You know what I mean: Your baby might never learn to sleep through the night if you don’t get her trained right from the get-go. Your toddler might come up a few IQ points short later if you indulge her desire for a daily dose of Nick Jr now, especially if she hasn’t yet met the AAP-sanctioned two-year-old mark. Your 3-year-old might not develop stellar social skills if you choose the wrong preschool. Your 8-year-old might miss an opportunity to be a world-renowned musician if you don’t take his violin lessons seriously enough.
Everything can feel so fraught; especially when every choice seems to present itself as potentially life-altering. And that’s often when what your gut is telling you starts getting drowned out by outside noise: all those “what-might-happen-IFs.”
But we can’t control for all those “ifs”. We can’t control our kids, or who they will become. I believe in nurture, but only to the extent that we can assist a child in reaching the best, happiest version of the self he was born with.
That’s why I don’t go for outcome-based parenting: doing X or Y with the idea that you’ll turn out good kids, or successful kids, or high-achieving kids, or kids who share your political beliefs, or…(fill in the blank.) If we do something, it has to feel right today, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to raise kind, empathetic, motivated, self-sufficient children. But…what if you do everything “right” and things still go wrong? I have to be able to look back at the way I’ve raised my children and run my household and feel good about it, regardless of the outcome.
So I’ve embraced a different yardstick when it comes to decision-making. When something seems like a particularly hard choice, I ask myself, “How do I feel about this choice right now? How will I feel in a year? How about ten years?” In ten years, whether my child has turned out to be a straight-A-student and the youngest philanthropist in the country, or a grade-school dropout and the youngest bank robber on record, will I be OK with the decision I’ve made? And conversely, can I feel good about this choice today? Or am I sacrificing the present–which is really all I’ve got–for a far-from-guaranteed future?
Now that I have a teenager, I’m in a position I simply couldn’t imagine when he was a little guy: I can clearly see how he’s turning out, what kind of a person he’s becoming, and how much it relates–and doesn‘t relate–to the million and a half decisions I’ve made along the way. And what I’m finding is that when I do have regrets, they tend to be over small opportunities missed: a time I could have been kind or empathetic but instead was cranky or hurried; a time I could have really listened, but instead tuned out. Not because I think those things have made my son a worse person, but just because I wasn’t being the person I wanted to be in those moments.
I’m not beating myself up about those opportunities lost–after all, none of us are perfect all the time. But I think it makes for an interesting contrast: when I try to think back on big decisions I’ve made about my kids, I can’t think of a single one I feel bad about now. All the stuff that seemed so huge back then: how to diaper, whether to diaper at all? How to put the baby to sleep; where to put the baby to sleep? Preschool or not? Public, private, or home? Sling or stroller or toddler leash? Solids now or solids later? TV, no TV, only public TV?
Not a single one of those decisions has equaled the making or breaking of any one of my kids, their futures, their personalities, their selves. I came to each decision with love and thought and care, and that’s what matters–to them, but just as importantly, to me.
How children turn out is important, but our control over it is severely limited. Our kids are their own people, and we can only guide them in the direction of being the best possible versions of themselves. In the meanwhile, we still have to live with ourselves.
But I believe that if we’re making parenting decisions we can live with today and look back on comfortably in ten years, that comes through loud and clear to our kids. They recognize the good intentions and the confidence. It frees up our energy to be happy and engaged in the moment.
In other words, being our own best selves helps us guide our kids toward being their own best selves. And even if they go astray along the way (and let’s face it, we all did at one point or another; so will our kids) we can still feel good about our decisions later.
To me, that’s the best possible reason to trust your gut.