My son was 14 and looking forward to going to a Red Sox game with his dad. But he talked back to me. He was disrespectful. And his father heard. And that was that. Instead of heading to Fenway Park, he spent the night in his room.
A generation later, my granddaughter was excited about going to dinner with her mother and me. She’d picked out her clothes. She was counting the minutes. But all day she pushed the envelope. She was warned about her attitude. And she didn’t heed the warnings. So she had dinner at home.
It is so tempting for parents to turn a deaf ear, to ignore bad behavior, to let things go. Because no one is happy when a child is being punished. Not the boy in his room angry, not the girl who is sobbing, “It’s not fair!” and not the parents who wonder, just a little, if maybe they weren’t fair, and want to cry, too.
But parents do what they have to do. They can’t just tell their children that actions have consequences. They have to show them.
Being a parent is, was, and always will be the hardest job on Earth, a child’s disappointment over a missed baseball game and a fancy dinner the least of it. Being a parent means leading, guiding, inspiring, cooking, cleaning, driving, explaining, cheering, worrying, hoping. And teaching: No jumping on the furniture. No throwing balls in the house. Sit up straight. Use your napkin. Look a person in the eyes when you say hello. Wash your hands. Chew with your mouth closed. Yes, please. No, thank you.
And this is the easy part! Small children, small problems, my Aunt Lorraine used to say.
What makes parenting a perpetual challenge is that every day we come to it unprepared. There are no step-by-step, guaranteed-to-work instruction manuals for raising a human being. No Genius Bars. No finish line.
I watch my children parent. I watch their friends.
How much do you tell children about the world? What do you tell them? Be careful whom you trust? Don’t do anything you can’t undo. Always wear your seat belt. Never take drugs. Don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking. Be honest. Be kind.
And I remember how all encompassing parenting is. How exhausting, mentally, physically, and emotionally. And I think how, when a child grows up to be an Abe Lincoln or a Mother Teresa, no one ever says he or she must have had fantastic parents. When a child excels, the child stands alone in the spotlight.
But if a child grows up with problems? The parents are the first to be blamed.
Parents blames themselves, too. No matter what we did right, when something goes wrong, we ask ourselves, what could we have done better?
Everyone on this planet who is great at something practices over and over until that something is learned. Until a skill is ingrained. Until it is instinct. Catching fly balls. Nailing a triple lutz. Reciting all the words to “Hamilton.” Performing heart surgery. No one can do these things the first time.
But every day is a first time for parents. Every day is unrehearsed, unscripted, the ultimate in improv.
We can change diapers and tie sneakers and whip up macaroni and cheese and drive to the mall blindfolded. This part of parenting, we have memorized. But the important parts, we wing.
And so we mess up sometimes. How can we not? By the time you understand a 3-year old, he’s 4. Teenagers become adults. They’re new. Imagine walking into your kitchen every morning and finding it rearranged.
I cried the night my son didn’t go to the baseball game. My daughter cried last week when her daughter cried. Raising a child isn’t only unpredictable and the hardest work there is. It is also feeling their pain.
But it is, some times, many times, and these are the best of times, feeling their love (“So I can go to dinner with you and Mimi next week, Mom?”) and their joy.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.