How to win at parenting

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This parenthood gig is often filled with joy and laughter and delightful rewards.

But it is also filled with challenge, grief, and whopping doses of guilt and insecurity. Am I doing it right? Will my kids survive my parenting? I know I’m supposed to be consistent, but what if I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be consistent about?

Underlying these questions is a deep confusion about what the goal of parenting is, and it seems to me there are three options.

If I listen to the conversation of the culture around me, I might think that parenting success is measured by having an achieving child. I don’t know many parents who would admit that this is their definition of success, but the underlying belief is revealed by the questions we ask and the humblebrags we trade: “Is Janie reading yet?” “Oliver can already do a forward roll.” “Clara has mastered the piano.” “I’m signing Joe up for baseball camp this week: get him in shape for the years to come.” “We chose Tweedledee Elementary rather than Tweedledum: it gets better rankings and is a feeder school for the program with more AP options.” All this unwittingly prepares us for the adult life characterized by the identity-forming-question: “What do you do for a living?”, as if this was the most important thing about us.

What we do isn’t the most important thing about us, and it isn’t the most important thing about our children either. We want to offer our children opportunities, but we don’t want to over-schedule them, which means we live in the constant tension of wondering whether we are making the right choices. And what if our child struggled with a disability? What if we, like most of the world, were not financially able to offer any education alternatives? What if college, or sports, or internships are not available?

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Winning at parenting can’t be measured by our children’s achievements. Nor should it be.

There is a second option. If I listen to the chatter in church circles, I might think that parenting success is measured by having an obedient child. We use the words “listen and obey” frequently in our household, and are intentionally and regularly trying to teach them that “if you obey, you have a better day.” We talk about how, as moms and dads, we are training our kids to live joyfully and well and to model for them the relationship we have with God: even as adults we are His children, and need to listen and obey our heavenly Father.

But my children disobey frequently and publicly enough that I feel I am losing at parenting if this is the yardstick. And besides which, to take the view that my success as a parent is reflected by my child’s behavior is to have a very unhealthy view of personal responsibility. I am responsible for my own behavior, and my children are responsible for theirs. If I yell and scream and threaten and intimidate my children into terrified submission – they may be more “obedient”, but is that a “win”? And if I suffer the heartbreak that other friends have of having raised their children as law-abidingly and responsibly as possible, but then still see them drift into a series of painful and poor choices – does that mean I was a bad parent?

No.

Winning at parenting can’t be measured by our children’s behavior. Nor should it be.

Which leaves this, third option. If I listen carefully and well to the message of seasoned parents, I need to hear that parenting success is measured by having well-loved children. My children need to know I love them when they do well, that I love them when they fail, that I love them when they try… and all the permutations inbetween. They need to know I love them when I’m disciplining them. They need to know I love them when I’m helping them reach their goals. My children need to be loved, not managed.

They know I love them when I listen to them. They know I love them when I laugh at their jokes, and engage in their world. (Right now that’s a world of unicorns and dumptrucks, but one day it will be a world of dating and navigating the internet and battling acne.) They know I love them when I’m still there holding their hands after a colossal brouhaha. They know I love them when we spend time together.

Somehow, I need to remind myself to put the “I love you” words into the dark moments of parenting and not just the joyful, giggle moments. To my tantruming preschooler: “I love you and we need to work on better ways to fix this.” To my picky eater: “I love you and I want to help you make healthy choices.” To my ashamed mess-maker, to my sullen pouter, to my discouraged non-participant…. I can tell them I love them, always and forever, no matter what.

Winning at parenting has to be measured by my sold-out, fully-committed, warts-and-all love for my children. And it should be.

For “love covers a multitude of sins” (both mine and theirs). And after all, that’s the model we learn from the Father from whom all families get their name: Behold! What love the Father has LAVISHED on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

I don’t often feel like I am winning at parenting. The days are long and the struggles are huge. I want them to succeed, and I want them to behave – but the achievement milestones are onerous, and the behavioral bar is high. On days like that (which is most days, in truth), it’s good to remember: whether or not they succeed, and whether or not they behave… We are succeeding at parenting if our kids know they are loved.

25 thoughts on “How to win at parenting

  1. Yes yes and yes. And what of the child who struggles deeply with obedience because he cannot communicate his needs? Obedience is next to Godliness in Christian culture, I believe. Oh, I surely do not want my children to believe that I love them based on their success at obeying. Thanks for the reminder, friend.

    • As I was writing this, my thoughts were so with the children who struggle with obedience because they are struggling with other immense internal issues. Our conversation of a few weeks ago obviously has been percolating in my head since then ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Before our two kids grew all the way to adulthood, whenever people asked how they were doing I’d answer “They’re not out boosting cars and smoking dope!” and figured that was a win parenting-wise. Now that they are all grown up, if they boost cars and smoke dope it’s all on them; still a win parenting-wise!

