In one of my interviews for my book, Discovering the Inner Child, the interviewer asked me how an adult child can come to forgive their parents. It was one of the first questions. He was a parent himself, so I know that what he was really asking is, “Will my children forgive me for my mistakes?”
The title of this post is how to be a decent parent, not a great parent, the best parent ever, or a perfect parent. Because perfect parents don’t exist. All parents make mistakes and do stupid things that they may regret later. So the goal should be, how can I be the best parent that I can be? In short, how can you be good enough?
There are millions of books out there with the goal of persuading you that if you follow their advice, you will be a superstar parent. Your kids won’t need psychotherapy! “Here’s how you do it right,” they say. Mostly what these books accomplish, however, is to make you doubt yourself at every turn. Some days, it seems like the entire world is judging your skills as a parent.
The truth is that being a decent parent isn’t that hard as long as you put forth the effort in a few key areas.
Meet Their Needs
This should be a no-brainer, but… Feed your kids, preferably on a predictable schedule so that they don’t have to wonder when their needs will be met. Buy appropriate clothing. Keep appropriate clothing clean. For lower-income families, I know that this can be tough. I’ve shopped garage sales for my kids’ clothing, too, so I get it. Ask for help if you need it, but provide the basic necessities of life.
Notice that I said “needs,” not wants. If you can give your kid some wants, then that’s okay. But don’t give them their every want. It won’t serve them. Few things are as unattractive as an entitled adult. So don’t make one. Saying “no” when it’s appropriate will make you a decent parent, not a mean parent. Remember, your kids will love you if you love them. You don’t have to purchase it.
Be Present for Part of the Day
In our crazy go-go society, it’s hard to be completely present 24/7, so make a concerted effort to be present for your children at some points during the day. What does this mean? It means talking to your children, and then listening to what they have to say. It means asking them about their day, their worries, their dreams. It means listening to the gossip about the other kids in their class. It means hearing the same silly jokes you heard as a kid, over and over again. It means looking in their eyes and hugging them on your lap.
My kids understand which parts of the day are “me” time. After breakfast, I drink coffee, read the paper, and basically wake up. It’s not my best talking time and never has been. After school time, driving to Taekwondo time, and the very sacred dinner time, where we all sit and talk to one another make up for this. Identify which points in your day offer the best times to interact and be present with your kids, and then make the most of it. If you know you need an hour to recover after work, then that’s not a good time. But after that hour, you should be able to interact with your kids at some point.
Showing up when it matters to your kids is one of the most important aspects of being a decent parent. If you say you’ll pick them up at 4pm, don’t show up at 5pm. If you know that they’re in the school play, you’d better show up and applaud. If they’re in the middle of a recital or belt test, turn off your cell phone—never get up in the middle of something like this to answer a phone call. Your kid will notice, and they will believe that you value that phone call more than you value them. And never, ever show up late for a performance. I saw the tears of a classmate when her father showed up after her performance was over. He’d missed it. And he’ll never get it back.
Showing up also means being available when your child wants to share something important with you. If they’ve practiced a little play all day and want you to come watch them, then take the time to do. Show up for their play. Look at their artistic masterpiece. Listen to them play that new song on the piano.
Showing up means you value them. Not showing up means you don’t really care. My cousin was crushed when his alcoholic mother didn’t show up for his high school graduation. It’s not that he was surprised, exactly. But he had hoped that this time, she would make an effort. For him. And she didn’t.
My own parents didn’t show up to my second wedding. There were lame excuses: they wanted to replace their roof. Wanted to, not needed to. “Your wedding isn’t at a convenient time for us,” they said. It was four months away, not four days away. I’m not a fool. I understood that they did not see this as a “real” wedding, since I was marrying a woman, and at that time it wasn’t even “legal” yet! And I’m sure my mother thought that if she wasn’t there, it simply couldn’t occur. If a same-sex couple gets married and a mother isn’t there to see it, does it exist? I’ve written a lot about my mother’s mental illness, and I get it rationally, but it still hurts. If I look back, this was breaking point number one. So the moral is, don’t provide your kids with breaking points. Suck it up and BE THERE FOR THEM, even if you disagree with their choices.
Say “I’m Sorry”
You are going to screw up. Your choices are to screw up and say nothing, which teaches your children that your feelings are more important than everyone else’s, or you can screw up and say, “Dang, I screwed up. I’m sorry.” The latter teaches your children to take responsibility for their actions.
Other good things to say are “Thank you” and “Please.” I get that as the parent, you’re the person in authority, and you may feel that saying these things will undermine your authority. But if you want to be a decent parent, you will be a benevolent authority and not a dictator. Good manners go a long way. Would you prefer working for a boss who said “please” and “thank you” or a boss who barked orders at you? Love and gentleness will help you cultivate an ongoing friendship with your kids. Fear, on the other hand, will only cultivate enemies.
The truth is, your kids are going to know when you screw up. And they will know that you know that you screwed up. So take some responsibility for yourself and apologize when it’s called for. It’s the adult thing to do.
Love Them Unconditionally
Recognize that your children are not you. They are not you, and they will never be you, no matter what beliefs and ideals you try to instill in them. Some of this will take, if done with love, and some may not. Your job is to love your children regardless of this fact.
You will not always like your children’s behavior, their choices, their hairstyle, their beliefs, their politics, or their choice of mates. But you can always choose to like them, and to love them, no matter what.
I always say to my kids, “There is nothing you can do, feel, say, or think that will make me not love you.” And I mean it. Sometimes they piss me off. They’re supposed to do that. But I still love them completely. In some ways, they’re like me. In many ways, they’re not. That’s okay. I just want them to be themselves, to explore themselves, to live up to their full potential, whatever that may look like. I just want them to be happy, and I’m not the best judge of that. They are.