The Only Parenting 'Philosophy' You Really Need

My two boys are standing at the top of a hill at the edge of our dead end street. Each has a scooter, and a helmet, and an eye on the slope stretched before him. To the right is my cautious one, who thinks he wants to speed down that hill, but is stopped by his calculation of the many ways he will be maimed in the process. To the left is my daredevil. He will take that hill, faster than he should, particularly if anyone suggests he shouldn’t.


It felt like a Tilt-a-Whirl, but now I see it was just a Teeter-Totter.

Time turns close-ups into panoramas, smoothing the edges, muting the cacophony, slowing the pace, adding context and perspective. As I look back on raising kids, it feels like I am looking out from it.

Up, then down. Up then down. Up then down. Finding the center for a moment -- look mom, no hands -- then losing it, and floating past.

I thought it should be otherwise -- and I know why I believed that. I was told I should have a parenting philosophy, a North Star, firm rules, a specific direction. Everyone else seemed to have one. My lack of all these felt like chaos, but now I see that really it was instinctive recalibration. Too controlling yesterday. Too permissive today. Too frantic. Too blasé. Too distracted. Too hovering. Rarely getting it exactly right in the moment, but somehow getting it more or less right in the end.

In the thickest depths of parenting -- the times when night is indistinguishable from day, when tears fall and stomachs clench and questions multiply (but not the answers) and when futures seem uncertain -- all we can do is hang on. After all, we signed up for this ride, paid for the ticket, scanned through the waiver that said having kids is not for the faint of heart, and climbed aboard. The thrills were as advertised. The drops were sharper than we’d ever imagined.

Contradiction is the fundamental truth of parenting.

We want them to have self-esteem, but not pride.

To master friendship, but thrive in solitude.

To learn respect, but not blind obedience.

To trust, but question. Be comfortable in their skin, but not preening. Be healthy, but also indulgent.

Be independent, but still a part of us.

And that explains why so many moments feel like there are no answers -- because there are always two answers, or more. With each added child, the possibilities multiply exponentially.


What then to shout from the porch to the two would be scooter riders at the top of the hill? “Be careful” will cause one of them to give up before he starts. “Wheeeeee” will give the other permission to be reckless. I crave balance, stasis, the elusive in between. But in that moment years ago -- as in every moment -- I had to choose Up or Down.

Whatever I finally said, it didn’t change anyone’s life -- all these years later, one son could still use a little less vigilance and the other a little bit more. Most of our rides together worked out that way. The days I pushed them too hard balanced the ones when I didn’t push hard enough. The ones where I was distracted by work were somehow cancelled out by the ones when I didn’t give work nearly enough attention. The times I overreacted to symptoms and signs were probably equal to the times I failed to notice what was right in front of me.

No one moment defined them, or defined parenting, or was nearly as determinative as it seemed. Up and down, up and down, up and down, with fleeting bits of equilibrium now and then. I never felt balanced, never WAS balanced, because parenting is not about finding your footing, but about seeking it. Up and down is the entire reason for the ride.

Animal Parents