When I married my husband nearly 13 years ago, I was thrown headlong into the trenches of parenting. He had two daughters from a previous marriage. The first two years we were together, his custody of them went from three days a week, to four, to seven.
Those first few years, it felt as if I had morphed overnight from a carefree career girl to a carpool-driving, curfew-enforcing, cooking, cleaning, laundry-ridden caricature of a mom. I was still in my 20s and naively optimistic about the challenges that faced me. I thought I could “Mary Poppins” my way right through it. (What I didn’t know at the time was that if Mary Poppins had happened upon Jane and Michael Banks when they were teenagers, that story might have had a very different ending).
My husband and I made our way through my stepdaughters’ teen years the very best we could. We did some things right. And we did some things very, very wrong. We emerged from the experience battle-scarred but much closer, and I’m proud to say I now have two stepdaughters who are strong, smart, confident young women.
We also have two children who are now 8 and 10. Because this isn’t our first rodeo, we are parenting them very differently than if we hadn’t been through it before. Here are 10 things we’ve learned that might help you, too:
We really do try to cherish each moment with our kids. I know you get sick sometimes of hearing older parents tell you, “Cherish each moment with your children. They grow up so fast.” Unfortunately, this is actually true. You will absolutely not be ready for the day your child no longer wants to hold your hand, the day she’d rather do something with her friends than with you, the day she no longer thinks you’re the coolest, smartest, most awesome person on the planet. And when those moments are gone, they are gone forever. Childhood flies by. Enjoy it. Savor it. Cherish it, in every way that you possibly can.
We splurge on vacations. Trying to decide between a new sofa for the den and a family vacation? Let me help you out: Choose the vacation — every single time. Our best moments as a family have happened during vacations, so we put more money into family experiences than into more practical things like sofas. Those can come later, when the kids are grown and flown.
We no longer take the path everyone else is taking and blindly assume it will all turn out okay. I have learned the hard way that even as a parent, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right for you or your child. Our kids’ educational experiences are an example. When our older girls were growing up, we put them in schools where everyone else we knew put their kids. In hindsight, we could have made better choices for them if we had known more about our options. This time around, I’ve armed myself with far more information on schools in our area. Based on my daughter’s personality and learning style, my husband and I decided to put her in a homeschool tutorial, a decision we never would have had the courage to make the first time around.
We’re nosy. I don’t want my kids to have any expectation of privacy on the Internet. That means texts, e-mails, and website visits are all subject to parental review while we’re in charge. (Another parent’s take on kids and smart phones, here.) I have also told them that if I ever suspect that something is off, I will do whatever it takes to find out the truth. This may seem harsh to some people, but once you parent teens, you’ll see and hear all kinds of horror stories — and I’ve noticed that so many times, the trouble could have been headed off if parents had begun monitoring texts, e-mails, and apps the moment things stopped adding up. I want my kids to always know that this is a possibility so that if it happens, it doesn’t come as a surprise.
We don’t trust anyone. Okay, obviously we have to put our trust in other adults as we raise our kids. We can’t physically be with them 100 percent of the time, especially as they get older. While I don’t want to scare you, I will say that not every adult has your child’s best interests at heart. Figuring out exactly who those adults are can be tricky. We’ve discovered that most parents would rather put their heads in the sand than question another adult’s behavior with their kids. That means it’s all on you. Over the years, we’ve dealt with sketchy soccer coaches, teachers who have sent inappropriate texts to students, abusive parents and more. We’ve quietly filed reports with principals, league officials and police officers. We’ve found that most other parents don’t want to”‘rock the boat” and report someone, even when they know inappropriate behavior is happening and children are being affected. Talk to your kids and ask lots of questions about the adults around them. Be ready and willing to take steps if there’s a problem.
We’re setting boundaries now, before they become an issue. Now that I’ve parented teens, I’m already thinking about the rules I’ll have in place for our little ones down the road. I’ve started enforcing many of them now so that they won’t come as a big surprise later. That means, for example, that my daughter and son don’t have friends sleep over on the same night. I have absolutely no concerns about this now, but I will when they’re older, so it makes sense to have the rule in place right from the start.
We’re going to insist on signed contracts from teens this time around. You will make many agreements with your child as they get older. Straight As may earn a later bedtime and a cash reward. Use of the family car when they turn 16 may require good grades, a promise to not text and drive, and keeping the car clean. Save yourself many, many headaches and put your agreements in writing. (Blogger Brooks Gaut writes more about driving contracts and raising your teens to be safe drivers here.) Sign your agreements, have your kid sign them, and make sure you both have copies. Then, when pledges are broken (and they will be), there’s no argument about what was said and what was meant and whether or not that agreement was actually made. The proof is in the contract. End of discussion.
We work hard to avoid viewing our children as extensions of ourselves. This seems obvious on paper, but look around you and you’ll see so many parents pushing their kids to achieve the parents’ dreams instead of the child’s. After years of watching this play out, I work very hard now to view my children as unique individuals with their own talents, interests and abilities, and to make sure that they’re only participating in activities that interest them, rather than what interests their father and me.
Great parents do not always turn out great kids. Common wisdom dictates that “problem” teens likely have problematic parents. While that’s sometimes the case, it’s certainly not always true. I’ve seen amazingly devoted parents raise children who still ended up abusing drugs and alcohol and getting in trouble, and I’ve also seen absentee parents with a myriad of their own problems raise children who are today some of the most successful, morally upright young people I know. Do not make the mistake of believing that if you’re THE BEST parent, you’ll have THE BEST kids. Conversely, don’t heap blame on yourself if you do the very best you can as a parent and your child goes on to make horrible choices as a teen and young adult. Remember how I said that your kids are not an extension of you? Yeah. It’s totally true.
When the going gets tough, picture yourself through the eyes of your child when he or she is 40. If you are doing a good job as a parent, there will be times when your teenager just despises you. And in that moment, it feels absolutely rotten. At these times, it often seems like it would be far easier and more emotionally rewarding to just let your daughter go to Panama City with the rest of the seniors, or stay out until 2 a.m. like Tara and Cara and Farrah, or buy your kid the snazzy convertible over the safer, more boring granny car. I find it very helpful at this point to visualize my child at 40. If I’m confident that my 40-year-old child would likely agree with my decision and appreciate the example I’m setting as a parent, then I know I’m making the right decision. And that makes things at least a little bit easier.
Anything you’d add to the list? Anything you’d disagree with?
Keep up with all of Lindsay Ferrier’s posts by following her on Facebook.