Fortunately or unfortunately, no one can tell you what you need to do as a parent. There is no one-size-fits-all advice that one can disseminate exactly accurately like the number of hours of sleep or the amount of food one needs. As parents, we are each different in our own ways and those differences, combined with a confusing host of genetic chromosomes, means that each of our children is going to need something different.
So I am the bearer of what many readers will see as very bad news: you will find no answers in my column, only stories and questions, only suggestions to pay attention to yourself, to your children, to “peel back the layers of the onion” to expose what you really think, what you really know yourself needs to happen.
Like every parent, I was full of questions, worries, fears and anxieties as I rested on my post-natal bed — how am I going to keep this living thing alive, let alone help it thrive. I fired away at my first son’s pediatrician, the beloved Dr. Michael Yaker of Manhattan, who tilted his head sympathetically and spoke compassionately: “You’re going to do it your way, and that’s going to be the right way, that’s going to be the right way.”
Wow. Scary. Books on the shelf could help offer ideas of what to do, so might a nurse or nanny with decades of know-how. But it was not going to be that easy. Just like a GPS, these things could only provide guideposts. To follow any one of them blindly, inattentively, was not going to work. I was going to have to be brave enough to figure the right way for my own child, to be conscious and cognizant enough to recognize the signs of what he needed from me.
Here I might add in a four-letter word if this weren’t an upstanding family publication, for Dr. Yaker’s truism takes a bit of getting used to. You mean there isn’t one parenting technique that works for sure? You mean I have to be strong enough to sort through the maze of contradictory information about what to say, what to do, and how to act with my children and come to a conclusion my own self?
If you’re saying out loud, “Of course — DUH,” like my children always do, you’re on the right track.
There is only one thing for sure that I have learned in dealing with my boys, Eli, 9, and Oscar, nearly 7: I have to be fearless. I have to move into any situation I’m thrown into and face it straight on, to decide, myself, what to do.
I recognize that it is not easy. A little more than a year ago, a fellow parent sighed audibly at a PTA meeting upon hearing that the kids would be given gold stars just for trying.
“I need one of those,” she said. I laughed and agreed. The moment stuck with me and one day, not long after, I decided to buy some puffy gold stars and hand them out to people in cafés and on the street to pay tribute to their efforts.
I was amazed to find how appreciated they were, these little glittery stickers, how much adults, just like children, desired recognition for their every day work — for trying.
Giving away stars has taught me probably the best lesson of parenting, of interacting with any person, really, and that is that all I can do, all any of us can do to help is to cheerlead, to whip out those fuzzy pom pons and say to one another, to ourselves, “You can do it!”
We are so hard on ourselves, on our kids, as we feel many thousands of times a day that we’re doing it wrong. But feeling wrong is useless, and can often lead to parenting paralysis of the worst kind. What is crucial is that we pay attention, that we don’t fall asleep at the wheel and follow blindly the rules that may work for our neighbor, but don’t work for us or, more important, don’t work for our own unique children.
It is a challenge to decide for oneself the right things to do, which instincts to trust. Don’t forget, though, that children will often guide. Mine, for example, know I fail to punish. I can pretend, but I am not a natural disciplinarian, as anyone who meets my children will attest. But I listen to them, I know them well as they know me.
We try, together. It is the best we can do. I give you a gold star, but only if you really try.
Watch for Steph Thompson’s “Fearless Parenting” every week in The Brooklyn Paper. Visit her blog at www.goldstar4trying.com.