Parenting: You’re Doing It Wrong

There’s almost probably time for both, right?

I got my first taste of parenting anxiety the day after Sienna was born. As the Ogre was opening the car-seat box and trying to figure out how it worked (planners-ahead, we are not) the discharge nurse brought me an enormous stack of paperwork to read, sign, initial, take-home, etc. It was chock-full of what seemed to be VITAL information about this terrifyingly tiny creature and how not to break her. After a half-hour, the nurse bustled in and chirped, “done?!?” I looked up in a panic, my mouth opening and closing soundlessly. I was on the third page.

With all the finesse of a used-car salesman, the nurse shooed away my concern with one arm and rapidly flipped through pages, having me sign here and initial there, leaving no time to read or think or breathe. Then she grabbed the pertinent papers, dropped the rest into my diaper bag, and presented me with my daughter, whom the nurse had been swaddling and burping with her other arm the whole time, like a freaking wizard.

“Here she iiiiiii-iiiis!” the nurse trilled. I briefly wondered if cartoon birds braided her hair each morning as she crooned “all ready to go home with Mommy and Daaaaaaaddy!”

I looked around instinctively, searching for the calm and capable parents the nurse must be referring to. The Ogre stepped forward to take her, grimacing subtly at my momentary paralysis, and I realized that she was talking about us, and that now we had to TAKE THE BABY HOME AND KEEP HER WITH US FOREVER. FOREVER AND EVER. UNTIL WE DIED.

I panicked. “B-but I didn’t even read all the papers!” I called shrilly after Nurse Poppins. “How will I know what to do if I don’t read the papers? I don’t think you should let me take her home. I’m not qualified for this kind of thing. Shouldn’t you send someone with us who knows how to take care of a baby? You didn’t even summarize what was in those papers you took!”

Nurse Poppins was long gone by then, and when the sound of my own voice died out I looked around and saw that the Ogre had deftly strapped Sienna into the carseat, gathered up all our things, and was reaching out his hand to help me into the waiting wheelchair.

“Thank God one of us knows what we’re doing,” I muttered as the Ogre placed the baby in my arms and wheeled us down to the car.

My approach to parenting hasn’t changed all that much since then. I often wonder exactly what I think I’m doing, parenting four whole people. I went through a phase where I kind of gave up discipline entirely, because I realized that I didn’t know how to do it. So I just…didn’t. When I started trying to figure it out, my first move was to ask the Ogre what we should do. When he failed to provide me with an instruction manual and a supplemental annotated bibliography, I started reading books. When the books all gave practical, helpful, but infuriatingly general advice and followed up with admonitions to “consider the child and the relationship to determine what is appropriate for your family,” I started to get genuinely frustrated. None of these people get what I need, I seethed. I need a google search engine for parenting. I need to be able to input “what do I do to stop behavior X” and get a definite, foolproof answer. Or at the very least, a list of possible choices in descending order of relevance.

In the meantime, my kids were getting older and patterns of behavior were becoming entrenched. I finally had to face the fact that I was wasting precious time on a fruitless search for the Holy Grail of parenting methods.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about my kids. About who they are, what they need, why they act the way they do. I’ve been thinking about my relationships with each of them, their relationships with each other, and our family dynamic. I’ve formed all kinds of intricate and plausible theories, and potential ways to address things. Then this weekend, I sat down with one of them and had a long talk, subtly asking her questions that I assumed would confirm my theories.

It turns out, I was almost entirely wrong about basically everything. I didn’t have any doubts about why, either, since she straight-up told me. I never listen to my kids.

It sucks when you realize that you’ve been running your family like your name begins with Kim. High expectations, little mercy, no questions asked. Holding the kids to standards that I don’t even set for myself. How many times a day do I say to them, “when I ask you to do something, do it right then” and then turn around and give them an endless stream of “in just a minute”s when they ask me for something? How many times have I told them if they say they’re going to do something, they have to do it, while expecting them to understand that the same doesn’t apply to me because things come up?

