Everything is Just a Phase

I read this somewhere when Zander was a toddler, and considered having it tattooed someplace extremely visible—like on his forehead—so I'd remember to take a deep breath and chant it like a mantra. Screaming bloody murder at bedtime? Just a phase. Wearing rubber boots everywhere, including the pool, when it's 92 degrees in the shade? Phase. Suddenly hating organic applesauce, previously consumed at the rate of two jars a day, just when I've splurged and bought six cases of the stuff? Just (very deep breath) another phase.

Only when Thad came along and started staging a series of unpleasant episodes of his own did I realize that my mantra had a tragic flip side. If everything is a phase, then good behavior must be just as fleeting and transitory as bad. With Zander, though I'd become quite expert at gritting my teeth through the bad patches, I still thought his "true" self was the little boy who climbed into bed each morning murmuring into my ear "Mmmm, you smell so delicious, Mommy." (That phase, by the way, lasted exactly three glorious months.)

Instead of wasting time and energy wondering when Thad would finally settle into his own "true" personality (you know, the sweet, loving, polite one), I suddenly realized that sweetness passes as surely as brattiness does. It was immensely liberating. So these days, I'm doing my best just to ride the roller coaster of my boys' developmental phases, instead of desperately fighting to keep the highs (which, in case you haven't heard, is just as exhausting and depressing as slogging through the lows).

Lesson #2: Ignore as Much as You Can

One evil winter week (I had an article due for this very magazine, we had three snow days in a row, my throat and head ached ominously, and my husband was out of town), I was so exhausted and dispirited that I went through several days on autopilot. Meanwhile, Zander and Thad were up to their usual tricks—throwing balls against the wall, moping around moaning that they were bored, wrestling while perilously balanced on the sofa, and singing obnoxious songs at the tops of their lungs.

Usually, this behavior catapults me into Instant Harpy Mode. But I was too busy guzzling ibuprofen, begging my editor for an extension, and complaining to my husband's voicemail to pay much attention to my irritating children. And guess what? No one lost an eye (or even broke a lamp). In fact, the kids entertained each other thoroughly (albeit annoyingly). On the third day, they built a giant fort with every pillow in the house—except the one I clutched over my head—and quietly played Uno for several hours straight.

The moral? The more I let go, the happier we'll all be. Unless someone has gone way beyond the limits of acceptable behavior, I try to visualize water rolling off my back instead of screaming bloody murder (just this minute, for example, Zander and Thad marched into my office braying into their kazoos. I kept typing, so they got bored and marched away). They love bothering me, but I really hate being a harpy. By failing to rise to their bait, I win.

Lesson #3: Watch What You Say on the Phone in Their Presence—Seriously

It sounds like a little thing, but believe me, it's not. Fifteen-month-old Thad, whose entire vocabulary consisted of "hot" and "uh-oh," surprised my mother one afternoon by chirping "Oh, my effing (except he didn't say 'effing') god!" And I don't think the friend in whose living room Zander blurted "Mom, is she annoying you now like the last time we came over?" will ever forgive me. (The answer, by the way, was yes?but still.)

Lesson #4: Spin is Everything

The week before Zander started school, we moved 3,000 miles from the only home he'd ever known. The move itself was great--we took weeks to drive cross-country, and the trip was a fun-filled camping adventure—but the minute we pulled into our new driveway, my stomach knotted in dread. The next day, our neighbor spent 30 minutes telling me terrible things about one of Zander's new teachers. The night before school started, I was a total wreck.

But I figured it was vital to keep my misgivings to myself. When I was little, my family moved every couple of years—yet my parents managed to convince us kids that our wanderings were thrilling, not frightening. If they worried we'd have trouble adjusting, they certainly never let on. So I swallowed my anxiety, talked up school as if it were a three-ring circus of delight, and waited until the bus was safely out of sight before collapsing on the sofa with my fist in my mouth. To my utter disbelief, Zander adored his class. And his teacher—despite her bad press—encouraged and challenged him beyond my wildest dreams.

Okay, we got lucky. But I honestly believe kids have an uncanny ability to sense (and react to) parental ambivalence. By modifying our attitudes, we can help our kids cope with life's inevitable curveballs.

Lesson #5: Don't Help Too Much

You'll want to, especially since it's maddening to let kids puzzle things out themselves. When we're late, and Thad has his tongue between his lips and his brow furrowed and I know I could zip his jacket for him in three seconds, it's nearly impossible to refrain. But I must. Otherwise, I risk repeating the mistakes I made with Zander—who will probably be happy to have me cut his meat for him till he goes to college.

Behind my back, Zander is much more competent than he lets on. At sleepaway camp, for instance, he manages not only to cut his meat but also to wash his hair, keep track of his tennis racket, set his alarm clock, and apply sunscreen and bug spray as needed. But at home, he chooses the path of least resistance—why bother to pour your own milk if some sucker (me!) will do it for you?

I was thrown for a loop when Thad, who's more interested in mimicking his brother than enslaving his mother, came along. He learned to dress himself and wash his hands and so forth several years before I'd trusted Zander with similar tasks, which certainly made my life a lot easier.

But if you want self-sufficient kids, you'll need to be patient: Grit your teeth and let them screw things up a few times as part of the learning process. If it's not a life-or-death matter, who cares that their shoes are tied all funky or the sweatshirt is on inside out? In the long run, their independence is your freedom.

