My daughter is somewhat close to high school graduation. Which means that right now we’re looking at colleges, and working on her future, while we talk about life choices in a very retrospective way. If I could tell my neurotic, younger mom self a few things, here’s what would be at the top of the list.
Parenting advice is usually like any other advice you get: totally unsolicited by strangers and family alike. But I promise you, if you listen to this one piece of parenting advice, (I know, I know) both you and your children will be happier because of it.
Here’s the thing about parenting: it makes so much sense in retrospect. Once you’ve traveled down that broken road, you can see all the mistakes you made and what you’d do differently if you were lucky enough to get a do-over. Most of the early years are spent trying to figure out what’s critical and what can go by the wayside.
I’m here to tell you, most of it is wayside.
I speak from my experience as a mother from both the early years and from where I currently stand, deep in the parenting trenches. Listen closely, because this is more important than you think.
My 16-year-old daughter Sofie is a gift. She showed up on this earth knowing exactly who she is, and hasn’t been a slave to anyone’s opinion since. She’s smarter than almost everyone I know. She’s beautiful, and deeply introspective, and hilarious, with a dry, wicked, sense of humor. She’s curious, and sassy, and compassionate, and completely unique.
I embraced all of her in our early years together. I catered our little family life to her needs and interests, both because I could, and because I wanted to. We went to the library every week, where she checked out as many books as she could carry. I painted her bedroom like the inside of a giant ocean wave, and glued a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stickers on her ceiling. I played dress-up with her, and took her to the park, and painted her little face like a kitty cat. We listened to music, and danced, and explored the world together. I fostered every bit of curiosity and creativity she could muster. Our life together was uncomplicated and very, very sweet.
And then Sofie started Kindergarten. I outfitted her closet with several combinations of darling outfits. Cute little pink shirts that matched cute little jeans with hearts on the pockets, which matched her socks, which matched the bows I bought for her hair. All of which was just fine, except it wasn’t what Sofie wanted.
Immediately we began to have massive, knock-down, drag-out fights about what was appropriate to wear to school. And I laid down an ultimatum: if Sofie didn’t brush her hair every single day, I would cut it all off.
You can guess who won that battle.
Sofie had short hair until the 5th grade, and in retrospect, the hair fight should’ve been a huge epiphany to me. I should’ve realized it didn’t matter to Sofie one iota what anyone thought about her style, including, and maybe especially, me. But I fought on anyway.
The what-not-to-wear war lasted several months. Sofie and I would fight all morning long about what she wouldn’t wear to Kindergarten, right up until it was time to drop her off at school for the afternoon. We would both end up in tears, confident in our defensive operations.
Eventually, I ran out of energy.
I couldn’t keep fighting about clothes and hair, even when Sofie looked homeless and unmothered. Which she did, most of the time. The problem was that I made Sofie’s appearance all about me. I worried the other mothers would think she was unkempt, unwashed, unloved.
And what Sofie was saying from the beginning was this:
I know who I am.
I love me.
I’m not worried about anyone else.
I was so concerned about what everyone else would think of my parenting, and my kid, that I fought, and fought, and fought with Sofie to try and make her fit in. Because I thought it would be easier. Because I never wanted her to feel less than, or weird, or lonely.
What I didn’t get then, and what I finally get now, more than 18 years into this parenting gig, is that weird is a superpower. Different is magic. Our individuality is what makes our contribution to the world worthwhile. Sofie’s strength is that she knows who she is, and she doesn’t waste any time worrying who anyone else thinks she should be.
So if I could go back in time, this is the parenting advice I’d give myself:
Love your kid unconditionally. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about you, or your kid, as long as you love them for exactly who they are.
Because even if you think you’re hiding it well, your kid knows if you don’t approve of them and:
who they are
who they love
the way they dress
and what they want to do with their life.
Celebrate their weirdness. Foster their unique take on the world.
Help them feel safe, and loved, and accept them regardless of your own discomfort with yourself. Because eventually your kid will figure out exactly who they are, with or without you. If you accept them and love them well, you’ll be the first call they make when they get there. And if you don’t, your relationship with your child will depend entirely on their ability to forgive you for not loving them well enough when you had the chance.