Anyone who has ever prepared to bring a child into the world knows the one thing that does not arrive with the baby. An owners manual. A car seat, a baby blanket, and a diaper bag is all that is required as the nurse wheels mother and child to the curb.
I have been parenting now for almost 18 years and I have learned a lot along the way. Some lessons have been simple and straightforward and others complex and twisted. I have read hundreds of books on child development theory, relational advice, family system theories, basic discipline advice, and anything and everything in between.
I wish those books were read because of an insatiable desire for knowledge. Honesty requires me to admit they were read because of sheer ignorance. I had absolutely no idea how to parent the two souls entrusted to me 18 years ago (and still don’t!).
But, if I step back and take a look at my journey as a parent, I think my greatest teachers have been my kids. They have been such good sports as kids whose parents admit, on a regular basis, that we have no idea what we are doing! They’ve also been graciously generous in offering up their own brand of advice that has proved to be foundational in our family.
Here are the 5 best lessons my kids taught me. They are great lessons for parenting. I think they can also be applied in business, marriage, leadership, neighborhoods, churches, politics, and anywhere else there are people.
1. Respect goes both ways.
I clearly remember the day my sassy little three year old stuck her finger in my face and told me off. I don’t remember what had her in such a rage, but I do remember that little finger waving frantically in my face. I took a deep breath (mostly to keep from laughing!) and considered my response.
It didn’t take a genius to measure the level of disrespect that was being hurled my way. My first instinct was a thought that had me grabbing her finger, pointing it back in her face, and telling her off for treating me that way. I decided instead to give her what I was wanting in that moment…respect.
I calmly explained to her that I would be happy to listen to her complaint if she would kindly take her finger out of my face, lower her voice, and find a way to speak kindly to me. She somehow found her way to a more respectful expression of whatever she was wanting and we moved forward. She taught me that day that respect goes both ways.
Demanding respect from my three year old, in that instance, would not have helped her to be respectful. Offering her respect, when she was offering none, was a far more effective way of inviting respect into our relationship. Treating our kids, no matter how small, with respect models for them respectful relationships.
2. True apologies build trust.
One of the hardest parts of parenting young kids, for me, was the sibling rivalry. My heart would break open wide with my kids fighting and the pull to play referee almost did me in! I found some good books that equipped me and I got creative in my parenting during that season.
I used a little exercise called “Knee to Knee.” To this day, my teenagers shudder when they hear that! When they would argue, pick, and fight with each other, I would require them to have a “Knee to Knee.”
They would sit facing each other, knees touching, and offer true apologies to each other. When they were really young, I would script it for them. My scripts read something like, “Oh dearest sister of mine, favorite sibling, I am deeply sorry for being disrespectful to you. I can imagine how that hurt your feelings. You are a gift that I treasure and I love you. Will you please forgive me?”
The laughter of the scripted reply usually served to dispel any lingering tension. It also taught them how to offer a heart felt apology. They quickly learned the essence of a true apology and begged to say it “with their own words.” As I watched them practice this over the course of several years, they taught me that true apologies build trust.
As they got older, sibling rivalry turned to parental conflict. My husband and I suddenly had the opportunity to extend heart felt apologies for the ways we were choosing disrespect, being judgmental, speaking harshly, or relating selfishly. Our kids responded to true apologies with forgiveness, empathy, and kindness. Trust is built with every single apology I offer them.
3. Kindness always helps.
My son, when he was little, had a very low voice and spoke a bit like Elmer Fudd. I relished in the days when he was home alone and he narrated his whole life in that cute little voice all day long. His companionship was as enjoyable as it was entertaining.
As a young mom, there were certainly days (and even seasons) that were just harder than others. I can remember one particular day that my emotions flooded out in a true expression of my heart and tears rolled freely down my cheeks. My sweet little man climbed up into my lap, patted my face with his chubby hand, and said, “id ok mama, I’ww take cawe a you.”
He didn't really care why I was crying and he didn’t try to solve any problem or fix anything for me. He just sat there with me and helped the only way he knew how. He taught me that day that kindness always helps.
There have been many opportunities in his life to reciprocate and offer him kindness on the hard days. I resist the urge to solve and fix, I stop myself from lecturing (when I can!) and I just sit with him and offer him kindness. Sometimes, in the life of a kid, solutions, demands, lectures, and answers aren’t actually the help they need, but kindness always helps.
4. Mistrust breeds rebellion.
When my kids were young and in the “Golden Years”, I remember telling them (when we would see groups of rebellious teenagers), “Please don’t be punks when you get older.” Their sweet little smiles agreed with me and promises were made that they would not be punks when they were teenagers.
Rebellion is in my DNA and adolescence only amplified it. I was certain that my payback would arrive in the form of my own rebellious teenagers. It seemed an inevitable, and slightly deserved, fate for me given my own journey through adolescence.
I distinctly remember a conversation with my daughter when she was 13 years old. She wanted to do something social that her dad and I were not entirely sure about. We were wavering on not allowing her to go because we didn’t totally trust the situation.
She, very boldly and respectfully, explained to us that we were great parents and had taught her how to make wise choices. She went on to say, “At some point, you guys have to trust me in any situation. You have to trust me to grow and be independent. If you choose to mistrust me, you will plant seeds of rebellion in me.”
More wise words have never been spoken. I hadn’t ever considered how I, as a parent, could actually sow seeds of rebellion in my kids. My daughter taught me that day that mistrust breeds rebellion.
I hadn’t found that lesson in any book written by experts. I hadn’t been taught that lesson anywhere in my life. But, what a gift, to have it uttered from the mouth of my own teenager at the perfect moment.
5. Hard conversations open doors.
Parenting becomes one of two roads. It can be a dance around every difficult subject through distraction, make believe, or avoidance. Or it can be an open forum of discussion where every subject is welcome.
Maybe because we were young parents, maybe because we craved it ourselves, or maybe because of divine intervention, we chose the later. Our family has been built on the foundation that there is no subject deemed "inappropriate” for conversation. I will say, in hindsight, that was certainly not the easy road.
We were THAT family! You know the one. The one whose kids kindly “educated” the neighbors and classmates on the reality of Santa Claus, where babies come from, what parents do to fish who die, proper anatomical names for body parts, and SO much more!
Having conversations about God, faith, and eternity with a three year old is complicated. Discussing sexuality with a six year old is delicate, awkward, and complex. Sharing thoughts and truths about healthy relationships with a 9 year old is exhausting. Communicating about character, choices, and morality with a 12 year old is difficult to navigate.
One thing that became apparent as I was drowning in open conversations with little people, was that there is value in teaching kids. Allowing my kids to ask any question and honoring them by giving honest answers taught all of us a lot over the years. I was finding all kinds of open doors into deeper relationship with my kids through each conversation.
Whenever they were brave enough to ask the hard question and we were brave enough to give an honest answer, our relationships seemed to deepen. We started to find our kids sharing delicate, intimate, and tender parts of their hearts rather freely. They taught me that hard conversations open doors.
I’m grateful for research that clarifies the stages of development humans progress through life. I’m glad to have plenty of parenting and relationship experts share their advice and experience. But my best teachers, these 18 years, have been my kids as they generously share their unique versions of wisdom, grace, and love with me every day.
I'm also astounded at how these five simple lessons could make a major impact in other areas of life. If we apply them to other areas of our lives, they carry some real possibility! It really is sometimes the most simple things that can make the biggest change.
How can these lessons make a difference in your life? What lessons are kids in your life teaching you? What other places do you find unexpected lessons?