I'm about to tell you the truth: parenting has become very precious in our generation.
This very morning, a mom posted how on her son’s birthday, she assembles a comprehensive “time capsule” including items, photos, and products related to that particular year, stores it in a set of antique trunks, and plans to present them all to him on his 18th birthday as a tribute to his entire life.
When I think about upping the joy in parenting and diminishing the stress, I propose that much of our anxiety stems from this notion that our kids’ childhood must be Utterly Magical; a beautifully documented fairytale in which they reside as center of the universe, their success is manufactured (or guaranteed), and we over-attend to every detail of their lives until we send them off to college after writing their entrance essays.
It becomes this fake pressure, which results in its trusty sidekick: guilt. And nothing steals joy away from parenting more than believing you are doing a terrible job at it. And nothing confirms you are doing a terrible job at it then thinking you should run out and backfill eight antique trunks as a memorial to your third-grader’s life.
So here is my trick for keeping the joy and losing the stress:
What would my mom do?
I was born in 1974, good readers. It no more occurred to my mom to coddle us Precious Snowflakes than it did to quit drinking a case of Tab a day. If you told my mom to craft a yearly time capsule for each child to store until graduation, she would have cried tears of laughter all the way to Jazzercise. My girlfriend asked me just yesterday:
“Do you remember your mom ever volunteering in your classroom?”
“NO mom was ever in our classroom. We rode the bus to school on the first day, had one Christmas party that consisted of store-bought cookies and cherry kool-aid, then school ended and we played outside until Labor Day. That was the school year.”
My mom says that she and her friends just raised us, while my friends and me “parent” (these are sarcastic finger quotes). And honestly? She’s right. They didn’t worry endlessly, interfere constantly, safeguard needlessly, or overprotect religiously. They just raised us. And we turned out fine.
Confession: as we head toward summer, I get this itchy, panicked feeling, because we are staring down twelve unstructured weeks, and all I can picture are my five kids sleeping too late, losing brain cells on their various screens which I will feel conflicted and guilty about, and driving me crazy. How will I balance work? How will I keep them entertained? How will I occupy fourteen hours a day? How will I maintain their reading levels? I already feel like a Bad Summer Mom and it is March, for the love. Which tells me I need to default to my trick:
What would my mom do?
Well, first of all, we didn’t have 24/7 access to cartoons, video games, and YouTube, so she did what all moms did: told us to play. The end. It never crossed my mom’s mind to “entertain us” or “fund expensive summer endeavors” or “create stimulating activities for our brain development.” She said get the hell outside, and we did. We made up games and rode our bikes and choreographed dance routines and drank out of the hose when we got thirsty. I swear, my mom did not know where we actually were half the time. Turned out in the neighborhood all day, someone’s mom would eventually make us bologna sandwiches on white bread and then lock us out, too. We were like a roving pack of wolves, and all the moms took turn feeding and watering us. No one hovered over us like Nervous Nellies.
And never one time, not once did I feel unloved or neglected.
My parents majored on the majors and minored on the minors.
Is this safe? Sorry, neighbors. #ninekidsnonet
Tree skateboarding. It is a thing at the Hatmaker house apparently.
Could it be that we are simply too precious about parenting? Have we forgotten the benefit of letting our kids fail? Figure it out? Work hard for it? Entertain themselves? We put so much undue pressure on ourselves to curate Magical Childhoods, when in fact, kids are quite capable of being happy kids without constant adult administration. I would argue that making them the center of the universe is actually terribly detrimental. A good parent prepares the child for the path, not the path for the child. We can still demonstrate gentle and attached parenting without raising children who melt on a warm day.
Guess what the side effect is for us parents? RELIEF. Get your joy back! Try it. Pull back as Cruise Director and adopt the “what would my mom do” approach, and see what happens. What do you know? The kids are all right! They aren’t poor, neglected Oliver Twists. They won’t come completely unraveled. They aren’t helpless, hapless ninnies who can’t figure a bloomin’ thing out. Their futures aren’t doomed. We don’t want to produce young adults that despair at the first obstacle they face. Don’t we want them to learn that they are one part of a healthy family, not the centrifugal force of their entire environment?
And mamas and daddies? We get to jettison that manufactured guilt that tells us we aren’t doing enough, when in fact, no generation of parents has ever done more. (My friends in higher education are actually begging us to DO LESS PLEASE BECAUSE THESE CHILDREN DON’T KNOW HOW TO FILL OUT AN ONLINE FORM WITHOUT HELP.)
Let’s get our joy back and resist all this made-up stress! Let’s recapture the joy of watching kids play in sprinklers, build forts out of couch cushions, create dramatic “programs” (my parents have PTSD from ours), and run around the neighborhood with their friends. Let’s give them back the gift of imagination, self-sufficiency, creativity.
What did our moms do?
They let us be kids, and we wobbled and skinned our knees and made up our own fun and enjoyed the simple pleasures of childhood without any flash and dazzle. But you know what? We knew we were loved and we knew we were safe. We never doubted the most important parts of the story. We weren’t fragile hothouse plants but dirty, rowdy, resilient kids who ate Twinkies and candy cigarettes and lived to tell.
Mama, don’t fall for the yearly time capsules. You have everything your little ones need: kisses, Shel Silverstein books, silly songs, kitchen dance parties, a backyard, family dinner around the table, and a cozy lap. They’ll fill in the rest of the gaps and be better for it. Your kids don’t need to be entertained and they don’t need to be bubble-wrapped; they just need to be loved.
It’s all any kid has ever really needed.
Related video featuring Jen Hatmaker: