Parenting on a Train
As our family travels throughout Switzerland, we are taking buses and trains daily to get around. The Swiss are noticeably quiet on these modes of transportation. Recently, the kids were getting loud and rowdy on a train while we were headed back to Grindelwald. Carter and I both quickly reprimanded them for disturbing the other passengers. Later, we thought about what was behind our reaction to the kids. Was our primary driver helping the kids gain greater awareness of their surroundings or the fear of judgement we receive as parents of children who are acting unruly?
In the former, our response may have held a bit more patience and understanding, teaching the kids that they have the capacity to notice their surroundings and to consider how best to act on modes of transportation where people are in quiet, close quarters.
We knew, instead, our response was based on the latter. Our rebuke was quick and condemning, conveying more consideration of the strangers on the train and leaving the kids feeling punished with harsh words.
We felt pretty crummy recognizing we had pegged more to the opinion of strangers than supporting and developing our kids. We could have respected the quiet of the train while also showing our children the respect that they could learn from the experience. The challenge we recognized was setting aside our own need for approval from others and to engage with our children as fellow human beings and not a yardstick for the quality of our parenting.
This experience raised some bigger questions. I took a step back to consider who I think I'm supposed to be as a parent. In the mix, is a deeply-rooted belief that my responsibility is to raise resilient, emotionally intelligent, mindful, grateful, joyful, fulfilled children who are citizens of the world. A tall order. A big problem here is that I have not figured this formula out myself. I'm not sure anyone has exactly. Yet, somewhere along the way, I internalized that "achieving" these qualities in my children is the goal and measure of my parenting.
In this set up, everyone is penalized. When my children don't behave in ways that demonstrate these attributes, I fast-forward their lives and worry they will face a life of joylessness and emptiness. I also translate it as a direct and deep failure of my parenting. It becomes about me and not, it turns out, the self-actualization of my children. If my kids don't act the ways I've clearly outlined for them, I will not get an A+ in parenting! Seeking the A+ is rooted in the need to achieve and excel in order to validate my own worth. It is humbling to see that my concern for my children's path to happiness is co-mingled with my most basic insecurities.
For a moment, I put the parenting playbook down. I'm not even sure where this playbook came from. At the end of the day, I know my parenting will be inherently and deeply flawed. No matter how I exhaust myself (and those around me) to point true north, I will continue to be confronted with my imperfection and limitations. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what knowledge children would gain from a perfect parent. What I learn over and over is that wisdom comes from seeing our own and each other's most heart-breaking and unspeakable vulnerabilities, or "flaws", with love, honesty and clarity.
What would be different if I could care less about my parenting grade and instead regard these children as two already fully-formed souls? What if I see that they teach me as much as, if not more than, I teach them? What if the people on the train DO look askance at my parenting? What if there's no applause?
I realized early on that my children are indelibly unique. They arrived that way and are not mine to create. If I can fully allow, even love, our shared imperfections instead of believing in a myth of perfection, maybe that's the greatest gift I can give my children. Maybe the best we can all do is to stay present enough to discern where a fragile sense of self ends and the possibility of unconditional love can begin - for our children and for ourselves. That feels like a place to find benevolence.
On Children by Kahlil Gibran
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.