Focus On the Child, Not the Project
I want to let you in on the fruit of a lot of late night reading and middle of the night insomnia. The question pawing at me like a nocturnal kitten: What works in parenting? I’m plum worn out from the sad accounts of kids who are clearly bright, sharp adults who rendered the verdict on their childhoods: thumbs down.
I know that we parents come into the task completely green. Sure, we were parented, but we rarely feel qualified to be parents on that basis alone. We head off to websites and books, retreats and conferences, looking for models that will ensure that OUR children will have good lives and grow up to be responsible, cheerful people. We want guarantees, because life is fraught with chaos and surprises (both welcome and unwelcome).
We trust experts and friends and religious leaders and therapists and anyone who seems authoritative and successful in their own right. We trust methods untested. We hope we have landed upon the “just right mix” of theory and practice.
What I am starting to see, though, is this odd trajectory. The kids who claim to have had happy childhoods were not their parents’ projects. Rather, the children who grow up to be successful, happy adults are the ones whose projects were absorbing to their parents.
See what I did there?
In other words, if you focus more on the stuff that you and your kids care about (the big wide world of learning—books, birds, boats, Beowulf, beauty, bobcats, Broadway, battles, buoyancy, bodies, baked goods, Barbies, Bilbo—and those are just some of the subjects starting with the letter ‘B’!), you will create a much more bonded relationship with your children and they will learn how to be competent adults. All the character training you impose, expect, exact, and create through whatever parenting method you choose can never result in the kind of child, and eventual adult, that you and they truly want.
As it turns out, focusing on how to parent your child is less powerful than joining your child in the shared adventure of living.
In the end, what leaves the best impression on your kids is your hearty, enthusiastic participation in the stuff of life—and sharing those life-experiences with them as though they are welcome and a constitutive part of your own experience!
Some of that exploration will be parent led, some of it will be child led, but all of it will be experienced with wide-eyed wonder, a lack of judgment (no more—does Minecraft really count? are Barbies dangerous?), and an investment of the time that really matters, not the time that could go to other stuff like chores, bedtimes, math pages, and baths.
Our homeschools thrive when learning is what we care about more than parenting. Ironically, being a good parent gets tossed into the bargain, when we do. Punishment, teaching responsibility, lectures about character, holding kids accountable to adult standards of behavior—these don’t seem to produce the results we think they will.
But jumping into the middle of an adventure—reading, playing a video game, building a bonfire, hiking, calculating to produce a quilt, joining a dance company, visiting the zoo every week, playing with words, baking cookies, acting out scenes from Shakespeare, sitting side-by-side with your child while she writes Latin declensions for co-op—these do more to “parent” your kids than you realize.
Go forth and be interested in life. Bring your kids along. They’ll thank you for it when they get older.