Parenting With Integrity
Work, Grace, Love
I think one of the hardest things that humans do is parent children. Not just because of the unremitting work involved, but because all of us come into the whole enterprise with a laundry list of unexamined emotional and psychological histories. Even if we haven’t experienced trauma, we’ve all experienced pain, loss, sadness, and anger, often without the benefit of caregivers, professionals, or friends who could help us process and integrate those complicated emotions.
So, we just carry them, in more or less constructive ways, into all of our relationships, including those with our children. Add onto that the fact that each of us has a particular personality and temperament that our children may or may not share. As a result, we go into parenting with any number of ideas about how children should be raised and what kind of parent we will be. Then, y’know, life happens. Our kids end up being just as mysterious and inexplicable as other people are to us, and we end being more mysterious and inexplicable to ourselves than we ever imagined.
Meanwhile, we are supposed to guide and protect them without making any mistakes. If we make mistakes because we don’t understand them or ourselves, or because there are unintended consequences to our choices or theirs, then we are encouraged to hide or deny those mistakes to avoid the inevitable shame.
We aren’t taught that intention and impact are sometimes different, and how to take responsibility for both. The discrepancy between what we meant to happen and what actually happens can be so painful, disheartening, and humiliating that we simply refuse to admit anything that we don’t know how to deal with is happening at all.
We are supposed to know how to do a thing that has literally never been done before. Obviously, parenting has been done before, but not by you and not with your particular child. That unprecedented combination is unique in the whole universe. Not to mention, if you have more than one kid they will each have different needs and personalities, some of which make instinctual sense to you and some of which absolutely do not. Some models of parenting will work, mostly, or at least for a while, and some models won’t after a while or ever, and you won’t know until you’re in the thick of it which one’s those are. The honest reality is that you’re just making all of it up as you go along, more often than not with inadequate knowledge, support, and resources.
The only way I have found to parent all of my children with even a modicum of success— success being defined as all of us growing and deepening as human beings while, more often than not, both loving and liking each other— is to approach those relationships the same way I approach all of my relationships: with integrity, humility, and as much grace for myself and other people as I can possibly muster.
Integrity requires, in this case, recognizing that my children are separate from me. They are telling their own story, and I am only a single character in the hopefully long arc of their narrative. One of my most important parenting tasks is to work on myself— to get to know myself and take responsibility for healing my own wounds— so the nature of the character I hope to play and the character they experience me to be are anything approaching the same.
Have you ever had the experience of thinking you were, if not the hero, at least a sympathetic character in someone else’s story, only to find out you were, at best, a problem to be overcome, and at worst, a villain? I have been that person. I have also loved people, at tremendous cost, who were unable or unwilling to acknowledge their negative impact on the people around them because it didn’t fit their ideas of themselves. It wasn’t what they intended, which didn’t change the damage they left in their wake, only who seemed to be responsible for cleaning up the mess. These are not experiences I want to duplicate in my relationship with my children.
I’m not going to be able to protect my children from ever experiencing pain and heartbreak. I’m not even sure that’s a worthy goal, since I want them to develop the depth of character that only comes with some degree of struggle managed courageously. But I can damn sure try to reduce the pain and heartbreak they experience because of my complicated emotional history and temperament. And when the consequences of my complications leak onto them I can see it, own it, make amends as necessary, and work to further develop my integrity for all our sakes.
Humility dictates owning my mistakes and limitations. It also requires me to listen and attend to who they are, which is different from who I am. In order to honor who they are, I have to stretch myself, learn new skills, and embrace discomfort. They don’t need me to martyr or lose myself; they need me to temper myself, to rise to the challenge of growing and deepening in loving response to their presence in my life.
Grace is the hardest part for me, I’ll openly admit. Grace is the unearned favor of the Divine. It is not extended to us for what we do, but simply because we are. I have kneejerk skepticism about the notion of unconditional love; I struggle with impatience, anger, and resentment. Through experiencing how instinctually I offer grace to my children, however, I have learned to extend myself grace. I have learned to resist shame and sit with myself, with all my kneejerk, habitual emotional responses and psychological patterns, until the deeper truths underneath reveal themselves. By loving them unreservedly for exactly who they are, I am learning to love myself and the world.
The question of how to parent is really the question of how to love— honestly, authentically, courageously, and without reservation. Everything, including integrity, follows from there.
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