When I was newly married, I spent one year substitute teaching in the local schools. That was a very educational experience. There was the elementary school that was universally viewed as the worst in the district (it has since been closed and reopened as a Title One/gifted/Early Childhood location), which started requesting me after I worked there once, and I couldn’t figure out why. There was the first grader in a different school who dropped the f-bomb and I was so appalled, I said, “No. Not ever” in a tone of voice I’d never felt within or heard from myself before, as if some other, more authoritative, human being had momentarily possessed me. (I use that voice regularly now.)
Most importantly, there was the day I was assigned to be the second teacher supervising last-period suspension at a middle school. After the kids left, I got into a conversation with the other teacher about these troubled kids. She was telling me about research showing the damage that had been done to many kids in young childhood. It wasn’t that they were abused—it was that they were ignored, stuck in front of a TV or whatever so the parents didn’t have to be bothered. These kids had problems forming attachments and trusting authority, and for that reason they struggle with behavior and human interaction for the rest of their lives.
Her takeaway has stayed with me word for word: “By the time these kids get to kindergarten, it’s 100% unfixable, and it was 100% percent preventable.”
I did not realize it then, but these experiences were shaping me as a parent as much as anything I learned growing up. And having to wait three years to become a parent gave me an excruciatingly long time to think and process what I saw unfolding around me. I often struggled not to judge, but that’s a different topic. From then until now, I have always taken a very intentional approach to parenthood. It goes like this:
My children will know they’re loved. They’ll know it in their bodies, in their minds, in their souls, so completely at such a deep, visceral level that they won’t ever have to question it.
They will know there is right and wrong. It won’t always be simple to identify; it will usually involve shades of gray and require mercy as well as sound judgment; and more often it will be harder to do than to identify. But they will know it exists.
They will know being part of a family involves responsibility. They are valued and important, but they are not the center of the universe. This means chores and looking out for each other, even when they don’t particularly like each other. The boys, especially, are being formed in the knowledge that they have to be responsible for their sister.
I will honor their unique interests and gifts. It’s not about having them reproduce my formative experiences—or, for that matter, fulfilling my unfulfilled childhood dreams. It’s about finding who they are called to be.
Luxuries and privileges are just that—luxuries and privileges. Privileges are earned and luxuries can be enjoyed more if they’re not experienced all the time.
They will know you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to choose between good things, and just because “everybody else” does two sports and, and, and, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy lifestyle. Because…
Family and faith are #1. Being involved with church is non-negotiable, and family dinner is the rule, not the exception. Family game nights, family outings, building a community centered around the real-world practice of the faith—these are the things that keep us grounded and give us the emotional and moral strength to be good—and no less important, happy—people.
My job is to raise holy, happy adults who have the mental and physical discipline to do good things in the world. And everything I do as a parent is done with that central principle in mind.