I don’t feel qualified to do “parenting” because I’ve been trying to learn it as if it were a skill-set, something quantifiable, with rules and textbooks and definite answers. I don’t feel qualified to do it because I’ve never focused my energy on learning to be a parent.

The best parents I know aren’t the best parents because they have the best rules and the best system of discipline. They’re the best parents I know because they’re the best people I know. Their kids develop discipline by watching their parents exercise self-discipline, so the kids understand discipline as something to be worked at instead of a system of rules and punishments. These parents know how to help their children because they know their children. They don’t make guesses based on behavioral patterns, they just sit down and say, “what’s going on?”

Years later, I asked the Ogre why he was always so confident during those early days with Sienna. He told me that he wasn’t confident because he instinctively knew what to do, just as he isn’t confident now because he has all the right answers. He’s confident because he is her father. No one else will or can figure out how to care for her the way he will, because she is his daughter.

Being a parent isn’t a verb, but a noun. I’m frustrated that it has taken me this many years to make such a simple distinction. I’m frustrated that it has taken me so many years to really get that the best way to get my kids to change a bad habit is to stop modeling it as an acceptable behavior. Most of all, though, I’m frustrated because of the years I’ve lost. I’ve been trying so hard to do parenting right that I have rarely stopped lecturing and correcting long enough to just be a parent.

“Parent” was rarely used as a verb until the 20th century. Cliff Price of the New Oxford Review has this to say about the evolution of parent from a noun to a verb:

‘Parent’ is being used as a vague replacement for ‘child-rearing,’ or ‘raise’ or ‘nurture’ or ‘bring up’ children. The verb ‘parent’ implies the things done by a parent,’ without specifying what those things are or specifying the identify of the person doing them. Further, it negates the meaning of parent: a man or woman in an undeniable relationship with a child by reason of a biological fact.

(Read a little more here, but not the whole thing)

I know there was a strong reaction against his emphasis on biology, but to my mind the key phrase is “undeniable relationship.” “Parenting” does not imply a relationship. It implies a philosophy (attachment parenting, free-range parenting, authoritarian parenting) and a skill set that can be learned if one will only read the right books and follow the right methods. It’s become such a pervasive mentality that I’ve spent nearly eight years brushing aside advice to “consider my relationship with my children” as tangential. I’ve genuinely thought that was a lot of sentimental clap-trap; what matters isn’t our relationship, it’s the rules and how I enforce them, or the gluten, or the co-sleeping, or the crib-training, or this, or that, or anything but this kid breaking down in tears in the living room because all she wants is to have a relationship with her mother.

I still underestimate the power of language to shape my understanding of reality. I hate to be hyperbolic (<—sarcasm, obviously…I love to be hyperbolic), but this simple revelation about the proper part of speech of a word will (hopefully) change our lives. The relief is almost exquisite. I’m no longer forced to find the right way to do it. I can just be. I can be me, Calah, wife, mother, blogger, sister, daughter, Scorpions fan and Doctor Who lover. I can just forget trust-building exercises or role-playing games or pediatric psychoanalysis or gluten free bread-making and read my oldest A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve been wanting to read that book to her for years, but all the experts said she’s still too young and I should read her some boring crap like Little House in the Big Woods instead. Never mind the fact that she hates those books and that making her read them has been like administering castor oil via the written word. Never mind the fact that I’m apparently supposed to tailor choices for reading aloud to the median age of my children, which has left us stuck in an endless loop of Where the Wild Things Are and I Want My Hat Back.

You know what I say now? Screw that shizzle! I love A Wrinkle in Time, and I want to read it out loud to Sienna. So I’m going to read it out loud to Sienna even if the little kids don’t listen. In fact, I’m going to read it out loud and allow them to not listen. And if Sienna doesn’t like the book after a while, I won’t insist that we finish it. I’ll try something new. Or not. Maybe we’ll study art instead of reading, and I’ll let her paint before bedtime. Maybe I’ll just ask her what she wants to do, and then let her do it, even if it involves (*gulp*) glitter and glue.

