Parent Like You Are Writing Your Epitaph

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The whisper of doubt came during a parent-teacher conference. I was stumbling through an explanation of my concern about curriculum….and under my massaged answer was the worried whisper I wasn’t brave enough to say aloud, “Why doesn’t my child know her letters and numbers? What am I doing wrong and how do I fix it?”

I pick at my parenting, pulling away the edges of my confidence, peeling strips of competence till I’m pink with pain and worry. I worry over extracurriculars and overbudgeted time, I worry over forcing her to do preliteracy apps and I worry-that-I-don’t-worry about screen time. What if I mess up everything by not researching expeditionary learning now?

I worry I’m not doing it right and about every judgement I have ever opined about the-children-of-psychologists and I hear them all whispering back at me.

Midway through that awkward parent-teacher conference I remembered a man once saying ‘Why don’t we celebrate what our children do best? Why don’t we funnel our time and energy and cheering to their passion? This is where they will shine, this is where our love and support can help them grow and cultivate their natural talents.’

I paused, fumbled through a ‘thank you for your time’, and went back home to do my own work – the work of looking at my own fears and even better, truly digging into what my daughter excelled at and why I wasn’t starting there.

When I look deeply, I know that my obsession with the alphabet is 50% a laughable belief that ‘good parents have kids who can read before kindergarten’ and 50% my deep, undying love of books and my feverish eagerness to share that with my daughter.

My daughter savors art and dance, things I can appreciate (in a distant objective sense) but don’t truly understand or identify with. I mispronounce the famous artists’ names in children’s books, I awkwardly sway at weddings. Realistically, helping my daughter flourish is walking into pieces of the world where I feel least confident.

“[Parenthood] is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you would have. It's about understanding that he is exactly the person he is supposed to be. And that, if you're lucky, he just might be the teacher who turns you into the person you are supposed to be.”  - Joan Ryan

So I reversed course. I let go of the ABCs, I stopped with the preschool bootcamp learning workbook. I spent a night traveling the well-worn blog path of ‘cultivating art at home’. I set up an art station in the living room, I signed her up for dance class, and I curled up with a book for myself.

And I was again reminded of that lesson I will be taught over and over again until I learn it: I can condone her into a shadow of who I expect her to be, or I can foster her own nature and cultivate this precious soul to grow wild and free and fully, truly herself.

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Why don’t we focus on good-enough parenting, parenting that celebrates who the child already is?

“Good enough parents do not blindly follow the advice of “experts” or the latest parenting fads, and they are not overly concerned with how others judge their parenting…Their purpose is to help their child achieve what the child wants and needs to achieve, not to prove to the world that they are wonderful parents or to protect themselves from criticism.  To know how to best support their children, good enough parents strive to understand them, and the main tools for doing so are conscious reflection, maturity (which includes patience), and empathy.” –Peter Gray, PhD

So with conscious reflection, patience, and empathy, what does your child really need? Maybe to be the fullest, truest version of themselves. And who do you want to be as a parent? When you die, what do you want your child to say at your funeral?

Because honestly some days (based on the way I’m acting now) my gravestone will read ‘Here lies Kerry, she responded to emails quickly and always made her daughter wash her hands.’

In therapy, I call this mindful parenting or values-based parenting. It’s about sweating the big stuff and getting grounded in what is most important to you.

At my funeral, I want my baby to say that when we met eyes my body rang with joy for her, that my love was expansive and unwavering and hot as a bonfire, that when we made mistakes I was kind with her, and kind with myself. That I taught her to love…all things, including herself. That I taught her to celebrate and cherish her love of art, her wild spirit, her ability to dance to any song. And I showed her life was a banquet and all you needed to do was ask for what you wanted and it would come, in some form or another. That she was loved and chosen, over and over and over.

That has nothing to do with the ABCs. Nothing.

Written by Kerry Makin-Byrd, PhD