If only we could write letters (or send emails) from our present self to our past self. I certainly have a much different perspective as the parent of three adult children and one sixteen month-old grandchild in 2015 than I did as a thirty-one year old awaiting the birth of his first child in 1984. I have been resisting the temptation to share my acquired "wisdom" with my son and daughter-in-law, because I remember how I felt about my parents weighing in from time to time with parenting tips. In retrospect, I would have been wise to listen, but we all need to follow our own paths as we embark on the journey of parenthood. If given the opportunity to send a letter to my younger self, here is what I would be sure to say:
You are about to embark on the experience of a lifetime. I can tell you that nothing enriched my life more than the three amazing children. Parenting is filled with powerful emotions ranging from unadulterated joy to paralyzing worry to moments or real sadness. Luckily, the former has far outweighed the latter two emotions. Hopefully, it will be easier to listen to yourself from the future than it is to hear your parents. I have three tips for you.
The first is that most events are not as important as you think they are so do not weigh yourself down with so much worry. My wife and I did the best we could, given that there is no real training for this parenting experience. Some of it we did quite well while other times we probably made a mess of it. The reality is that all three of our children were much more resilient than we gave them credit for. There was the test they did not do so well on, the team they did not make, the friends that they fought with or decided to move on from. None of those events were a make-or-break moment. Rather it is the accumulation of all those events that will be your children's stories. Therefore, do not become convinced by those around you that the failure to join a particular group or team or get extra tutoring for standardized tests or build a resume of volunteer service will be THE critical piece. Keep your eye on the big picture and follow your instincts.
Secondly, spend less time making your own plan for your children and spend more time watching closely to see where their interests and passions are. I have seen too many incidences of children being pushed in particular areas because of preconceived notions of what the next school or employer will want. Be careful to avoid the trap of settling on the end goal (like a place in a particular school or team or orchestra) and then working backward from there. Your child changes so much from year to year that I would argue you will not often have any real idea of what might be the best fit. It feels as if children are being asked to specialize earlier and earlier than was once the case. So many programs exist today that try to convince you that if your child does not start with them now, he or she will never be successful in the future. My advice would be to try to keep doors open for your child as long as possible rather than having them narrow their focus too early. Give them the time to explore and develop their own passions and then support those areas rather than deciding for them based on what you think might look best on a resume. The most successful young people I have seen have been the ones who love what they do and want to keep working to grow and learn.
Thirdly, do not feel it is your job to be sure your child is happy all the time. First, this is an impossible goal and you will inevitably be disappointed. But more importantly, life is about much more than being happy. In her book All Joy and No Fun, author Jennifer Senior says, "Happiness should be a by-product, not a goal. Many of the ancient Greeks believed the same. To Aristotle, eudaimonia (roughly translated as "flourishing") meant doing something productive. Happiness could only be achieved through exploiting our strengths and our potential. To be happy one must do, not just feel." When your child has a tantrum because they did not get the toy that all his or her friends have or because they got a lower grade than they had hoped for on their history test, do not try to make it better. Your child will learn that life has disappointments and still goes on just fine. Recent data highlighted that fifty percent of college students report a sense of hopelessness and that one third reported feeling paralyzed by depression in the previous year. Could it be that we as parents have worked so hard at making our children happy that they have an unrealistic expectation of what they will experience as adults?
Finally, remember to take the time to smell the roses. While parenting can be difficult and even painful at times, know that at least for me, it has always been the best part of my life. In Trace Adkins' song You're Gonna Miss This, he tells a wonderful story that can always make me cry and I encourage you to listen. He explains how we are always wishing that the next stage will come whether it be learning to walk or read or sleep through the night and yet, when our children are grown "you are going to wish these days had not gone by so fast." Enjoy the ride. I know you will do a great job!