(She’ll have to do it outside, though. Let’s not get too crazy.)


  • MeanLizzie

    Yes, parenting is hard. I have a column coming up in FT about it tomorrow. Meanwhile…have you read Tim Muldoon’s book on teh “Six Sacred Rules for Families”? It’s really great.

  • Anne Caldwell

    Calah, thank you!!! I, too, feel like I’ve “wasted” 10 years (the age of my eldest) trying to figure out this parenting thing, and going from one book to another, to another…and all the while neglecting what has been staring me in the face: HER, and her little brother. I have felt such, such, SUCH guilt about not “getting” how to be a parent. I thought this would come naturally and I would know what to do…(said no prospective parent ever…see, I love sarcasm too; in fact, it’s a spiritual gift :P). My eldest is on the ASD and has ADHD, so that also comes into play (after the 20th common sense “go-to” thing not working, you’d think I’d clue into just ditching all the “common sense” and get to HER).

    So, thank you for (again) being real and honest…because I think far more of us out there feel this way than we care to admit or confess to.

  • Allison Grace

    Just an old fart mom here with a lot of kids (44,7) from age 18 down to 1 who wants to tell you that your post here is a welcome change from usual “parenting posts” on the world wide web. And that you’re right, of course. Good for you and good for your kids!

  • Melinda Selmys

    I was really lucky in this respect. The very first day in the hospital after my first baby was born, I was going crazy because she wasn’t breastfeeding the way that the nurses said she was supposed to. I was on the point of tears, exhausted from trying to wake my exhausted infant up to feed her every two hours, when my mother (Mom of 8) showed up. She said, “With every one of you, the nurses told me a completely different thing. I just ignored them and listened to you. You told me when you were hungry.” It was a great first parenting lesson. Thanks for sharing it with all the people who didn’t have my mom to tell them :)

  • Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas

    This is really good, Calah. Insight that I needed to hear.

  • Micaela

    Yes, yes, yes. I too wasted a long time trying to do it right. I went from attachment parenting to dictatorial parenting to non-violent parenting to authoritarian parenting before I figured out that I’m somewhere in the middle of all that and that is JUST FINE. I’m thankful for all the experts out there, but I’ll be the first to admit that they really have a tendency to kill the inherent parent in us. So I’m digging down deep these days, searching for the parent God made me for be to the kids He gave me. It ain’t easy to unlearn all the BS, but it is worth it.

  • Caroline Moreschi

    A Wrinkle in Time is such a good book! Who gives a shit what the “experts” think about which books should be read when? I’m so glad my parents didn’t say “no Caroline, you’re not at the appropriate grade level to read this yet, there are too many big words.” No one ever became a reader because they were chained to age-appropriate boring books.

  • Jess Cathofeminism

    I almost skipped ahead and commented after seeing the first pic… I would snap the photo then remove the child’s head from the camel. No question, there is time for both.

  • CS

    Lovely, especially this: ““Parenting” does not imply a relationship. It implies a philosophy (attachment parenting, free-range parenting, authoritarian parenting) and a skill set that can be learned if one will only read the right books and follow the right methods. It’s become such a pervasive mentality that I’ve spent nearly eight years brushing aside advice to “consider my relationship with my children” as tangential. ”

    Also, my husband has been reading things like the Odyssey (original language), Beowulf, Arabian Nights (edited by him), and Shkespeare the boys or *years*. The oldest is only 11,and they all hear the same stories, so even 3yos have been listening.

    (Also wonderful for read-alouds: Jim Weiss cd’s….for GREAT storytime without parents being necessary. Disclaimer: I hate thetagline on his website.)

  • Lindsay Amery Stehno

    “boring crap like Little House in the Big Woods instead. Never
    mind the fact that she hates those books and that making her read them
    has been like administering castor oil via the written word” LOL!!! That is exactly how I felt about those books!