Being a parent is overwhelming in mid-December, when everybody’s activities and pressures are multiplying. During the holidays, our expectation of family life is heightened along with our kids’ sense of entitlement and their frustrations with school. Arguments are common this time of year. Perhaps a few lumps of coal belong in some stockings. It’s a time of year when we doubt ourselves as parents.
The journey of parenting is far too long and dangerous to warrant any amount of comfort. Deep down we know that any number of things can get sideways in a hurry, and far too many of those things are beyond our control.
So, how do we know if we are on the right path? How do we know if we are making any progress?
Salesmen can gauge success with sales figures, bar graphs, and commissions. Coaches can measure success with wins, losses, statistics, and championships. But parents labor daily without any quantifiers of success.
Some might say that a good apple falls from a good tree, but it’s not as simple as looking at the immediate results of children. After all, we all know a few stable, loving parents who use good parenting techniques but have a child who doesn’t seem to be turning out so well. Conversely, we all know a few unstable families, and yet some of their kids seem to be flourishing. Some kids rebel, no matter what their parents do, while other kids succeed, in spite of all sorts of family dysfunction. In addition, many kids simply take more time to mature than others, in spite of all the efforts of their parents.
We cannot use the current status of a child to accurately measure the success of a parent. It’s not fair to the child or to the parent. As a middle school teacher, I have learned that you cannot judge a person on their 7th grade year. Well, pick any year, for that matter. It’s not fair to judge anyone on a short era in their history. Kids should all come with visible birthmarks that read: “Work in Progress.”
In addition, there is no other measure that satisfies the question: “Am I actually parenting really well?” How can we tell if we are succeeding? This isn’t high school where we have grades and other ineffective measures of status. We should know better than to judge quickly by any measure of money, attractiveness, athletic success, standardized test scores, private school admission, or even good manners.
And what about those of us with disabled children? How in the world can we assess our work as parents? Is there a sliding scale? Are we graded on a curve? Clearly, we can’t use society’s standards of achievement as our measuring stick.
Every parent wonders if they are successful, in the same way that every teen wonders how they look before a date. It’s the nature of the job. Parenting is filled with uncertainty from start to finish, top to bottom.
As a parent, perhaps more than in any other endeavor, success is relative. It is also largely unrecognized. Worse yet, it’s the radical extremes that get all the attention, usually in the form of a news story about child abuse or another celebrity child gone wild. Our culture lacks a way to recognize good parents. So we spend our days wondering, “Am I a good parent?” and “Am I doing enough?”
Traditionally, we fall back on some non-specific universal parenting truths: Do your best. Love your kids. Know your kids. Instill self-discipline. Be there for your kids. Provide opportunities. Keep your standards high.
Those are all great sentiments, but they are neither specific nor measurable. So, we don’t know where we stand. Sometimes we feel like winners, especially when things are going well with our kids. Sometimes we feel like total losers, as if we are the ones that need parenting all over again. But there is a way out of the maze.
Our culture teaches: “Extraordinary results come from extraordinary actions.” We see it throughout our movies, TV, and books. The everyman protagonist must do something extraordinarily brave in order to be transformed into a hero. He or she focuses on a noble goal and becomes heroic when he or she meets the goal. The End.
While this may be true in some instances, the greater truth is this: Extraordinary results come from ordinary actions done extraordinarily well.
Setting excellent goals is not enough. Setting goals for yourself and your children is a good thing, but it is crucial to NOT focus on those goals.
Sports psychologists and the best coaches understand that an athlete should not focus on winning or losing the championship. The athlete needs to think about only what needs to be done today: lift weights, eat healthy, sleep hard, study hard, run hard, meet with coaches, and practice perfectly. In time, success results from the daily focus on the work at hand.
Alabama football coach, Nick Saban, has built a football dynasty by demanding that his coaches and players hyper-focus on what needs to happen right now. So, in the most intense moments of the most important games, his team usually prevails because they are not worried about losing the game or the national title. They are solely focused on the play at hand, while the other team panics and usually loses. It pays to focus on the present.
Don’t focus on goals because that is not where your success should lie. After all, there are many, many things that you cannot control that may keep you from reaching your goals. Life is unpredictable. And maybe your goals are a bit off-base. Perhaps your goals lack some important insights. Maybe God has a different plan, perhaps a much better plan than you have devised.
What every parent needs is an excellent daily process. A great process will get you far in life, perhaps well beyond your goals. In fact, some people stop at their goals when they could actually far exceed them.
Author Ben Newman writes: “By focusing on daily activities and small goals, you can develop a passion for the process. And this kind of passion gives you the opportunity to make every single day triumphant. Success follows naturally, organically, without trying to control the outcome. You work toward the goals, one day at a time, focusing on today’s process, not the entire journey.”
We need to believe in our goals, then practically forget about them. 99.9% of our life should be spent on executing our process. Embrace it. Hyper-focus on the present.
Parenting is far more craft than art. It is a set of best practices mixed with plenty of love and attention. It does not take genius. Anyone can improve.
There is no formula for success when it comes to raising healthy and happy children, but there are good practices and bad practices. There are things that generally work and things that generally do not work, also known as best practices.
Your process is a set of best practices, such as eating dinner together, helping with homework, or hugging each other before walking out the door. It’s nothing more than a basic set of strategic, purposeful things done extremely well.
You already have a process, and it is leading somewhere. But is it a truly excellent process? Is there room for improvement?
Take some time to identify your parenting goals and evaluate your daily process of what you will do every day to be a great parent. Revise the process every day for a week. Figure out what works best for you and your family. Create a rhythm of life (work, play, rest, relate, sleep…) that will yield success in the long run. Then trust the process.
Do the little things well, and positive results will follow in a natural way. For example, let’s take the act of eating together. It’s a best practice, by all accounts. Perhaps you can get the family together for dinner four times per week. Great. Now, do it really well. Get the kids involved in the prep work and clean up. Put away all electronic devices. Ask lots of questions. Have everyone tell a funny thing that happened today. Ask what is the worst event of the day. Make it a great meal four times per week, and your relationships will grow and joy will follow.
Do the same with other great family practices: help with homework, play some games, go to church together, watch a movie each weekend, make brownie sundaes, fold laundry… And be sure to connect as much as possible. For that connection is the fuel of a great family life.
The goal is not to be a perfect parent or to have a perfect child. The parent who strives for perfection will end up collapsing in a heap. Simply move forward along the path with your children. Meet them where they are today and move forward together.
Walk the day’s path, deal with the day’s troubles, and enjoy the journey as much as possible. Do not wish for someone else’s easy life. Embrace your daily mess of a life with your child. Live in the moment with your family.
Mother Theresa said it this way: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” This complements the Bible’s teaching that “each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
You will find that your anxiety will decrease while your confidence and effectiveness will increase. Because at the end of the day, when you have completed your process, you can rest easy, knowing that you are doing a great job of making steady progress on the journey of family life.