What do we “owe” our kids? What if the answer is: “nothing”?

what do kids deserve?

Photo credit: TaxFix.co.uk. Used with permission.

Over the years I’ve made some controversial parenting confessions.

That I don’t beat myself up over my lack of a fully-funded college savings plan, for example. That I let my kids go outside unsupervised and check my email or gab with friends instead of playing with them at the park. That I never really bothered with a sleep schedule and only “potty trained” when the kids were old enough to do all the work themselves.

Each time, I’ve heard from at least one person telling me that I “owe” my kids something I’m not giving them. More individual attention, more enrichment activities, more structure, more (or less)…something.

I don’t like the idea of not meeting my obligations, especially to my kids. And even when logically I believe that by “neglecting” one area I am making room for something else that’s just as important to me, the implication stings.

But the more I think about it, when it comes to what I “owe” my kids?

I keep thinking maybe the answer is “nothing.”

Okay, that’s not likely to be a popular observation, so let me explain. Of course I have parenting ideals and values and beliefs I try to uphold, even if they aren’t always consistent.

It’s just that I don’t like to think about relationships with the most important people in my life in terms of what we owe one another.

Because here’s the thing: we can’t all be everything to our children. And we all value different things based on our own priorities, values and world view:

  • Mom number one might feel that she owes her child the healthiest possible lifestyle, going out of her way to avoid GMO and BPA and HCFS…
  • …while mom number two feels that she owes her child a healthy lifestyle which to her means lots of physical activity and a low-fat diet.
  • This mom might feel that she owes her child the best start in life, meaning an excellent, enriching daycare and a prestigious preschool…
  • …while that mom feels that she owes her child the best start in life, which according to her worldview, means staying home with him.

Who’s to say which mom is right and which one is wrong?

What statistic has ever proven beyond shadow of a doubt that one approach or another is always, 100% of the time, best? What study has ever analyzed the big, all-encompassing picture of what it means to be a mother, or a child, or a family: physical and mental health; happiness and achievement, family strength and individual success, all at once?

It doesn’t happen, because none of us are statistics or two-dimensional study subjects. And even when some nagging voice tells us we “should” be doing this or that…

Doing something only because we feel obligated gets in the way of acting from joy and conviction.

And making parenting choices based on what somebody else thinks we “owe” our kids is a great way to drive ourselves crazy with conflicting opinions and unreasonable expectations.

Instead, I’ve decided to turn the idea of obligation – what we “owe” our kids – on its head. Because really, “owing” them is not the point.

Just because I would love it if my kids have a certain experience or feel it would be great for them to learn a certain thing doesn’t mean I’ve failed or let them down if it doesn’t happen.

And, perhaps just as importantly, it doesn’t mean I always have to be the one providing the experience.

So here are two steps for getting past the idea that we “owe” or kids this or that:

1. Accept that another parent’s priorities are not a reflection on your priorities.

I make the majority of my parenting decisions based on my world view: a mix of my upbringing and experiences and personality and tendencies and all kinds of other things that make me uniquely me.

There’s nothing wrong with a world view. It makes you who you are. In fact, I believe that when you are parenting according to your own completely unique self, 95% of the time that’s when you are most authentically “doing it right.”

I say 95% because I believe we all have some lingering baggage left over from childhood, or assumptions or tendencies, that it might be best for us to shed as human beings and parents.

But even the style in which we work through those things is as unique and individual as we are. And there is value to our children even in our mistakes.

We all accept that we can’t do everything well, right? That even if we all agree that X, Y, and Z are good, worthy goals, that we don’t have to pursue all three of them at once?

I for sure accept that.

I cannot bring in a full-time income with which to fund the education and pay for tuba lessons while cooking from-scratch, organic meals from locally-sourced ingredients every night, while getting down on the floor and playing with each of my children for an hour every day, while schlepping the kids to various activities to keep them mentally engaged and physically active, while keeping my relationship with my spouse strong, while also giving my kids the slow, relaxed childhood that’s important to me, while also staying sane (and you could make a strong argument that  I “owe” my kids that for sure!)

So in my house, when a choice needs to be made, I might make very different choices than you based on my unique world view.

For example, I usually value family time over super-healthy food. I value slow evenings over enrichment opportunities. I value individualism over achievement.

But it’s not that I think organics or enrichment activities or achievement are worthless or unimportant. It’s just that if and when I have to choose – and often, I do – those are the things that take the back seat.

We all have to make choices, and there’s no possible way to give our kids every single thing somebody else might decide we “owe” them.

2. Instead of thinking about parenting in terms of what we “owe” our kids, think in terms of what our kids need or deserve.

This takes so much of the pressure off.

If we believe our kids deserve play, but we don’t feel we personally OWE it to them, it frees us up to outsource play to paid helpers or family members. Or we get a friend to plan that blowout birthday party. Or we get Dad to handle bedtime stories.

The child still gets the thing or experience we feel he needs, but without the sense of pressure and obligation on ourselves, solely, to provide it.

Also, when we put the focus on our child’s needs rather than our obligations, it allows us to get really clear with ourselves about why we feel compelled to do certain things.

For example:

  • Do I want to buy a bigger house because I feel my child deserves her own bedroom, or because I feel like I owe it to her? These are not the same thing.
  • Do I want to put my son in preschool because I think he needs it, or because I think it’s what a” good mom” would do? Same basic question, slightly different language, but you can see how hugely it changes the meaning of the decision, right?

When we frame the issue this way, we can also ask ourselves pointed questions about why we feel our kids ‘deserve’ this or that. Do you think your daughter deserves a big 7th birthday party because you never got that party with a pony ride when you turned 7 – and were deeply disappointed? Are you regretful because you never took piano lessons?

Did a line from a book or blog you read at some vulnerable moment of pregnancy lodge itself into your brain, coloring your ideas about education or success or attachment or nutrition?

Taking the focus and pressure off ourselves also allows us to look at more general needs – a healthy environment, say, or learning opportunities – and recognize that there are many different ways to provide those things to our kids.

I’ve said before that a parenting value is not the same thing as a moral judgment. You can believe and prioritize very different things than I do, and we can both be awesome moms.

But it all starts with parenting from conviction; a clear sense of doing what feels most right to us while accepting that “right to us” doesn’t necessarily equal The One Right Path.

It’s not about my obligations. It’s what my children deserve, and what I deserve: the opportunity to parent them in a way that feels satisfying and good and right to me.

When I think about it, maybe that’s the one thing I owe them.

And myself.

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