I’m not really the “what if?” type. Rarely do I look back and think I should have done things another way. As Frank Sinatra so memorably put it, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then too few to mention.”
Except, of course, when it comes to parenting.
My children — a girl and a boy — are now grown and have thoughtfully produced kids of their own. My four grandchildren are sweet and adorable and everything I deserve for the devotion, dedication and diligence I displayed while raising those two test cases, their parents.
It’s tempting — no, make that irresistible — to share with my kids my well-meaning thoughts and opinions about raising children. After all, I’ve been there, done that — twice — and even hung around long enough to see the results. Isn’t that a double-blind study of some sort?
But the truth is, no one wants to listen to the so-last-century views of the older generation, even if that wisdom is rooted in on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, real-life experience. Kids. Go figure.
So instead, I’ve compiled a list of what I’d do differently if, with a little help from my time machine, I had the chance. Call it the “Back to the Future Grammy Chronicles.”
1. Surfing: I’d do it
Or snowshoeing or horseback riding or fly-fishing or tree climbing. I would take more chances and have more fun, even if that meant getting wet or getting cold or getting ridiculed by my family for being wimpy or klutzy or coming in last. I’d worry less about twisting an ankle or deconstructing my hair, and more about being “in the moment” and enjoying life with my family.
If I could do it again, I would also resist being Anxious Mama, because I was both anxious and mama. I now understand that taking risks builds resilience. Maybe I’d even let my daughter take part in that ridiculously remote ski program I nixed when she was 5. Maybe.
2. It’s a phase: I’d get it
The best thing about distance and perspective is that once you’re a grandparent, you’ve got both. We know that the baby will one day sleep through the night, get potty trained and extract his thumb from his mouth.
We also know that your fibbing 4-year-old is not headed for a life of crime. That your bossypants 6-year-old could turn out to be the next Sheryl Sandberg, and that your 3-year-old, the one who dismantles everything in sight, might one day become an orthopedic surgeon. Your mouthy, back-talking teen? No promises.
If I could do it again, I wouldn’t draw conclusions from bits and pieces of my children’s behavior, unpleasant or otherwise. Just as a precocious interest in dinosaurs doesn’t mean you have a future paleontologist, a precocious disregard for other people’s money doesn’t mean you have a future Bernie Madoff.
3. Chores: I’d insist on them
As Laura Kastner, Ph.D., and Kristen A. Russell write in their book Wise-Minded Parenting, “Since children and teens are happiest when you give them stuff and make their lives as easy as possible, a child’s approving smiles are not good measures of your parenting. You should only go so far for those smiles.”
Clearly, I went too far. When it came to doing the dishes or taking out the trash, I succumbed to those age-old yet artfully delivered protests: “I have homework!” “I have baseball practice!” and yes, “I have to watch the season finale of The Cosby Show!” All said with smiles.
If I could do it again, I would help my children develop a sense of responsibility by helping the family. That process can start early: Even preschoolers can set the table, put the laundry away, make their own beds — sort of — and water the plants.
4. Allowance: I’d give them one
It’s not that I didn’t try the allowance thing. Doesn’t everyone? But money, as they say, is power. “No allowance this week if … ” often morphed into “No allowance this week because …” until it became “No allowance.”
They also say, “Greed is good,” at least Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko did, and my kids were great Gekko fans. So small squabbles would often ensue over which one of our piggy banks should be emptied to cover what activity. Movies? Theirs. Clothing? Ours.
If I could do it again, I’d make sure my kids learned, early on, how to manage money. I’d scale the allowance to their age — at 6, they’d get $6 — and I would be specific about what perks that money should cover (yes, parents should finance the basics). And I’d never tie their allowance to chores or grades or major meltdowns at the market.
5. Bullying: I wouldn’t tolerate it
Back in the day, kids were expected to “work things out” on their own, even if one of them was being harassed, tormented or teased. Parents rarely reported these incidents to teachers or school administrators, who often felt that dealing with bullying behavior didn’t have much to do with their job of teaching reading, writing and ’rithmetic.
Oh, what a difference two decades make. Today, programs such as Second Step teach social skills to students from preschool through middle school. Committee for Children works to promote children’s social and academic success, and helps elementary schools create safe environments.
If I could do it again, I would intervene when that mean kid at school picked on my son. I’d report this to school administrators, then work diligently with them to find a resolution.
6. Traditions: I’d create more
Sure, we celebrated Thanksgiving and Father’s Day and birthdays. But here’s what I know now: Family traditions transcend blowing out candles, exchanging presents and carving turkeys. They define a family’s culture and reflect its identity. As author Jennifer Trainer Thompson writes in The Joy of Family Traditions, “Traditions help us to shape our daily lives and foster values … they can be an oasis in an increasingly hectic and busy world.”
If I could do it again, I’d create special nighttime routines, write clever lunch-box messages, invent code words only we would understand, and tell silly and senseless dinnertime jokes.
Then I’d collect and reassemble diverse and fascinating rituals. My children would soak up the rich customs and mores of others while evaluating their own family principles and integrating each of these into their personal heritage.
Ha! I wish! But at the very least, they’d have fun trying.
7. Time: I’d take it
If I could do it again, I’d realize that those hurried, hassled, recital-going, T-ball-playing, birthday-party-planning years race by at Mach speed. I’d take a moment or so — every day — to sit back, chill and soak in all that awesomeness.
Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s managing editor, is the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential and on-air parenting expert for KING-TV.