My sister-in-law and three year old niece are up from Louisiana for an early Christmas visit this week.
It’s been a lot of fun having a little girl running around the house. My boys love it (although there have been a few tears shed in jealousy for her attention), my wife loves it (she finally gets to do girl hair in the morning), and I love it too (I miss having kids that age).
It’s also been fun to see my sister-in-law (who spent so many years telling us how to raise our boys) facing the realities of day-to-day parenting.
I can remember lengthy lectures about the importance of healthy food on brain development (she’s a developmental psychologist). Now I sit and chuckle inside as her kid has only a chocolate doughnut for breakfast because she doesn’t want her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and chuckle some more when mom runs out to buy juice because neither milk nor water will cut it.
I remember being instructed about how bad screen time is for small children (which it is), so now my wife and I share amused glances as the television is regularly tuned to such educational classics as Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig, and as the cellphone gets brought out to play YouTube videos every time there’s whining.
That’s not to say that my sister-in-law is a bad parent. She’s a loving mother who takes really good care of her daughter. It’s just funny to see, once again, how quickly pre-child parenting intentions come up against the realities of being a real parent of a real child, with a real personality, coping with real life. It happens to the best of us.
Most of us have had that experience where we find ourselves doing the very things we told ourselves (and maybe our own parents in a fit of self-righteousness) that we would never do. We said that we’d never tell our kids, “Because I said so,” or that we’d never let them be babysat by a television, or that we’d never raise our voice to them. Then all those good intentions come face to face with an actual baby, and… well… that’s that.
I think having that experience (just like watching my poor sister-in-law this past week) should remind us of a few important things:
First, we need to be careful of how we judge other parents. It’s easy to see a mom handing her kid candy every day or a father using his phone as a babysitter and to feel superior. But we don’t know what’s going on in that situation, just as other people don’t know the circumstances that sometimes bring us to make poor parenting decisions.
Second, we need to be gentle with our advice. There very well might be times when friends or relatives (or even, in extreme circumstances, strangers on the street), need a reminder (or better yet, some help) to be the best parents they can be. But we need to offer our help graciously, remembering that we’ve been there too.
Third, we need to be gentle with ourselves when we realize how far we sometimes fall from our good intentions. When we catch ourselves saying or doing the things we said we never would, remember that it really does happen to the best of us. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just chalk it up to part of being a parent, and set yourself to do better next time.
The truth is, parenting isn’t something you can do in advance. It’s something you can only do as best you can, each and every day.