Before my kids were born, I read a ton of books about pregnancy, parenting, raising siblings, giving birth. I read about sleep training, about teaching children to eat well, about teaching children to love reading and math. I read statistical studies about children and sleep, and books about raising families in other cultures. And I asked mothers I trusted for their advice.
And none of it felt consistent. After reading so many books, I could make a solid case for sleep training or co-sleeping, teaching a kid to read early or waiting until she was seven, making sure a favorite grain dish was on the dinner table every night or making sure that the only first course foods on the table are vegetables, eliminating screen time or letting kids have reasonable screen time when they were worn out from doing other things. Or even using screens as babysitters when the parents needed a break or needed to get something done. Mothers and fathers I admired – whose kids were turning out great! – were doing all of those things. I didn’t see the clear path toward “perfect” parenting that I was seeking.
Thankfully, right before my older daughter was born, the New York Times published a summary of a meta-study about parenting. I can’t find the article, and I can’t promise I am remembering it correctly. But the gist (that I remember) was that what matters for raising children is not which choice you make, but that you make a choice you can consistently make. So sleep train if you know you can consistently sleep train. Go to your child when she’s crying if you can consistently go to her.
I knew – as a working mother – that I would not be able to keep screens totally out of our house. Elmo’s World gave me time to take a daily shower, for example. So I didn’t try to have a screen-free house. Similarly, I knew I wouldn’t be consistent with sleep training, so I didn’t even attempt it. Having that advice in my head when it was time to make decisions – not “which choice is best,” but “what can I do consistently?” was a relief. And that perspective freed me from judgment about other parents’ choices – none of us was doing what was “best.” We were all just making the best choices we could.
A piece of advice I turn to more and more often as my kids get older is one I read in an article with Oprah. To the best of my memory, in the article – which I also cannot find – she said a version of a line from a poem by Kahlil Gibran: that your children come through you, but they are not of you. My grandmother’s version of that quotation was, “children are baked when they’re born,” meaning they are who they are – and they won’t ever be who I think I am supposed to turn them into. And they are certainly not miniature versions of myself or my husband or any of our relatives, even when we catch glimpses in their faces or actions. I’ve learned and re-learned this lesson with my children, and I suspect I’ll learn it a few more times to come.
Even as I type this, I suspect all of this advice is obvious to some parents, but it wasn’t at all obvious to me – especially as I searched books for the “right” ways to parent. I frequently wish I had an operating manual for my own life, so of course I wanted an operating manual for parenting.
But I guess the advice that I turn to over and over again – the advice I am most grateful for – is the advice that sets me free as a parent. It doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for doing the best I can to care for my kids and creating evironments in which my children can thrive. But it does absolve me of responsibility for controlling all the outcomes.
We do what we can to help our kids find their own paths, but we don’t have to choose what those paths will be. We can’t choose what those paths will be. And at the same time, as parents, we are the humans that we are – we have the skills and gifts and limitations and boundaries that we have, and we can honor those, too. I’m grateful for the parenting advice that just lets all of us be.