I was never the kind of woman who was good with babies. Oh, I could admire them just fine. I just didn't have the first clue about caring for them.
When I was a new mom, my friend came over and tossed around my baby in total comfort. She held Ethan one way, then casually flipped him to rest on her forearm, then cradled him close and then held him out. She gave him back to me with a breezy smile, and I robotically put my hands under his armpits and pulled him cautiously toward me. To me, he seemed like a piece of china that might break. My friend treated him like a football.
I remember being intimidated by my friend's skill and finesse. And she didn't even have any children! How was I going to be a good mom? I couldn't even hold my baby confidently.
In the beginning, the parenting journey can feel overwhelming. Looking back at those early years, I now recognize a few fundamentals that have helped me find my bearings whenever I've felt lost.
Accept no substitutes
When Ethan was about 6 weeks old, he was crying upstairs in his crib. I had several parenting books open on the kitchen table. I flipped pages frantically. What was wrong? Was he hungry? Wet? Too cold? I tentatively walked up the stairs. By the time I reached his bedroom door, he was really screaming. I reached for my son and asked, "How are you doing, little one?"
To my surprise, he stopped crying. His shaking ceased. He blinked and closed his eyes. I waited a few moments, and then quietly left the room. Apparently, he just needed to know I was around.
There is simply no substitute for your presence in your child's life. No one can know and nurture him like you can. Even when you feel woefully inadequate, there's no one better equipped to parent your child. God gave your children to you. And He built them to be in relationship with you.
When you intentionally parent every day, making an effort to continuously connect with your child, your child will grow and thrive. In his book The Power of the Other, Dr. Henry Cloud discusses the power of physical and emotional connection between parents and children. Studies show that children without such relationships don't learn as well, don't grow as well and are never as healthy as those with attentive parents. "The invisible attributes of relationship, the connection between people, have real, tangible and measurable power," Cloud writes. And this isn't just true with babies. Children and people of all ages, according to Cloud, "succeed at a much greater rate if they are connected to a strong human support system."
So just keep showing up. Don't get stuck comparing yourself to other parents. Don't allow technology to be a substitute parent. The latest and greatest educational app can't come close to the value of your instruction and guidance. Let your words and actions communicate, every day, to your child, "I am for you. You are important to me. I see you."
Value humility over self-esteem
Do your family a favor and avoid buying your child cute T-shirts that sport messages like "I Am My Favorite Princess" or "There's No Awesome Without Me." What's wrong with these messages? Haven't psychologists continually told us to bolster a child's self-esteem?
With the rise of the self-esteem movement, kids haven't become more emotionally healthy. A 2015 study at Ohio State University found that parental overvaluation — teaching a child that he is more awesome than classmates and friends — was the largest predictor of a child's narcissism over time. Perhaps more interesting is that this overvaluation didn't lead to better self-esteem, just a bigger ego.
Dr. Leonard Sax is a family physician and psychologist who sees more than 90,000 families a year. In his book The Collapse of Parenting, Dr. Sax says the first job of parents should be to teach their child humility. "Humility simply means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself," he writes. "It means that when you meet new people, you try to learn something about them before going off on a spiel about how incredible your current project is. … The opposite of humility is inflated self-esteem."
You don't want your child to grow up to be a puffed up 30-year-old who's resentful because no one recognizes how awesome she is. You want a 30-year-old who's open to correction, grateful for what she has and ready to contribute.
You know what kind of T-shirt I'd like to buy for my 7-year-old? One that reads, "Nice to Meet You."
Never stop learning
When I was potty training Ethan, I charted every wet Pull-Up and successful trip to the bathroom. I read books and asked other moms for advice. For weeks, I lived potty training with the passion and precision of a toilet ninja.
With preschoolers, we tend to be very intentional about educating ourselves as parents. What food is best? When should my son know his ABCs? But after our children begin school, I think we often drift away from being students of our children.
I am convinced that if we will take the time to study our children and learn about the next stage of development, it will make our parenting journey smoother and happier. Gobble up advice from friends and experts about what's going to be happening with your child in the next few years.
When Ethan was in sixth grade, I read Dr. John Townsend's Boundaries with Teens, and it helped me anticipate the conversations and issues that were to come. Ask experienced parents with older children questions like "What do you wish you would have known when your child was in elementary school?" or "What's something you do with your tween that really helps you stay connected?"
Never stop learning how to be a better parent and about what makes your child feel loved.
Keep the end in mind
Ask yourself, What kind of adult do I want my child to become? You probably wouldn't pack your family into a minivan and start a weeklong trip without first determining your destination. Yet it's too easy as a parent to fall into a daily routine for 18 years without a clear end in mind. But you don't have to go about parenting in a haphazard, reactionary manner. You can decide what character traits and skills you want your child to possess and start teaching those things, even when your child is a toddler.
When our daughter Lucy was 2, she would scream from her high chair like a spoiled empress, "MILK!" Her screams were shrill and relentless, and it would've been easy to just pour the milk and be done with it. But what was the endgame here? The goal was to someday have a daughter who was grateful and treated others graciously. So I told her, "No, Lucy, you may not have milk until you learn how to ask properly with 'Milk, please.' "
Today Lucy is a 7-year-old who thanks me when I pour her milk. Because the habit of giving thanks is being practiced (and required) in childhood, it's likely she will say thank you to a server who's pouring her coffee when she's an adult.
Which virtues do you want your children to have as adults? What skills are important for their future well-being? Whatever stage your kids are at, always keep the end in mind.
Plead the Fifth
When your child messes up, just plead the Fifth. Remain silent and don't incriminate yourself. Wait, no, that's the wrong Fifth. The Fifth I'm talking about is the Fifth Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). This is the first commandment given with a promise.
If you want your child to live a good and blessed life, pray and plead with God that your children will understand what it means to honor you as a parent. Teach them to honor you. Insist upon it.
Giving honor and respect isn't just a nice idea for someone else's well-behaved children; it's a biblical command for everyone. The way children treat parents will form the basis for how they treat others — their future friends, spouse, teachers, bosses and yes, even God.
Sadly, it seems these days that honoring parents is more uncommon than common. Our forward-thinking culture has largely neglected the wisdom of our grandmothers. Would your grandmother tolerate the tantrums you see in the malls or the sassing at home? Probably not.
My children are memorizing Ephesians 6:1-3 at breakfast. I wink and joke about it being my favorite Bible passage because it teaches children to obey and respect their parents. And I tell them that they get something out of the deal, too, because Scripture promises that it will go well for those who respect their parents. So while these particular verses serve me well as a parent, the blessing is aimed squarely at my children. Honoring parents is good for them.
One day when Ethan was in second grade, I dropped him off at school. He hopped out of the van, his huge backpack jostling up and down, and ran about 10 feet before he whipped around. He yelled at the top of his lungs, "I LOVE YOU, MOM!" Using sign language, he made the sign for "I love you" on each hand. I choked up, right there in my car. I treasured that moment, freezing it in my mind.
Ethan is in middle school now, and he doesn't proclaim his love for me in parking lots anymore. And I certainly don't expect him to. But he does tell me, "I love you, Mom" every night in the quiet of bedtime. The parenting journey is a challenging path that requires you to grow like you have never grown before. But God is with you. If you keep your heart and mind open to His wisdom, you won't just survive as a parent. You will thrive — and so will your children.Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and the author of several parenting and marriage books. Her most recent book is 31 Days to Becoming a Happy Mom.