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4 Parenting lessons I learned the hard way


Olena Yakobchuk | Shutterstock

Tom Hoopes - published on 06/21/21

We have to learn to forgive our parents — and ourselves — and help our children do the same.

I have nine children, ages 8 to 28, and so I am in the unique position to learn from mistakes I made with older kids and try to correct them with younger kids. Let’s see if I do.

My wife and I did many things right — especially my wife’s genius for developmental milestones and balanced character formation. But boy, oh, boy, we did a lot of things wrong, too — we’re learning about them as the kids grow older and talk more openly about the past. Here are a few things I learned and hereby resolve to do better.

1: I learned my children are not my children.

They belong to God, and to themselves. I knew this intellectually before, of course. But when the rubber meets the road and it is time for your children to be autonomous adults who act by their own best lights, not yours, I found the transition from the parent-child relationship to the parent-adult relationship a lot harder than I expected.

I blame a picture on the wall of my bedroom. It’s the young version of me leading the toddler version of my oldest daughter by the hand in front of a shimmering ocean. A plate on the frame quotes the Book of Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, to give you a future and a hope.”

That frame tricked me. I started to strongly associate the words at the bottom with the picture of me, guiding my daughter — and I let myself forget that the words refer to God’s plans, not mine. 

I had to learn the hard way that Tom Hoopes’s plan for his children is irrelevant. God has his plans which are far better than mine. Now, I’m praying my kids will find God’s plan, and not be held up by mine. 

2: I learned to name and appreciate children’s talents.

To my shame, I’m not a natural compliment-giver. I appreciate people’s talents a great deal, but I somehow never get around to telling them. That has gotten me into trouble at work and at home.

So my wife and I have tried to name and appreciate the talents we see in each of our children — and define them by their strengths instead of their faults. This means seeing that a quiet daughter is a rock of calm, not “aloof”; a people-pleasing son is a center of positive energy, not “superficial”; and a day-dreamer is thoughtful, not thoughtless.

Compliment them according to their deepest identity and that will help them own it. And do it a lot.

3: I learned to spend time with each child individually.

This is really important, and it is especially hard with busy schedules, let alone multiple children.

We always tried to do this — and took children out on errands or breakfast dates. But a friend shared with us their habit of having an intentional, 10-min talk each week with each child. 

They say, “Just checking in … how are you doing? How did X event from last week sit with you? What are you most looking forward to next week? How is it going with your brothers and sisters and you? School? Friends? God?” 

This brings up issues the parent can nip in the bud, gives children a place to say things they want to say but can’t find an “in” to say, and establishes a habit that will be really important when they are teens. 

The way we are trying to make it work is by talking to one while cooking Sunday morning breakfast, another while walking the dog and another on the way to work.

4: Above all, I learned forgiveness.

A priest pointed out that a lot of negative patterns in life have their root in unforgiveness, and pointed me to these forgiveness prayers from the book Forgiveness & Inner Healing by Father Robert DeGrandis S.S.J. and Betty Tapscott.

I spent a month going through the exercise of daily seeking unforgiveness in my life and replacing it with mercy, and discovered that parents and children are both centers of deep unforgiveness. If you think about it, parents do more good for their children than anyone else, often unconsciously —and do more harm to their children, unconsciously, too. 

The same dynamic is happening in the lives of our children. We remember all the times we tried hard to be good parents, but we have forgotten all the times we didn’t. We have to learn to forgive our parents — and ourselves — and help our children do the same.

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