People often think that because I have a lot of children, I know a lot about parenting. And they're always asking for my advice.
I'm embarrassed to admit that in some deep way the longer I parent, the less I feel I know. Things that I stated definitively when my children were young and (so I thought) malleable, seem foolish and naïve to me now. The longer I parent, the less control I seem to have -- you can't lift up a 16 year old and put her in her room, nor would I want to.
Nevertheless, despite my protestations, people continue to ask me about parenting. So I've attempted to distill a few basic principles that I try to live by. I racked my brain for a cute acronym but failed abysmally, so here goes (in no particular order):
What we tell ourselves about our day, our children, and our experience of the moment, shapes our response. We may not be able to change the external events -- small children will get tired and cranky in the late afternoon; in fact so will big ones -- but we can change our reaction.
When our children fight, do we pull out our hair and shriek "I can't stand it" or do we tell ourselves calmly "This too will pass"? Or perhaps, alternative #3 -- since #2 seems out of the reach of most ordinary mortals! -- Do we get everyone dressed and go outside to play, changing the mood and the energy?
What we think we can and cannot take makes all the difference.
I was inspired in this by Miriam Levi, author of "Effective Jewish Parenting." "What do you mean you can't stand it?" I once heard her say. "Being boiled in hot oil is something you can't stand. This is not."
Change those tapes that are playing inside your head. Create a new mantra. I like the Little Engine that Could (your kids will too): "I think I can, I think I can." Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly overwhelmed, I borrow from AA -- only they're too ambitious for me. Instead of one day at a time, I say "One hour at a time."
Everyone must find what works for him or her. But recognizing that we can control our responses and refocus is tremendously empowering. Your children will notice the difference.
2. You are an example, like it or not:
It can't be stated often enough: What we say is much less relevant (dare I say irrelevant?) than what we do. Our children are watching us -- what we wear, what we eat, what we buy, our facial expressions, our body language, how we treat others.
And they're not easily fooled. So don't talk the talk unless you're prepared to walk the walk.
How we act has a profound influence on our children. It can be a little frightening. There's no doubt we are all going to make mistakes in our efforts to be those perfect role models. That's okay. Own up to them. Our children will learn from that as well.
And they're watching our marriages. If we neglect our partner in favor of our children, they'll do the same. If we treat our mate rudely, they'll do the same. Parents are on stage all the time. And we're shooting for a Tony…
When we look at our sleeping infants, we frequently indulge our fantasies about who they will be, the opportunities they will have that we didn't, our unfulfilled goals that they will bring to fruition. From a very young age, we have expectations of how we will shape our children and what we will create.
But children are not modeling clay. They are not blank slates. They come with personalities, with inherent strengths and weaknesses. We can fine tune and direct, but we can't change their essence.
If we try to live vicariously, if we try to force them to conform to our dreams and visions, we will cripple them and destroy our relationship. One of the biggest gifts we can give our children is recognition of who they are -- separate from us -- and pleasure in their special qualities and talents.
Whether you're outnumbered, like my husband and me, or not, you really are out of control.
Our children have free will and strong body drives. After all the patience, guidance, example and appreciation, they still have the power to choose. And we need the Almighty's help in guiding them to the appropriate outcome.
We want each of our children to achieve their unique potential, and we can't do it alone. If we don't pray for anything else, we need to prayer for the future of our children, with all of the emotion at our disposal.
Four simple principles -- easy to state and not so easy to practice. Especially when you're overwhelmed, sleep deprived, trying to balance 101 things. Being a decent parent is probably the most difficult job on the planet yet we seek this job because we know there is nothing we can do that makes a bigger difference for the future. All we can do is try -- and while we are praying for the Almighty to help our children, maybe we could throw in a little word for ourselves as well.