One time, when my kids were small, I was invited to a baby shower. There was a book there where everyone was invited to write a few words of parenting advice to the mom-to-be.
Everyone was writing flowery, unhelpful things like “cherish the baby times as they are so precious” and “the days are long, but the years are short” and “nothing is as wonderful as the laughter of a child,” blah blah blah.
Gal Smiley was just a few months old at the time, and she was our first girl, so I wrote in the book, “If it’s a girl, don’t wash the pale pink stuff with the dark load or it will go kind of grey and ugly.”
Everyone was horrified in a pearl-clutching kind of way, but I wanted to write something concrete and actually useful. But also, I was in the early days when everyone is telling you what to do and what not to do, and I had had it up to HERE with people sharing parenting advice, so I went cheeky.
(But also useful. You really need to make a separate pinks and reds load if you are going to be the parent of girls. I stand behind that.)
The other day I realized I do, in fact, have one piece of actual parenting advice to share. I don’t think you can tell other people how to parent and everyone is out there doing the best that they can, making the choices that fit their family best. But if I went to that baby shower today, and had to write some parenting advice, here’s what I’d write:
You have a shockingly short amount of time to teach your kids how to be human beings. Start now – from day one.
I think this is what surprised me the most about being a parent. By the time my kids were, say 13-ish years old, it was all over. I mean, I’m still here to listen to their troubles and help them through social issues and difficult decisions and friend betrayals. But it’s too late now for my older teens to teach them things like it’s a nice thing to offer to clean up after dinner, especially at a friend’s house.
I remember when the kids were young, I was so tired all the time just from the physical effort of caring for everyone and the house. At the end of the day it was so much easier to park them in front of the TV rather than have them all in the kitchen, herding around me, needing help to do the simplest thing. I have to say, it’s really thanks to my husband that the kids turned out well. He’s really good at the big picture, big planning, and from a young age he got them doing chores and thinking about how to be a good citizen of our home and good citizen of the world.
I always thought there’d be time to impart my wisdom and teach them life skills when they got older – when I wasn’t so tired, when they were able to listen to reason. But it’s too late, when they have outgrown after school care and are home alone at the age 12, to just assume that they know how to use the internet responsibly. It’s too late, at the age of 14, to introduce the habit of putting your dishes in the dishwasher. It’s too late, at the age of 16, for them to suddenly wake up and understand that they are expected to be responsible for their younger siblings and kind to others.
You only have a few short years to teach them to stand up, step up, be strong, be generous. Start as early as you can – and no matter the setbacks, never stop.