I made a new friend this winter. There are plenty of traits I appreciate: He’s a fantastic chef, and super handy, and says “yes” to every adventure. But the thing I most admire about Ryan is his parenting.
His boys (ages 10 and 12 when I met them) are polite. They can survive a six-hour road trip without an electronic device. The eldest makes bacon-and-egg breakfasts for the family. I know a superhero when I see one, and Ryan is a super dad. Sure, he has his off days, but in general, it’s easy to see that he’s rocking this parenting thing.
So I asked him to teach me his secrets. Here are the things he told me.
Parenting is a choice
At some point, you have to choose to parent. Not just to procreate, but to accept your role as a parent whose job it is to prepare your kid(s) for their own adult lives.
It’s hard to make this choice, partly because many people don’t realize that it’s a choice in the first place. You might think, “Of course I’m parenting. I’ve been ‘parenting’ since that first diaper.” But no. There’s a point when you switch tracks from survival mode (“please stop crying”) to parenting mode (“here’s how to wash your clothes”).
Actively parenting takes effort. It’s is the last thing anybody wants to do when they get home from work at the end of the day. It means choosing to put your own needs second and your kids first.
Ryan made this choice. After a series of “wake up” moments, he chose to be a dad to his kids. He stopped outsourcing them at every available opportunity and changed his focus from his own rowdy adventures to creating quality time with his boys.
In the early days of our friendship, I asked Ryan how mealtimes work at his house. Specifically, do they eat meals together?
His answer: Not only do they eat together at the table, but they also cook and wash up together. The boys ask to be excused, then clear the plates. After dinner, they play cards or backgammon or crib. They have conversations.
If parents don’t teach their kids these basic life skills, who will?
I read Ryan’s texted response and then looked up at my own son, plugged into his iPad and Pokemon headphones watching YouTube cartoons while he ate his breakfast and realized I’d been lazy.
I was still in survival mode. After the infant/toddler years had come the years of my partner’s cancer, and then our move, and then building our house—with everything going on in our lives, family meals had never been a priority. But if our mealtime habits were going to change, it was up to me as the adult, the parent, to change it.
Be the grit
Somewhere along the way, I picked up on the idea that a parent’s job is to make life easier for their kids. When your kids are babies, you take care of them. You anticipate their needs and try to give them what they want, mostly to prevent or stop the crying.
But some people don’t stop being the WD-40 in their children’s lives. They continue to make their appointments, chauffeur them around, manage their interpersonal conflicts—in part, again, because it’s easier. It’s easier to just pick up the dirty clothes. It’s easier to watch Netflix while making dinner than it is to try to make conversation with a preteen, much less get them to prep the salad. But if parents don’t teach their kids these basic life skills, who will?
Ryan told me how he takes this even further. His job is not to make life easier for his kids, he says. It’s actually to make it harder. It’s his job to introduce challenge and conflict into his kids’ lives so they can learn early on—in a safe place with a safe, loving adult—how to overcome challenges and manage conflict.
A parent’s job is to … be right there beside them, to model good problem-solving and coach them along the way.
Ryan dropped this particular pearl of wisdom while we were having lunch one day, and then he reached out and took my mug of tea.
“That’s my tea,” I protested. I was ready to fight for it.
“So that’s where he gets it.”
And then he brought it back to what he was saying: A parent’s job is to take away the favorite toy so the kid can figure out how to get it back without resorting to violence. To be right there beside them, to model good problem-solving and coach them along the way. To purposefully not follow the kindergartener’s precise instructions for building that sandcastle, so they can practice patience and be open to friends playing in different ways.
Introducing conflict into my son’s life felt weird at first, but it’s actually way more fun than obediently doing what he commands.
Do it for yourself
Sure, being an active parent will (you hope) give you great adult kids. But there’s a short-term benefit to all of this too: self-respect. Being a parent rather than an enabler is good for your own sense of self-worth.
Ryan realized one day that his kids were staring at their devices while he was making their school lunches. He felt like a servant, and alarm bells rang in his head. He put the knife down: No more of that nonsense. If the boys had the leisure time to watch mindless junk on the internet, he reasoned, they had the time to make their own sandwiches.
His rule now is: No devices until after breakfast and lunches are done. He still makes their lunches most of the time, but he also gets some conversation time with his kids while he spreads mayo on bread.
I have more examples of this. Ryan and his ex-wife sleep-trained their boys early on because adult evening time mattered to them. He taught his eldest to make eggs years ago and cleaned egg gunk off the stovetop many, many times, but now gets served perfect egg breakfasts. He’s taught his kids manners, knife skills, design and construction, card games, and more, which has made them enjoyable, confident kids and capable future adults.
Teaching basic manners is a start. It’s soul-sucking and demeaning to be ordered around by your child. You deserve to be asked for something politely (“please”) and thanked for your effort.
It’s always hard to veer from your set path. Maybe your kid is older or you have an extra-tiring job or there are some other extenuating circumstances and active parenting just sounds like too much work right now.
My son ate his breakfast this morning at the counter, plugged into his iPad and Pokemon headphones again, watching YouTube cartoons.
But we eat dinner together at the table most days now and have conversations. I’ve taught Isaac how to make me tea. Sometimes he brings it to me in bed.
And when he struggles to get his jacket on, I force myself to keep my hands in my pockets. Because he will always, eventually, figure it out without my help.