    Tim

    P.S. I’m not missing anything on this parenting gig, am I?

    • Oh Tim, how would I know? The “how to win at parenting” title is really rather tongue-in-cheek, since I find the uncertainty of parenting one of the biggest challenges of all. Our behavior certainly affects, influences, guides and impacts our children’s behavior – but there is no certain causation. It leaves me humble, prayerful, in need of grace.
      (and as for your own parenting – I think your children are a testimony to your and Liz’ tremendous and constant love for your children… as well as the thousands of hours you have spent on your knees praying for them ๐Ÿ™‚ They are well loved, for sure!)

  3. This is fantastic. From a non-parent, I can just say, “yes!” When I see a parent loving their kid, even if they’re hair-brained and sometimes their kid falls down when they’re not looking–I don’t think they failed, I think how much they love their kid and how that’s all that matters; how in the years ahead, their kid is just going to remember that mom and dad loved me.

    My parents feel like they screwed up a lot, but when I look back, I only remember the good things. It’s true what you said: love covers over a multitude of sins. I heard from a lady at church whose son is my age: he smokes and hangs out with ex-cons and invites them over to sit on the porch and talk about Jesus. She said she used to think she failed as a parent and all the neighbors would judge her; but now she’s realizing that God just had a different plan for her family and that her job is to love what her son has become, not what he could have become.

    And Bronwyn, you make a great parent–to your kids and to others’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks Liz, and especially for sharing the perspective of your parents and your friend at church. I think my parents perhaps regret many of their “mistakes”, but I KNOW that I was loved, and it made all the difference!

  4. Terrific post Bronwyn! Jesus said that others will know we are His disciples when we ______ each other. That’s right “love” each other! I’m trying to convince our daughter that this verse applies to her attitude toward her brother!

  5. It’s kinda funny (in the Emergency Room dark humor kind of way) to see her all excited about a concept only to have her face cloud over when I point out that the concept applies to how she treats her brother. *sigh*

  6. What an encouraging post. Today was a rough day for my son and me. As a single mom, I feel double the pressure, and double the sense of failure when things don’t go right. Today was one of those days when nothing went right at bedtime, my son ended up telling me I’m the worst person in the world, and I ended up walking away in frustration because I didn’t know what else to do. Finally, we talked, we snuggled, we told each other we love each other, and he settled into sleep. But getting there was painful for both of us. Thank you for reminding me that these difficult moments do not define me as a parent, or reflect the entirety of the relationship I have with my child. My son knows I love him like crazycakes, and that is the greatest gift I can give him.

  7. This is great Bronwyn! It’s always a struggle (with ourselves) to not fall for the first too traps. My son wants to have a career in music and we constantly hear from people “What kind of job is he going to get with thatโ€ฆetc” but it’s the only thing he’s passionate about so that’s all that matters – not how successful he may or may not be. And as for the “obedience one” – try being a missionary and a church pastor whose son decides he’s an atheist! But seriously – he is the most awesome young man and I love him like crazy!! Yep – we ‘win’ when they know they are loved!

  8. Your writing blesses me. I don’t have kids yet, but hope to one day. And I find myself constantly “pinning” entries you’ve written to return back to when/if my parenting days begin. Thank you for sharing so honestly and wisely what you learn along the way. You’re making the journey bright for those walking with (if somewhat behind) you. : )

  9. Bron,
    As a soon-to-be parent, your wise and humble thoughts and lessons on parenting have become close to invaluable to me. Thank you for continuing to be faithful in sharing these things with us, and know that God is using you to help this generation of parents to raise godly, well-loved children who will become world-changers. I am humbled that He is still using you to shape my life. May He richly bless you as you faithfully seek His glory!

  10. Thank you for this post, Bron. For all of us “grown ups” who are now in most ways our own inner parents, your words are sobering. Especially as I’m parenting and modeling parenting for my own kiddos, I realize that I often link my own lovability to how I am achieving (at this parenting thing, at homemaking, at dissertating) and obeying (this one gets very muddled when we become adults and the whom to obey questioned isn’t answered with “mom” or “dad” anymore, and since we are often faced with the dilemma of choices between two good things, but which is best!?!?). It feels silly or even selfish to ask if am I being loving to myself, but it’s as important as being loving to my littles. And I have a lot of practicing to do in that department. Thanks for writing and for being you.

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  12. We had a ROUGH day in the Wong household. This was a good time to read this article. ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy to share it with other parents too. I’m an achiever so the achievement bar is HUGE for me. I was also the straight A super responsible kid so I like the obedience bar too. But the Love bar is by far the most important so we’ll be intentional about practicing communicating that tomorrow. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Oh friend, we put our boys to bed at 6pm tonight after nearly an hour of constant screaming (and a day of considerable challenge before that). I feel ya. You are a superb momma and I know you love your little one so incredibly much. I hope tomorrow you will feel encouraged that you can know you are doing that most important part right ๐Ÿ™‚

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