Dear Parent, Cut Yourself Some Slack


Photo Credit: Giandomenico Ricci via Compfight cc

Dear Parent,

You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.

We all are.

In the poker game that is parenthood, we’ve been constantly upping the ante for the last thirty years now. Our criteria for what it means to be a successful parent have gone through the roof, and it feels like there’s an awful lot riding on every card we play—we bear a tremendous sense of responsibility for the outcome of our children’s lives.

Dear Parent, you’re carrying more than your fair share of the burden, and you can cut yourself some slack for how your kids turn out. You just don’t have that much control over it.

Their personality will trump your performance every time.

My kids are teaching me this. My oldest son is a lot like his mother, in ways I adore and in ways that drive me crazy. My daughter is like no one I’ve ever known or even imagined. And, over the last seven years, as I’ve watched my younger son’s personality emerge, it’s become clear he’s a lot like me. Sometimes eerily so. Not because of anything I’ve done to shape him, but because of the DNA I’ve donated to him.

This morning, I walked into his bedroom and there, laid out on his floor, were his Boxcar Children books, lined up edge to edge, in ascending numerical order—a ritual I performed repeatedly with my own series of Hardy Boys books. His books are different, but the behavior is so identical it makes me dizzy. I’ve never once talked to him about organizing his books.

Which gene, exactly, is responsible for obsessive orderliness of a home library?

A few weeks ago, I awoke in the dark hours before dawn, my mind already revising a blog post. A few minutes later, he walked in, eyes still blinking away sleep grit, and asked if I had any electrical tape. He’d awoken with an idea about how to mend a broken electronics cable. He’s seven. How does he even know about electrical tape?

And which gene, exactly, is responsible for a mind that solves problems around the clock?

A month ago, I looked out the kitchen window. He was in the driveway with his back to the basketball hoop, rolling the ball off the hood of my car, catching it, and shooting a turnaround jump shot. Thirty years ago, I did the exact same thing, over and over, in the quiet of my own driveway.

Which gene, exactly, carries the information for athletic practice and self-discipline?

Obsessiveness. Problem-solving. Practice and discipline. These traits have served me well at times and, at times, they have broken bad on me. Sometimes, very bad. Which way will they break on my son? I’m not sure.

And I’m ready to accept that I don’t have a lot of control over it.

There is a basic reality encoded in the children we love. It’s not their destiny, but it’s a big part of their identity. It’s who they are. We are witnesses to their becoming and, more often than not, little more.

Yes, Dear Parent, of course you influence your children. When you mirror them well, they get a little clearer glimpse of who they are and they settle a little more comfortably into their soul. When you join them well, they learn they have a place to belong, a safe place to return to when the world tries to take a bite out of them. When you see them well, they know they matter, and the world needs kids who know they have a part to play in this great big human project. And when you limit them well—with love instead of power—you teach them the value of finitude, the beauty of boundaries, and the contract for community.

But, Dear Parent, beyond that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about how their lives play out. You have almost no power over who they are going to be. In this great poker game called parenthood, the hands have already been dealt and, for the rest of the game, we’re mostly just bluffing our way through the mystery of it.

Yes, every parent at the table is bluffing.

We’re all making it up as we go.

So, instead of worrying about our lack of control, or beating ourselves up for the outcome, may we all cut ourselves some slack and focus on becoming the best witnesses we can be.

May we enjoy their becoming,

pray for the best,

and give ourselves a little bit of grace along the way.


A Dad Without a Poker Face

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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12 thoughts on “Dear Parent, Cut Yourself Some Slack

  1. I love this post on parenting! We reared three sons. Physically they look somewhat like each other, however, their personalities and natural bends are very different. I am equally thankful for the responsible men they have become. Sometimes I see myself in one of them, sometimes my husband and sometimes I scratch my head!

    • I love the disjoint between physical appearance and personality, too. My middle guy looks the most like his mom, but he acts the most like me. Genetics are a weird and wonderful thing! I hope someday I can feel your kind of gratitude, Lenora. : )

  2. Parenting some teens (and toddlers too) and scratching my head at how they do things-and blaming myself when their mental issues affect the house. This was a timely message for me! Thank you Kelly. Been a pleasure being a part of your new journey and learning from you 🙂

    • Beka, the feelings is mutual, and I’m really excited to stop by on Friday! And, yes, I think we should put some kind of time limit on head-scratching, say ten minutes per incident, and then chalk it up to mystery. : )

      • Beka – I have a teen who’s mental issues are affecting our house in big ways too. It’s tough to know what to do when she sees me as the wise one and I really don’t know what to do. Thanks for your response and, Kelly, for this message.

  3. Dog gone it–here you go again posting a blog that seems to mirror my life. This is starting to get weird!!! I was just thinking how I would love to run away for one spa night all alone because parenting can be exhausting. Your post was the medicine I needed. Thank you.

    • I’m glad the post resonated again, Candice, but let’s be clear: you should take a spa night, too! : )

  4. You know, I love your positive approach. But sometimes kids don’t turn out the way we wanted them to, despite all our nourishing and discipline. My 28 year old daughter hasn’t contacted me in four
    years now and it breaks my heart. Oh yes, she was loved, still is. A child like this can be a real
    soul killer. I’d like to read an article by you on dealing with this. —Faithful Reader

  5. As my family and I navigate an impending divorce, and my older son shows his sadness and confusion to me thru defiance and aggression, this post helps me worry a little less. I know I am doing the absolute best I can to hear his feelings out, and to create stability in an unstable time, but sometimes my best is not so good, because I’m hurting too. It’s immeasurably comforting to know that his stubborn intense temperament may well carry him thru when my parenting can’t, and that maybe, one day, we’ll all be ok!

  6. You used a word I would like to hear more about: mirror. How do we mirror our children? For that matter, I wouldn’t mind if you expounded on “join”, “see”, and “limit” as well.

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