But don't let that stop you from striving to be your best.
I used to worry that I might be somehow damaging my children in unexpected ways, that I was accidentally saddling them with baggage that would only reemerge years later after they’d entered therapy in order to recover from my parenting. It isn’t that they’ve have a particularly traumatic life. Their mother and I never fight, there is very little yelling in our house, we try not to pressure them or criticize them, and there aren’t any large, obvious ways in which I’m a terrible father. But I think that every parent is at least a little anxious about raising well-adjusted children.
For instance, our two older children, who are 10 and 12, have lived in four different homes now, including a huge move that took our family halfway across the country. I wonder how that affected them. Around the time we moved across the country, we became Catholic and our children became Catholic with us. That’s a big change. We decided to home school, which obviously raises a lot of questions. We think it’s the best choice for our family, but there are always doubts.
Parents are confronted with all sorts of choices. How much television should our children watch? Can the tween have her own phone? How to feed them, dress them, keep them healthy? What classes and summer camps should they be enrolled in? They’re not falling behind, are they? Our kids are well-adjusted, right? Oh, no, now the tween is starting to roll her eyes and spend time in her room not talking to us … send help!
It isn’t unusual to see parents so worried that they don’t even let their children play on the playground without helicoptering over them. Some kids go their entire childhood without getting muddy or having the chance to climb a tree. I don’t want to be the sort of parent who tries to control every aspect of my child’s life, always frantic that I need to improve, always concerned about any deviations from what I think is the perfect script for childhood.
After seeing how different our six children are, here’s what I’ve come to realize: Children are amazingly resilient. I’ve made mistakes with them, but it doesn’t seem to have emotionally damaged them in any permanent way and I don’t think they’re carrying a secret grudge against me. I don’t think I’ve poisoned their path to adulthood.
That said, I do believe that parenting matters. I try my absolute best to be a good father. Parents are highly influential on their children and, if we aren’t careful with what we say and how we behave, we can cause emotional and spiritual damage. When I say that children are resilient, there’s a definite limit to just how resilient they can be without suffering permanent, negative developmental consequences. When parents are hyper-protective, highly anxious, or egocentric, when they regularly scream and yell, gaslight, or otherwise manipulate their children, they can cause huge problems. All the little things, though? Like what house you live in, what school they go to, the challenges you face as a family? Most kids can handle it.
There’s a common stereotype that, in any family, the oldest child is always treated more sternly and the youngest is always spoiled. I’m the middle of three brothers, and my older brothers joke that our parents gave them chores but gave our younger brother a jet ski. Now that we’re all adults, we’re all pretty much the same – well-adjusted, healthy people. The slight differences in our upbringing didn’t really amount to much. The reason why, I’m convinced, is that our parents love us all the same.
This is what our children need from us — unconditional love. If they have this, and they know it, no parenting mistake, no decision, no anxiety, will outweigh that love. Understanding this has helped me relax about my parenting decisions, because they’re all secondary. My kids are living a different childhood than I did, but they’ll be just fine.
I’m still not confident that I’m a perfect father, but isn’t that sort of the point? The lives of our children are beyond our ability to control, and if we were to try to do so it would be an absolute failure. The hardest thing is to treat our little ones as human beings, with their own goals, ambitions, thoughts, and feelings, but once we loosen the grip a bit, it’s amazing to see just how much they are capable of, how determined they can be, and how, with parents and a family that loves them, they can stand up to any challenge that life sends their way.