Secret Rules of Parenting

Today, as I ate my lunch, I really thought about writing about the Anti-PowerPoint Party or the fact that watches are making a comeback… but my mind kept going to the Secret Rules of Parenting.

You know the book. The one they give you when you have a kid that tells you all the stuff you have to do. What? You didn’t receive a copy? Guess what? Neither did I. But we all pretend to have the book. It’s like the book in Xanth that teaches you not to show your underwear.

What brought this to my head is an argument that has been going on with my teenage daughter. She wants a second hole in her head. To be precise, a second hole in each ear. I can’t see the point of it, and my wife hasn’t been in favor of it. This, of course, goes to the first rule of parenting: Always Present a United Front. If my wife is against it, as far as anyone knows, I’m against it.

Now my daughter has thought she should get this second hole as a reward for academic achievement; most recently, her getting 5s in AP US History, English Language, and Art History and a 4 in AP Chemistry. Laudible achievements of which I’m proud. But does one pay for grades? I don’t. I personally feel that if we’re giving her something we don’t really want to do, she should give us something she doesn’t really want to do (in this case, Confirmation-equivalent). Of course, she doesn’t see it that way, and this has led to all sorts of dramatus teenagus to try to convince us. This, of course, triggers the second rule of parenting: Even if you convince us, we won’t say “yes” as a result of drama and histrionics. To put it in words of the toddler years: Temper trantrums don’t get you what you want. You might very well convince us… but we’ll decide when we say “yes”.

This brings up the subject of boundaries. Boundaries are good things for children: You must be home by 10pm. You can’t date until your 15. I’m sure we all remember the boundaries our parents set, and when we were younger, they actually gave us comfort (and often an excuse to get out of what we didn’t want to do, such as when we told the person we didn’t like, “I’d love to go out with you, but my parents won’t let me date yet”). But as we got older, we began to chafe at the boundaries. I’m sure we remember how that irritated us; more importantly, we remember what happened when we violated the trust of those boundaries (I know I still remember what happened when I got home late without calling). What we don’t realize as kids that that our parents set these boundaries often because they don’t want to see us hurt or damaged irreparably: there are bad things that happen to teens, there are things people do to their bodies that are not repairable. The boundaries are set of out of love. Teens don’t see that: they just see the (to them) unreasonable restrictions. This, I think leads to the third rule: Boundaries are important, but learn to see and hear the other side, even if you don’t agree. Boundaries are essentially a line of trust; the hardest part of parenting is learning when to expand the trust boundaries to someone you’ve seen do stupid things. [I always think of the Loving Spoonful song “Younger Generation”, which says (paraphrased) “I’ll do everything I can do to teach my son to be a man, and still he’ll stick his fingers in the fan”].

My daughter has also been upset with us because we didn’t put her in loads of dance classes when she was younger; we let her be a kid. I’m sure that, if we had, we would have a complaint from the other direction; i.e., that she was overprogrammed. As we know, hindsight is always 20-20: we can see, looking back, what we should have done… but we had no way of knowing. We should have saved in this way, we should have put her in that class, we should have bought this and not bought that. However, without a time machine: you’re stuck with your mistakes. All you can do is move forward and attempt not to repeat them (unlike what the government does). You must trust that you’ll learn from them and things will work out. To put it as the fourth rule: You’re gonna make mistakes and do the wrong thing, and somehow the wash is still mostly clean.

Lastly, throughout this discussion, my daughter has been attempting to discussing things with us as a rational, educated adult. Guess what? 90% of the time, that’s what she is: a delightful reasonable young woman who is wonderful to be around. But what she forgets—and what most teens forget—is that she’s not a fully mature adult. Adolescent judgement doesn’t fully mature until the early 20s for most young women (it is later for men, and I’m sure some will argue it is never achieved). This means that there are times where your teenager will be making bad or ill-advised judgements and will be absolutely convinced it is the correct thing to do. Often, this is the result of peer pressure (and of course, to go full circle, “everyone has multiple piercings these days” is one of the key factors that started this in the first place). Peer pressure is what leads to the inevitable parenting line, “So if all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you do it too?”. This leads to the penultimate rule, which I could write as “Remember your teenager is not mature”… but that’s not right. This is because even parents can make bad decisions. So let me phrase this fifth rule is: Learn to trust in the judgement of someone more mature than you.

What is the last rule? It’s what I alluded to at the beginning: There is no secret handbook of how to be a parent. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants and trying to do our best. Cut us some slack.