Over the years, we've learned raising kids is not that different from the way a tree grows.
We had no idea what we were doing when we started off as parents, not really. From day one, when they were babies, we thought that we had do everything right immediately: that if they didn’t take naps on time, or have 1,000 words spoken to them by breakfast, or be read board books at certain intervals every day, we’d failed them. Like so many parents, we thought that there were right and wrong ways to help our kids thrive.
Of course, some things are right and wrong—kids should never be neglected or abused. Parents will always have to figure out how to communicate in a way that connects with their little ones. Kids require good sleep and good food and other good things. We as parents have to meet their needs and make sure they feel loved.
But after those basics are met, there are so many ways to raise them. And that’s where things get tricky. There are books and websites and parenting coaches and grandmothers and friends all telling parents all the time that whatever they’re doing is wrong.
And so parents carry an enormous amount of guilt if what works for their child deviates from the advice they’re getting.
Let’s try a basic example: when our youngest daughter was adopted, she had only ever lived in a children’s home where she slept in a room with a bunch of other kids. All of the information we were getting was that, in order to facilitate attachment, we needed to let her sleep with us for awhile. It would be best, the wisdom went, for her to learn that her parents were always there to meet her every need, day or night, by being in the same room as us. So we diligently set up the pack-‘n’-play in our room and tried to sleep.
It was awful. No one slept. We woke her up every time we turned over, she woke us up every time she uttered a sound. With little to no sleep for anyone, and a kid who was understandably upset at the changes happening in her life, those first few days were a miserable blur.
Finally, fed up one night, Jonathan decided to try putting her down in the room with her big sisters. He stayed in the room till she was asleep. We kept the monitor on and, when she really needed us, we went to her room, but we weren’t there the whole time. And we all slept so much better. She was lulled to sleep by the familiar sound of other kids breathing at night.
It wasn’t perfect, but the attachment process happened much quicker when we weren’t hysterically tired. For us, in that small instance, the books weren't helpful; our real experience of understanding what worked for our particular kid was more important.
That’s one example of many in our years of parenting where we adjusted the advice we were getting to the actual reality in our home. We looked at the real kid in front of us, saw what was working, and went from there.
So you could stay our parenting philosophy is this: Be intentional with your kids.
I imagine parenting like the rings of a tree: you do things one way, shift slightly as you need to, and layer on year after year. You find the rhythm and strategies that work best for your family, that connect the most with your kids, that meet your values.
If you're really honest, you can tell, when you look back, what's working and what's not. Wide tree rings are years with significant water; you can see in your child's life what those years were like. And you can also recognize that there is no way, no matter how much we want to, to protect your kids from hard things. They will struggle; they will have some scars.
Trees aren't perfect circles: it's the irregularities, the quirks and dips and swirls that make them individual. Looking back on our kids' lives like the cross-section of a tree, we can see that some years have been great and others difficult, but that we've always loved them and worked hard to help them thrive. After more than a decade of parenting, I'm coming to think that the most important thing you can do as a parent is love your kid and be intentional.
Everything else will fall into place.
Photo source: Bryan Nash Gill, "Pine II"