I’m now the parent of a teenager. While that statement fills me with an expected amount of anxiety, I’m also unexpectedly hopeful. Or maybe that’s delusion. Or maybe my Starbucks is hitting just right this morning.
On the evening of my son’s 13th birthday, I was on the phone with my mom. We were reflecting about how Jon was becoming more independent, responsible, and mature – and just how much fun he is to talk to. She then added, “I haven’t seen him go through any angsty, isolated stage yet. And I don’t think he will.”
I quickly knocked on wood and jokingly scolded her for jinxing the next seven years. Yet in truth it was an encouraging observation from an expert in the field, having raised four boys.
So while I’m still in the throes of denial optimism, I thought I’d jot down 13 parenting lessons I’ve learned… to commemorate making it this far.
1. Having hard conversations makes them easier.
As gay fathers of an adopted son, our family addressed a lot of weighty topics early on. However, I’ve found that because we’ve been flexing that muscle for years, having hard discussions are becoming increasingly easier. And if not easy, at least more natural.
That doesn’t mean I don’t treat these issues with the importance they warrant, but it also doesn’t mean that I fear talking about them. There are no topics too difficult to address if the lines of communication are always open.
So whether it’s puberty or drinking or bullying or racism or consent or drugs, it’s just part of our ongoing dialogue, created in a consistently safe and honest place.
2. Shock & awe: expect the unexpected.
I can guarantee you the moment I finish this list some new parenting crisis will catch me off guard and I’ll reset to having no idea what the hell I’m doing. Children have a weird knack for evolving. They adapt to what you think you’ve mastered and then show you that you most certainly have not — kind of like the Borg. Resistance is futile, indeed.
So I’ve learned to prepare to always be surprised. And that I always have things to learn.
3. Greatest parenting wins: make a mental playlist.
Speaking of surprises, I will never be able to predict what my child will do or say next. What new and terrifying challenge he’ll create, or weird and uncomfortable question he’ll ask… in front of company. But I can think back to my past responses and learn from them.
That’s one of the reasons I try to do these reflecty-type things from time-to-time. It helps me remember what worked and what didn’t.
A few mantras I’ve been repeating lately: Breathe. Sit and think before you talk. Run the scenarios of past responses in your head. Decide what you want to communicate and accomplish ahead of time. Understand there will be push back and testing of boundaries, and that’s all a part of growing up — for both of us.
4. It’s not okay to apologize. It’s necessary.
I’m almost certain “I’m sorry” is the phrase I’ve uttered to my kid more than any other in my 13 years as a dad. And it was almost always for reacting too loudly, too meanly, or just too anything.
I think initially I apologized out of guilt, hating that I wasn’t as calm and steadfast as I remember my dad being. But somewhere along the way I realized admitting when I’d screwed up was also setting an example for my son. I’m not showing him that I’m weak or a pushover. I’m showing him that I’m a flawed human — just like him — and that I can admit when I’m wrong, move past my emotions, and get back to the actual issue needing attention.
5. Say you’re sorry without your but.
Whenever I apologize, there’s a strong temptation to immediately follow it with a “but.” As in, “I’m sorry I yelled at you… but you never put your dishes away.” When you pair those two, the latter ends up sounding like a justification of the former.
What’s a better way to phrase it? “I’m sorry I yelled at you. When you didn’t do what I asked I got frustrated and reacted the wrong way.” Once we’ve both had a chance to cool down, I revisit the request with a calm, “Can you please put your dishes away now?”
6. Worry is fine. Trust is better.
Kids grow the most when you give them the chance to. I’m not going to tell any parent (or myself) not to ever worry about their kids; it’s part of the job description. But when I find myself stressing about what others (family, the internet) think, that’s a good sign I need to examine my motives and my true feelings.
As Jon neared his teenage years, I found this getting tested on all new levels. However, I found that each time I made a choice out of trust and hope — and not out of fear — the results were much more positive.
If you’re worried you aren’t a good enough parent, it means you’re at least doing your best. And you can trust that is good enough.
7. Don’t make every chat an after school special.
Not every interaction with my kid has to be about homework or hygiene or whatever the most pressing issue of the moment is. Like most parents, I often default to an after-school interrogation of “Did you get that assignment in?” or “Are your gym clothes still rotting in your locker?” Yet I’ve found that when I ask questions about music or video games or other things he enjoys, I set a more positive, welcoming tone. This opens our dialogue up to make room for the “important” stuff — and a more genuine and honest conversation.
