I had no clue what I was doing when my first child was born 25 years ago.
Now, that's true of most if not all first-time parents. As unfortunate as it may be for our children, parenthood is by definition a seat-of-your-pants, on-the-job-training kind of thing. As much as you can read and learn and get advice, the reality is that you don't know stuff until you live it. Even as a pediatrician, that was true for me.
As I look back on my younger mom self (that one with more energy, no gray hair and taut skin), I wish I could tell her what I've learned through the past 25 years of day-in, day-out parenting and being a pediatrician. If I could, if I could come to her in a dream and tell her what I most want her to know, here's what I'd say:
1. It's okay to be strict. (I bet that wasn't what you were expecting.) Boy, it's hard to be strict with unruly toddlers or teenagers (ok, any age), especially when you are exhausted, when giving in stops the crying or the argument or lets you go back to sleep, when you figure you have time to teach them things later -- especially when other people around you are giving in. Plus, your kids seem so much happier -- and happier with you -- when you aren't strict.
Don't do it. Don't give in. Teach your kids that no means no, that they have to be polite and kind, that they need to tell the truth and keep their word, that there are consequences to breaking rules. Start early, and be consistent.
I have always been a strict parent, and over the years my kids have made it really clear that they didn't like that about me in ways that made me doubt myself, big time. But now that my kids are older, I see the fruits of it: along with making overall good decisions, they are the kind of people that not just peers but parents, teachers, employers and other adults like. Which, it turns out, is really useful in life. It helps them get what they want and need. That's the part that's easy to forget when your kid is screaming for candy in the grocery line or your teen breaks curfew yet again. This is about life skills. I would have felt so much better back then if I'd understood that -- especially if I could also have known that my kids (mostly) forgave me.
2. Relax and have fun. This is not a contradiction of #1. It's an addition to it. Yes, you have to be strict--but not about every last thing, and not every moment. And, more importantly, life is made up of millions of moments and chances; there is no one developmental milestone, one test, one swim meet, playdate or teacher that can make or ruin everything. I worried too much. I got too caught up the in the chores, drop-offs, pickups, report cards, swim times, birthday party invitations, college applications...and too often missed not just the child in front of me, who maybe needed something different from what I was doing, but a chance to enjoy that child and enjoy myself.
Kids can be a drag, sure, but they can be a blast too. They can be funny, snuggly, surprising--and incredibly wise. And the moments that we spend enjoying each other are the moments that end up sustaining us. I wish it hadn't taken me so long to learn it.
3. Your kids are who they are. This is also not a contradiction of #1. I am not saying that it's fine if your kid is the class bully or never does her homework because, hey, that's who she is. (Don't even get me started on "Boys will be boys.") But too often, parents try to make their kids do or be things that just don't work. Parents do it for all sorts of good reasons; they want their children to be successful, they think their children will like the things they do, they think things are good for them. But while we can guide our children, we can't change them.
When my eldest was a teenager, she quit dancing rather than continue taking the ballet class I wanted her to take along with her jazz and modern dance. That was me; that was my belief that the discipline and grace of ballet were good for her, that was me wishing I'd been able to take ballet as a child. It wasn't about her--and it was a decision we both regretted. Luckily for me I learned my lesson with a dance class and not something bigger.
It's hard for me, but I'm finally learning to take a breath and let my children be who they are. It's not that I don't give advice and push and prod (of course I do). But I am slowly learning that there are things I cannot change, and that if I do my best and have a little faith, life has a way of working out.
Which my younger self would probably never believe. But boy, I wish I could tell her.