My kids teach me too: the unexpected gift of raising children
Here’s an understatement: having kids is hard work. While the jury is still out on whether or not non-parents are happier than parents, there is no arguing that for many people, raising children is the most difficult thing they’ve ever done. The simple truth is that parents are often so busy taking care of their children that they don’t make time to take care of themselves.
Of course, parenting is also deeply rewarding. Personally, there are few things that brighten my soul like the sound of my kids’ laughter or their giant, 110% hugs. There is something profoundly fulfilling about seeing the world through their eyes, in watching them learn and grow, to see their passion for connecting with things that we adults have long stopped caring about. My wife and I make mistakes, but it’s a unique privilege to raise them up and teach them about the world.
These features of parenthood are well known, but amidst all of the sleepless nights and stress, there has been a great surprise in my life these last six years; my kids have actually raised me as much as I raise them. One of the truly unexpected benefits of having children is that they have taught me so much about other people and even myself.
In both their struggles and their victories, I see myself and every person around me. Here are six things I’ve observed:
- Children reflect the people they surround themselves with; so do we. At six and four, my kids haven’t yet formed really close relationships outside of our extended family, but their behavior and thought processes are very much influenced by their inner circle.
Particularly at this age, they’re like mirrors; we see so much of ourselves in them and their behavior, for better and for worse. It’s endearing when they reflect our creativity or passion and less-than-charming when they mimic our temper or impatience.
Human beings have evolved over millions of years as social creatures; even the most deeply introverted amongst us is dependent upon and influenced by the people we spend time with. We understand this in our children, but fail to appreciate in ourselves. This goes deeper than having powerful connections or mentors; our family and friends shape the way we think and respond to opportunities and stressors in life.
Of course, there are people you don’t necessarily choose: unless you’re willing to move or change jobs, you don’t pick your neighbors or co-workers, for example. Maybe you don’t like your family or your in-laws but you also want your kids or spouse to have some kind of a relationship with them. Maybe your marriage is rocky but you believe that it’s worth persevering.
The point is to recognize that everyone in our lives can bring us up or bring us down. (Note that this is one reason that I love to read: I get instant access to a very wise person who can help me to do better.)
- Children are stubborn, even when it’s clearly against their best interests; so are we. Children are often hilariously wrong but certain they’re right. Of course, it’s easy for us to explain that the moon is actually bigger than a quarter or that eating broccoli won’t really kill you.
For years, our daughter refused to potty train, even while her much younger friends at daycare embraced it. We begged, bribed and threatened all to no avail. Then all of a sudden one day, she decided she was going to go potty and has been doing it ever since.
For years, my son was cautious to a fault. He resisted doing many fun things in spite of our assurances. Then one day, I guess he woke up and decided he was going to be a thrill-seeker instead. He loves big water slides and doing flips and jumping off of just about anything he can climb. In fact, now I have to really restrain myself from being overprotective.
It’s funny — if not frustrating — when we see this in our kids. But it’s much less funny to entertain the possibility that we are equally wrong but equally ignorant of our errors. There are scores of books and studies which caution us against cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and it’s easy to spot them in our children, but it takes a lot more courage to recognize them in ourselves.
For years — even decades! — we’ll steadfastly refuse to eat better or lose weight or get a handle on our temper or our finances, even as we continue to suffer life-changing consequences for doing so. The answer to our problems is always within reach, but we refuse to reach.
- Children get really fired up about mostly meaningless things; so do we. Sometimes, it’s actually funny to watch my kids screaming at each other, intoxicated with primal rage, over a toy that one of them had completely forgotten about thirty seconds ago.
But then, it’s not so funny to realize my wife and I basically do the same thing over drying the dishes or eating organic produce or spending money on something frivolous. We squander so much of our energy and yes, our happiness, on genuinely unimportant things.
- Children use rational sounding arguments to justify emotional decisions; so do we. It’s amazing to watch a young child’s mind work; you can almost see the wheels turning.
In the past few months alone, my children have become young masters of rationalization; they can weave surprisingly elaborate reasons which explain why they should be allowed to eat candy or skip vegetables or hit each other or wear their pajamas to school.
It’s easy to see that they simply want these things; so they’ll start with that fact and then invent justifications for having them. But again, we continue to do this as adults as well, often without knowing it.
Of course, children also do things that we don’t, but should. For example:
- Children ask lots of questions; we don’t. Children want to know about everything and they’re not afraid to show it.
Why is that traffic cone over there? Why is Texas so hot? Why is that bug black? Why does he speak a different language? Why can’t we see God? Children may ask dozens of questions in a single day.
In contrast, adults don’t typically pay much attention to what we don’t know or we’re reluctant to admit our ignorance, so either we don’t ask or we pretend that we do know. In a way, we stop caring. Or, once you’re convinced that you know the answer, you stop asking the question. (Hence the eternal stream of experts forever arguing their One True Answer to complex problems on Facebook.)
- Children grow in part because they’re accountable to their parents; we fail to grow because we’re accountable to no one. I mentioned above that children are often wrong but so are we. However, there is at least one important difference.
One reason that children continue to grow and learn while adults remain comparatively static is that our children are always in the company of older, hopefully wiser adults who are expected to teach and correct. On the contrary, as grown-ups, it is actually possible to live our adult lives as mostly unaccountable for our mistakes. Short of committing a crime, going bankrupt or being fired, we are generally responsible for building meaningful feedback loops into our daily lives. And it’s pretty easy to avoid doing that.
When our kids make excuses, we shut it down. But there’s usually no one to shut down our justifications, and when there is we’re free to ignore them.
I’ve written about six things, but I could probably write about two dozen. What about you?
Our children can teach us so much, if only we’re willing to ask and listen.
And yes, then change.