I always thought that my job as a parent was to teach my kids. I taught them how to tie their shoes. I taught them how to say their “ABCs.” I taught them how to ride a bike. I’ve more or less taught them how to function in polite society. And just today, I taught my 17-year old how to use cruise control and how to check her oil. Sometimes, it feels like all I do is try to teach them – whether it’s right from wrong, how to set boundaries with friends or how to properly sort a load of laundry.
I’ve been parenting (i.e., mainly lecturing people who don’t care and continuously picking up dirty socks that aren’t mine) for more than 17 years now. But earlier today as I was strategically planning out a brilliant lecture for one of them (who will undoubtedly not care), I realized something. As I was sorting through my infinite mental files of motherly wisdom and marveling at my brilliance, it dawned on me how I didn’t know any of this stuff 17 years ago. In fact, I wasn’t all to sure how to feed and clothe myself, much less feed, clothe and teach a child.
I didn’t just wake up one day knowing these things. As I reflected on it, I realized that it has been my kids who have taught me everything I know. And it’s through them that I have learned not just how to be a parent, but how to be a better person. Here are just a few things that I have learned…
I have been called a lot of things over the years, but “patient” has not been one of them. In my mind, instant gratification is a foregone conclusion. But my children have forced me to slow down. They have demanded that I stop and wait for the payoff. Whether I was being forced to wait for them to learn to sleep through the night or waiting for them to figure out how to navigate their own lives, I’ve had no choice but to sit back and trust in the process. And that’s all patience really is – knowing that as long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to do, everything is going to work out.
Empathy and sympathy are often confused. Most of us are sympathetic people. We see bad situations or cruel circumstances and think, “Well, that sucks.” And we genuinely feel sorry for the person enduring them. But empathy is feeling another’s pain to your very core and doing whatever you can to make it better. It’s that moment when you see your sick child and know in your bones that you would do anything to make them well. It’s holding a crying teenager in your arms and wishing that there was a way to absorb every ounce of their pain into your own heart so they wouldn’t have to feel it any more. Sympathy makes us human. Empathy makes us act.
How to continuously learn
Kids are going to push the boundaries. That’s a fact. But it’s in watching them push and then feel the push back that helps us to understand the importance of learning from mistakes and coming back to try again. Kids don’t give up just because they didn’t get it right the first time. They fall off their bikes, but keep trying. They doggy paddle with enthusiasm until they finally learn to swim. They get blisters on their hands in their determination to get all the way across the monkey bars. As adults, we get to the point where we think that we don’t have anything new to learn, so if we don’t get something right away, we move on. With kids, everything is new – and they keep trying until they get it right. If only we all had the persistence of a child, imagine what we could achieve.
My kids have shown me bravery every day since they were born. Not just in their willingness to keep trying that back flip on the trampoline (regardless of how many times they fall on their head and my heart stops), but in their willingness to continuously go into new situations and try new things. I think of how often I am not willing to stretch myself or break my routine because it will be uncomfortable or foreign or simply because I am scared. Yet, since the moment my kids were born, they’ve been trying new things, facing new challenges, experiencing unfamiliar situations and meeting new people. They do it with a strength and courage that inspires me – and reminds me that it’s only when we allow ourselves to get stuck in our own ways that we stop discovering all that the world has to offer.
How to have fun
A few years ago, I took my kids to Disneyworld for the first time and I was probably more excited than they were. Day one, it poured rain and I’m talking the kind of rain that only happens during tsunamis and/or in Florida. We were stuck in “It’s A Small World” with the entire population of Florida, Georgia and possibly Alabama when I remembered how much my kids used to love playing in the rain. They would beg to jump in puddles and would run around in the yard like they were in the world’s biggest sprinkler. So we looked at each other, then simply walked into the downpour. We looked for the biggest puddles we could find and jumped as hard as we could. We ran with arms outstretched through the empty park while drier, but much less happy onlookers stared through windows. We laughed and splashed our way to Space Mountain and wrung out clothes and hair while we stood in line. We had an amazing five days. But what I remember most was not the expensive hotel or fancy meals. It was not the rides or the parades. It was running through the rain like I was in the world’s biggest sprinkler. Kids don’t worry about the wet clothes or soggy shoes, because they know that puddle will be worth it. I have the most fun on the days that I stop worrying about the aftermath, and allow myself to truly enjoy the moment.
How to listen
I remember when my kids were little and they would get frustrated after saying something over and over. They would finally shout in frustration, “Mom, you’re not listening!” That’s when I would stop and ask questions and truly get to the root of their issue. It wasn’t that they thought I couldn’t hear them, it’s that I wasn’t taking the time to truly listen and understand. I have found that most issues can be solved by simply sitting down and talking it out. But for there to be resolution, we have to truly listen. I hear my kids being disrespectful, but when I listen, I realize the anger or pain that lies underneath it. I hear my kids crying, but when I listen, I see the fear or hurt that prompted it. When I listen I can actually help my kids work through their issues. And not only do I get to teach them how to handle situation and emotions, I get to teach them their own value and importance. Because that is really what listening is – it’s telling the person talking that they matter. And that’s really all any of want. Don’t get me wrong, I still spend most of my days wandering around the house muttering under my breath about how no one listens. I ask nicely 15 times, get ignored, then end up yelling. At which point, they want to know why I yell all the time, but it’s a work in progress.
How to love
If you really want to know what love feels like, have a grimy toddler climb into your lap at the end of a long day, throw their arms around your neck and simply say, “I love you.” Love is about making someone else feel like they are the most important person in the world. Think of the moments when you’ve watched your kid’s eyes scan a crowd until they see on you and their face lights up. That’s love. Think of the times they have crawled into your bed because nowhere safer or more secure. That’s love. Think of the pictures they’ve drawn or the things they’ve made, just to see that look of happiness on your face. That’s love. My kids remind me every day that it’s not enough to carry love around in our hearts – we have to openly and actively give it to the person its intended for. We have to speak and show it. Love is a gift and while it’s easy to assume that we are giving it daily in the mere form of our presence and the fact that we feed, clothe and attend to basic needs, we should never take it for granted. We need to speak up and not be afraid to throw our arms around someone at the end of a long day and simply say, “I love you.” You never know, that might be the exact thing they need.
I still have a brilliant lecture planned. And I know that it will be received with relative indifference and probably a fair amount of eye rolling. And she probably won’t get it right away. But that’s ok. I have learned the patience I need to know that it will all be ok. I have the empathy to know that she is in a tough place right now and needs my support. I will listen to what she has to say because I know that I am only seeing the reaction to something deeper. I will push myself out of my comfort zone to protect her and help her. I will keep trying even if I don’t say all the right things today. I will not ignore the moments of joy that are inherent even in my toughest parenting moments. And most importantly, I will let her know that she is the most important person in the world and that she is loved beyond measure. After all, these are the things she has taught me – whether she knows it or not.