Somehow, through a hideous lack of planning, my husband and I will have teenagers living in our house for 26 years.
In a row.
I inherited a teenager in 2002, and my husband and I will have a teenager at home until June, 2028. Clearly, I have no more insight on parenthood than anyone else who’s gone before me, and don’t have any answers as to how to do it right.
However, there are certain things I wish I’d been warned about, and there are rules I’ve come up with to make sure I’m on the right path. So here’s a list of parenting rules to remember when you’re wondering exactly where it all went upside down.
Stick to the rules. They’re a clear path through the minefields. When you can’t find your car keys, you’re covered in maple syrup, you needed to leave the house 14 minutes ago and someone can’t find their shoes, remember the rules — they’ll help keep you sane.
Rule number one: Never, ever, ever share a drink with your kids. I know that at this stage of parenting boogers shouldn’t bother me and, yeah, I can do poop and vomit with no issues. But drinking after a two-year-old is like French-kissing someone with a mouthful of peanut butter, half-chewed paper and cold cereal. Their backwash is legendary. Don’t do it.
Rule number two: Don’t do something once unless you want to do it at least a thousand times. This includes everything from singing “Old MacDonald” at bedtime, letting your kids eat cereal in the playroom “just this once,” riding without a car seat while you move the car “just this once”, and letting them play Angry Birds on your iPhone when you’re desperate for quiet and you’re on the phone. The next thing you know, they’re experts at Angry Birds, they have a right to ride unbuckled if you’re in the driveway and they set the table in front of the TV for breakfast. And you’re so sick of singing Old MacDonald that his farm now has robots, caterpillars, scorpions and dinosaurs.
Rule number three: Video games are junk food for the brain. You know it. They know it. Anyone who tries to tell you they improve coordination or that they’re good for social skills is rationalizing. Video games are a cheap, easy way to get an endorphin rush without actually working for it. They’re bad for kids in anything but tiny amounts. Sure, you can binge once in a while and play a lot. But a steady diet of video games and you’ll end up with the brain’s equivalent of eating Cheetos and Coke. Every hour spent playing video games is an hour not reading a book, playing a board game or learning how to be bored and working through it. Don’t buy into it.
Rule number four: Kids are inherently good. They just don’t know what you want. And they’re desperate to know that they’re needed and that what they do in the family is important. And they don’t see the big picture, so no matter how many times you tell them the details, they don’t get it.
You can tell them to put forks on the table every night for three years. They still won’t understand that this means that they’re supposed to set the table every night, and every night they will be surprised that you’re asking them to do it. They’re still surprised when they’re hungry because you they don’t realize that they have to eat every night! But it’s critical to them to know they have an important role in the family. Even if they forget every night, make them set the table anyway. Don’t do it yourself, just because it’s easier.
Rule number five: Choose your battles. Only fight the ones you’re really, really willing to sacrifice in order to win. Everything else is just negotiation. I’m not going to fight over food, clothes or haircuts. If they don’t eat, so what? If they like weird clothes, so what? I’m willing to go toe-to-toe over schoolwork, character traits and video-game time. Other families might want to fight to the death over bed time, curfews or homework. But don’t fight over everything. Life’s way too short.
Rule number six: This should be a no-brainer, but in too many families, it isn’t. If you don’t want someone to treat you that way, don’t do it to your kids. If you’re at a restaurant and you spill a glass of water, imagine your husband yelling, “That’s IT! I told you the last time you spilled that you’re not allowed to have a drink unless you’re more careful! Waitress, she can’t have any more drinks!”
Yeah. Or, when you know annoys him, but you do it anyway, imagine him trying to ground you and keep you home. Or punishing you. I don’t think so.
If I wouldn’t want my husband to do it to me, I don’t do it to my kids. Really, there aren’t many exceptions. I don’t want someone to tell me to finish my dinner or I don’t get dessert. That’s just obnoxious. And I can’t imagine anyone ever telling me that they really love me, but I broke the rules, so they’re going to have to hit me now to show me what I’ve done wrong. This is a simple one: Don’t hit your kids. Don’t humiliate them. Don’t yell at them, or make fun of them, or embarrass them. It’s just mean.
Rule number seven: Be kind. Always. The world is a hard place. There are people who are mean. There are bullies. There are doors that are too hard to open, math problems that are too hard, girls who don’t like them back, machines that steal their money, scary dogs and scarier stories that friends tell them. Kids need a safe place where they know that no one will ever make fun of them.
They need to know that they can go home and tell someone how awful their day was. And honestly, if you don’t have your kid’s back, who does? If you don’t put them first, in front of everything else, who ever will? If they say their teacher was mean, believe them.
Take their side, always. No matter how trivial. Be their biggest cheerleader. Stand up for them when they succeed, yell the loudest in the grandstand, and don’t be ashamed of it. You only get one go-round of this. That’s your kid, dammit! Yell loudly, cheer proudly, and let everyone know that if they mess with your kid, they’re messing with you! Kids need backup. They need to know that there’s a safety net.
And the last rule, which seems to contradict rule seven, but doesn’t: Be hard on your kids. Expect a lot from them. To those whom much is given, much is expected — let that be their motto. If you’re reading this on a computer screen in a first-world country, your kids are in the category of “to those whom much is given.” Don’t let them forget that.
Robert Heinlein said, “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.” They’re capable of amazing, wondrous things, if you ask it of them.
Don’t accept anything less. My favorite saying, one I have on my desk, and the one I use to make decisions about my kids: “Don’t prepare the path for the child — prepare the child for the path.”
Other truths: Don’t label your kids too early. Easy kids turn into hard kids. Your hard kids become your easy ones. Problems that you thought were huge disappear. Others show up later. Things will change as soon as you’ve got it under control. Roll with it.
ADD is real. So are peanut allergies. Even if you don’t believe it. Until you’ve lived it, don’t judge it.
Sleep when the baby sleeps. It’s the only sane thing to do.
Snuggle. Enjoy them. But don’t feel like you have to enjoy every minute of it. Sometimes, the minute you’re having really sucks. Who wants to enjoy being kicked in the guts by a screaming toddler simply because you were trying to keep her from getting run over? There’s enough guilt about parenting.
Enjoy what you can. Do the best you can. And know that your kids will love you, no matter what.