Lesson #6: Set Certain Expectations in Stone

And start early. If table manners are your thing, begin before they're old enough to know the difference. I'm a big fan of making proclamations to one's children ex cathedra—style: Thou Shalt Write Thank-You Notes, for example. Meet all protests with the same attitude you take toward the car seats—it's non-negotiable, these are the rules, and that is that.

It's never too late to start. Set a standard—your kids won't know it's arbitrary—like the one I came up with for Thad on his birthday. ("When you're four, you get a new chore. Yours is clearing your plate.") Birthdays are convenient times to lay down the law; I usually grant one privilege (a slightly later bedtime, for instance) and impose one new age-appropriate responsibility (a job I hate, like sorting socks or unloading the dishwasher) per year. If everything works according to plan, by the time they grow up, I'll be completely superfluous.

Lesson #7: Keep Track of Things, Because You Will Forget

You don't have to be a fancy scrapbooker—heaven forbid! But keep the camera nearby and take as many pictures as you can. (For some reason, this gets harder as your kids get older. I have 6,000 pictures of blank-faced Zander on the changing table?and only five from his entire year of second grade.) Try not to fall into the trap of taking pictures only on "significant" occasions: birthdays, vacations, school plays, or sporting events. Instead, document the time your kid drew all over herself with Magic Marker or the absurd mess she made in her room when she was supposed to be napping.

Write the date on the back of photos, those "Do you like me?" notes, and memorable drawings. If you don't, you will forget. And try your best to jot it down whenever your kid says or does something funny (or poignant, or especially obnoxious), even if you have to dig an old grocery receipt out of your pocketbook to do so. You don't have to be organized—unless that's your thing; the time-capsule aspect of a shoe box stuffed with random memorabilia is part of its charm. And don't forget to save stuff that may not showcase your kid's finest moments but will make you laugh. When he was 3, Zander bit a kid at preschool. When his teacher pointed out that only food was for biting, he said, "But people are made of meat!"

Lesson #8: Cut Other Moms Some Slack

When Zander was an infant, I spent a lot of time reading about the most fascinating subject in the universe: babies, and how to raise them. By the time he and I ventured out into the real world, I had developed what one could charitably term a "parenting philosophy." Like any zealot, I was insufferable. And I found it impossible to relate to anyone who wasn't as far left of center as I was (hey, we lived in Berkeley, CA) about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, diapering, circumcision, and the like.

Looking back, I could kick myself—not only for having been so annoying and self-righteous but also for failing to realize that the type of diaper someone uses on her baby's nether regions (circumcised or not) is of minimal importance when it comes to making friends with another mom. Okay, when Zander was brand-new, and I desperately needed to talk for three hours about infant sleeping patterns, my New Best Friend had to be someone with a baby exactly Zander's age, and weight, and gender, and temperament, and so forth. But as time wore on, and our babies grew up, I realized my New Best Friend was—how to put it?—a bit boring. We had only motherhood in common, and as I met other mothers, I realized I craved something more.

Eventually, what I needed in a friend was someone who'd crack open the wine with me on a dreary afternoon while the babies crawled around mouthing each other's toys at our feet. Someone who made me laugh until my face hurt even if I'd had three hours of sleep in two days, who brought me soup and Gatorade when we were slammed by a family-wide stomach bug, and who didn't hold it against me when Zander mistook her kid for meat (see above).

Lesson #9: Don't Fear Tears

Ditto temper tantrums. They're no fun, but they signal you're doing your job. I hate, hate, hate it when my kids flip out. If Thad wants an ice pop before supper and I say no, and he flings himself down on the floor with a screech that could shatter glass, my initial impulse is (I'm ashamed to say) to give in. Unfortunately, kids are born with built-in chump detectors. If tantrums work, why not try them again and again?

So if you cave after five minutes of screaming, your kid will instinctively keep it up for 10 the next time. And 15 the time after that. And so forth. A far better strategy is to tough out a few tantrums-hey, you might even embrace them, since they tell the world (and your furious offspring) that you're the one in charge.

Lesson #10: You Do the Best You Can with the Raw Materials You Have

My two boys, born of the same womb into the same house and raised by the same parents, could not be more different. One is naturally sunny and high-spirited, the other not so much. If you ask one, "Hey, want to try something new?" he'll beam and chirp, "Yeah! That sounds great!" The other will hyperventilate and burst into tears. One is an ace sleeper, the last of his peers to require a three-hour nap every day. The other woke up every hour for the first 18 months of his life and has never napped for more than 40 minutes.

I can only thank my lucky stars that my kids', er, challenging traits are distributed between them. Still, their innate personality differences did teach me one last lesson: Kids come hardwired with certain tendencies, and we, as parents, can only do our best to adapt to their idiosyncrasies. So don't beat yourself up if your kid is shy, or aggressive, or slow to toilet train. Keep your chin up, stick to your guns, and remember—no matter what anyone implies—it's not your fault.

However, if you happen to get a supremely easygoing kid, pat yourself on the back and take full credit. Hey, everyone blamed me when my kids were difficult, so I have no trouble crediting my excellent parenting on those rare occasions when they're perfect.