Parenting, like marriage, starts out all theory. Which is why new parents, like new husbands and wives, can seem teachable. We read books, we seek advice, we ask questions. And then reality hits.
I will be the first to admit that, as a new mom, I was not all that teachable in real life. It took me years, four sons, and countless small mothering disasters to realize how much help I really needed. Functional parenting is very different from the figurative version. The good thing about this seeming-humble to actual-humble journey is that I often had to do what I’ve observed healthy parents do: apologize to my kids when I blew it, while somehow managing to retain my role as The Mom.
Maybe, like me, you have a child whose DNA, you suspect, includes a homing device locked in on your button, as in the button you didn’t know you had, the one that kid knows how to push. This is sophisticated, scary knowledge for a child to possess. Two of our boys are a lot like me, I understand them, so with them I was fairly adept at avoiding land mines. But the other two are so different from me that, especially as adolescents, they could really push my buttons. Sorry for the cliché, but there it is. Our other two boys, the ones I understood, were unscrupulous in their ability to do the same to my husband, Bill.
Through trial, error, and time, we’ve learned a lot about parenting, but here are 2 lessons that helped us become better, more teachable parents:
1. Heed one another’s warnings.
I’d watch Bill walk right into a conflict, vulnerable and naïve as a horror movie actor venturing down a dark hallway, and I’d pat his arm to warn him. The arm pat emerged as a workaround of our one-adult-vs-one-child rule. No child deserves to be ganged up on, so we generally let one of us do the talking in a conflict or confrontation. Without words, the message of the arm pat was clear: “Warning. Take a deep breath. Stop talking long enough to hide your button. Don’t you feel it? It’s about to get pushed big time.”
Danger, Will Robinson!
The thing is, pride does not relish a warning. I’m ashamed to say neither Bill nor I were humble or teachable enough for the arm pat… at first. We shrugged it off, angrily jerking our arms out from under the gentle warning. And then I’d end up in a crazy, illogical argument with whichever son, wondering how on earth I got there.
After more of these episodes than I care to share, followed by a few post-conflict debriefings between Bill and me, in which we’d say in so many words, “I tried to warn you,” we finally got it.
Parenting, like marriage, starts out all theory. Which is why new parents can seem teachable. We read books, we seek advice, we ask questions. And then reality hits.
2. Know when to tag team and tap out.
The arm pat was genius. Sometimes I’d simply tap out and let Bill into the ring because he understood my button-pusher. He had the instincts for a better outcome. And sometimes it would work the other way around. I cannot tell you how many times the arm pat saved us. I didn’t understand it in the heat of the moment, but I came to respect it.
I wonder if the reason I started out stubbornly unteachable, is that my husband’s wisdom was utterly counterintuitive to mine. But humble moms are willing to look at their kids and their mothering through someone else’s eyes, and often the perspective we need most is right there next to us, in the man patting our arms and telling us to think—only for a moment—like them. And maybe the danger is not that a few sporadic conversations with our sons and daughters will go sour. Maybe the danger is that our hearts may calcify a little more every time we refuse that glimpse of another way.
It’s just an arm pat, but maybe it can teach us something about ourselves. And it’s just an arm pat, so maybe the journey to humility isn’t as hard or complicated as we think it is.
You’ll enjoy this episode of our podcast, Mom Hacks: Help You Need in Every Stage – 026