Parents are pulled in many directions. We’re all juggling some combination of work, commuting, cooking, getting our kids to school or daycare, getting our kids to activities, grocery shopping, and more. Oh, and If we’re in the midst of a pandemic, we may also be acting as our child’s co-teachers.
At the same time, many of us have the sense that opportunity is hard to come by in our society, and we feel—consciously or unconsciously—that we have to raise our kids just right in order to give them a shot at success. We worry about not having enough time to spend with them, and not giving them the right stimulation and support.
The result is that we get stressed. When this happens, I suggest doing whatever you can to tone things down, including throwing out any and all notions of what you “should” be doing as a parent and what how your kids “should” be acting or performing.
You’ve probably heard that stressed parents are bad for kids. Growing up with stressed parents who are “doing all the right things” is almost certainly worse for children than growing up in a more relaxed household where parents are not doing all the right things.
What’s best? It’s hard to know
That’s a pretty good reason to chill out about your kids and your parenting, but there’s another related one that I call the It’s Hard to Know Principle.1
The basic idea is that when it comes to tough parenting situations, it’s often really hard to know what’s right. A good idea that works well today may not work well tomorrow. An approach that works well with one child may not work well with another.
Tough times build character, but too much adversity leads to the kind of stress that is ultimately harmful. Is a particularly challenging experience going to ultimately help or harm your child? It’s hard to know.
You’d like to spend more time with your child. Instead, they’re spending many afternoons and evenings with a lovely neighborhood family with kids the same age. Are they going to benefit from their time with the neighbor’s family as much or more than they would from the time they would spend with you? It’s hard to know.
Your child’s teacher is pretty lousy, but the school community is diverse and strong. Over time, is your child going to be harmed more by the mediocre teaching than they will be helped by being immersed in a strong, diverse community? It’s hard to know.
Is your child going to be one of those kids who gets on the “right” path and stays there? Or are they going to be the type that bounces off the guardrails and gets pretty banged up along the way, ultimately forging a depth of maturity and commitments to causes that take your breath away? It’s hard to know.
What matters is the long arc of our engagement
Children develop in such unpredictable ways. It’s not worth stressing about each and every decision in part because it’s so hard to know which choice will be right.
What matters is the long arc of our engagement with our children. Do our kids feel our love? Are they sometimes immersed in good books and conversation? Are we finding ways to plant seeds of curiosity about the big world out there? What kind of nascent ideas are they developing about who they belong to and why they are here?
If the bottom line is “It’s hard to know,” then why stress out about any given parenting choice? Use your best judgement in the moment, keep learning about your child, keep building your toolkit of smart moves, and enjoy the day.
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- Thank you to the late Judith Rich Harris for inspiring me to see the Hard to Know Principle.