“I am feeling like the worst mom,” my friend lamented, “because every camp we sign up for, my kid ends up being the last one there by like an hour-and-a-half. Even if we pick him up at 4:30.” (Her kid is six.)
After expressing my surprise that, a.) 4:30 p.m. is considered “late” to pick up one’s kid, and, b.) some parents still don’t work outside the home, I reassured her she wasn’t the worst mom and that the person who told her all-day camps are too much for kids was definitely wrong. What I wanted to add, but feared it would sound too cynical – I have been known to be cynical – is, little of what you do now matters anyway. Assuming they’re fed and sheltered and have access to a pleasant outside in which to play, all you really need when they’re young is financial stability and strong, healthy relationships with the other adults in their lives.
I use the term “financial stability” as opposed to “having money” as it implies not only enough income to cover expenses, but thoughtful management and a type of security conveyed by not going on about how broke you are. If you make a lot of money and manage it well, then, obviously, you can provide your kids with a certain level of comfort that’s real nice – but you can make a lot of money and be so lousy at handling it that you still come up short when bills are due, thereby instilling tangible stress in your family. Likewise, you might not earn enough to live large, but still make what you have go the distance and ensure your kids never feel “poor.” Point is, if your six-year-old isn’t worried about the rent getting paid and food appearing on the table, you’re fine.
As for strong, healthy relationships with the other adults in your children’s lives – whether partner, mother, father or friends who step into the role of aunt – huge. Being constantly exposed to fighting makes kids fear the present and the future. Dysfunctional adult relationships undermine a child’s confidence in those adults. Lonely parents become a vessel their children try to fill and can’t. And when you realize how much your children end up mirroring your behavior, trust me, you will wish you’d given them something better to reflect.
But beyond that, save your parental angst – and more importantly, your parental leave – for when they’re teenagers. All those pony rides and extravagant birthday parties for five-year-olds will buy you nothing once adolescence begins. You want to make a lasting impact on the adult your child will become? Be around when they get home from high school. Make cookies for them and their friends during those years. Pull them out of school and take them traveling for a week, a month, a semester, hell, most of it if you can. Work like mad when they’re young so you can leave the office early when they’re not. Come home, make a big family dinner every night, teach them to cook if you haven’t yet, bring in extended family and friends to constantly reinforce to your teenager that they have people who love them – and the obligations that come along with that.
And still, that might not be enough. Because you have to do this impossible thing, which is to keep in mind that perhaps nothing you do will give you the result you’re hoping for. How many great parents wind up with troubled kids? How many great kids grow out of troubled families? How many families do you know in which one kid has followed a traditional path to success while another has been lost or taken a far more roundabout way? Tireless, selfless moms still give birth to, adopt, kids whose damage they cannot heal. Moms who make nothing but mistakes are nonetheless occasionally blessed with surprisingly together children.
As parents, we are sold this notion that if you do all the things correctly, follow all the steps, that your child will turn out, as if they are soufflés, that if we are careful enough, they will not fall.
The truth is, we are human, they are human, we all come into this world with baggage and collect more along the way. Much of parenting, like life, consists of luck and hindsight. Sometimes all you can do is string together the tightest, strongest safety net possible and hope for the best.
Oh! One more thing for when they’re young that makes a difference: Teach them skills. Piano. Baseball. Cooking. Swimming. Building. Sewing. Repairing. Surfing. Like love and money, that’s the stuff that will serve them through life.