8. Let them feel their feels.
This is one I’ve had to learn over and over and over. Before becoming a dad, I could count the times I’d reacted with unbridled anger on one hand. Enter The Child: He Who Pushes All the Buttons, The Evoker of Emotions, The First of His Name, The Last of My Sanity.
While I love my hilarious, charismatic, emotional child, the downside is having a sometimes not-so-hilarious, angry, distraught, out-of-control, emotional child. And he seems to bring out similar reactions in me.
The truth is, we’re both pretty over-the-top emotional at times. I’ve come to appreciate that similarity but know it also requires a good amount of patience, space, and time to allow him to cycle through whatever he’s feeling. Because no rational thought or argument will work in those moments. Once we’ve both felt our feels and taken a few breaths, we can reconnect, discuss, and find our way back to peace and progress.
9. If you’re gonna take the blame, you’ve also gotta take credit.
I’ve spent a LOT of time concerned that I’d ruined my kid. Like, A LOT a lot. I worry that my own struggles with food and weight have caused my son’s dietary issues. I worry that when I respond angrily and emotionally that I’m damaging him, sentencing him to a lifetime of therapy. Pick any area my son might be struggling in, and I can find a way to fault myself in some way.
The truth is, yes, we do influence our kids by our behavior. But if that’s true for the struggle, it’s also got to be true for the success.
So you can bet I’m taking credit — and beaming with pride — when my kid gets cast in the school musical or stands up to homophobia or wows my friends with his pop culture prowess. And while my son’s sports knowledge comes entirely from his other dad, I’m taking the W for all that other stuff.
10. Social media parents are full of crap — me included.
This one may go without saying, and yet I need to constantly remind myself of it. Even after blogging, Instagramming, influencing, etc. as an online dad for well over a decade, I still fall into the parent trap of comparison.
I’ll see a family on a serene autumnal hike and think about how we never do anything in nature. A couple and their youngsters in matching holiday outfits makes me feel like a creative failure. Parents posting about the healthy meal they’re serving their family reminds me that I hate cooking, my child hates eating, and we almost never have dinner together.
But what they don’t share is all the complaining the kids did on the hike that made the parents swear they’d never do it again. Or all the cajoling and tears in the dozens of unused Christmas photo outtakes. Or that while the Instagram fam have dinner together, they still argue over the remote, struggle with homework, battle at bedtime — just like every other family on Earth, regardless of how they consumed their evening meal.
Enjoy the photos, learn from the posts, get ideas from the blogs, laugh at the TikToks. And then go live your life. You’re fine just the way you are – even if no one is watching.
11. Be your own brand of parent.
Between the impossibly happy images on social media, the PTA Alpha Moms, unwanted advice from relatives, neighbors, complete strangers, and my own engrained sense of inadequacy, I sometimes suffer from extreme bouts of imposter syndrome. But I’ve realized all I can really do is take the bits that feel right and forget the rest.
For the most part, I’ve gotten over the ways our family isn’t ideal. I’ve stopped attempting to justify why my son is a picky eater. He just is. Yes, I’ve tried all the things, thanks for asking. Yeah, we let our son watch horror movies; no, we’re not worried he’s going to become an ax murderer. He sleeps fine and hasn’t formed an addiction to chainsaws, so we’re good. Yup, we enjoy Drag Race as a family — have for years. The queens are creative and funny and talk a lot about loving yourself. And if you can’t love yourself… well, you know the rest.
You do you. Health and happiness come in many shapes, sizes, and a rainbow of colors.
12. You don’t have to be perfect, just present.
As you can tell from some of these lessons, I often don’t know the right thing to say — or the right way to say it. Sometimes, saying nothing is the right thing. Sit in silence; check in on occasion; hug sporadically. My kid will get the idea that I’m there if he needs to talk and will come when he’s ready.
Even if you’re not the most eloquent or wise or witty, your kids will remember that you were there. That will speak volumes more than anything you say.
13. Just keep hugging.
Sorry kiddo, you’re in for a lifetime of kissy, huggy, over-the-top, displays of fatherly affection. Yes, it’s my way of combatting misogyny, homophobia, and toxic masculinity… and sometimes embarrassing you. But it’s also knowing how much you (and everyone, really) need the support, comfort, and empowerment provided by the words and touch of those that love you.
And I hope you’re exactly the same with your kids someday.
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Responsibility.org is all about equipping parents to have conversations with and model behavior for their kids, especially when it comes to alcohol and underage drinking. An important fact: parents are the leading influence on a child’s decision to drink (or not drink). When conversations about alcohol between parents and kids increase, underage drinking decreases.
I’m a proud member of Responsibility.org’s parenting influencer team and have been compensated to write this post. However, all opinions are my own.