by Zach Brittle
There’s a dirty trick I play on couples from time to time, especially when they have kids. They come in, complaining about one another, and how they don’t have a shared parenting philosophy, and how their kids are taking up all their time and energy, and how intimacy has evaporated, and, and, and…
And, here’s the trick…I ask: Twenty years from now, your kid is going to be on a couch somewhere and a therapist is going to say, “Tell me about your parents.”
What do you think your kid is going to say? What do you want them to say?
Couples generally start to squirm here because, not only have they not really thought about it, they’ve actively tried not to think about it. They don’t want to face the idea that their parenting has long term consequences. It’s much easier to get through the day; and it actually feels like a win to just get through the week.
But your child – that sweet smelling, baby fat having, cute picture taking, adorably sleeping, bundle of joy – is going to grow up watching you. They’ll learn how to be an adult by watching you. They’ll learn how to be parents by watching you.
Ask yourself this question: What did your parents teach you about being an adult? What did mom and dad teach you about being parents? Did they do it on purpose? Most of the stories I hear suggest, “No, they didn’t on purpose…it just sort of happened.”
One of the best things you can do for your baby is parent on purpose. But not just the baby. Also the adult they will become. This means you’ll be constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your goals as a parent.
Most of the parents reading this particular article have a single goal: Keep the baby alive. But after “alive” comes “safe” and then, perhaps, “healthy”. As they get older your goals will become more focused. You’ll want them to be “happy”, “responsible”, “smart”, “polite”, “aware”, “respectful”.
Whatever your goals are, you should know that they will tell a story about you one day. And that you get to decide what story they tell.
Take a minute right now, or later this evening and actually write down the story. Trust me, this is a compelling exercise and you might even be surprised by what you find out. Literally, put words in your baby’s mouth.
Are you surprised? Are you encouraged? Are you terrified? Here’s the reality: You have an opportunity to shape this story. Indeed, you have a responsibility. I love that word. It implies response-ability. As you become aware of the story you hope your baby will tell, you can be that much more intentional about how you play your part.
Aware & Intentional
Those two words make all the difference: Aware. Intentional. Awareness and intentionality are key to being a great partner and a great parent.
The first part – awareness – requires you to pick your head up and to pay attention. You have to think about things you’re not inclined to think about. It’s not enough to know how to get through the week…you have to be pay attention to the long game.
Secondarily, awareness is useless if you’re not intentional. Once you can see the playing field, how will you actually take steps to affect the game? Again, the best thing you can do for your kid is to parent on purpose. This implies an intentionality about how you execute your values.
Here’s what I want my kids to say when they’re on the couch – and they will be – even though (or especially because) their dad is a therapist. I want them to say:
My parents got it. They understood that parenting was the toughest job they ever had. They loved us unconditionally, but they also set really clear boundaries for us. They helped us learn how to express our feelings, but also how to pay attention to the feelings of others. They taught us how to laugh, and to strive, and to hope, and to imagine. They gave us the freedom to pursue our own passions and values, but they kept us from doing anything unreasonable. They were aware of who we were and intentional about who we would become. Most of all, I like them. I trust them. I’d want to be friends with them, even if they weren’t my parents.
That’s what I hope they say. And that’s what I hope I’m working toward every day. My kids are 10 and 14, so I’m not simply trying to keep them alive. I’m crafting a bigger vision for them. But I got started later than I should have. I wish I wish someone had played that dirty trick on me when I was younger.
Zach is a couples therapist in Seattle, WA and author of the best selling relationship guide The Relationship Alphabet. He is also the founder of forBetter which offers online resources for couples. He has been happily married for 17 out of 18 years. He and his wife own two children, a mini-van, and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents.
P.S. Use the code PEPS to receive $100 off registration to MARRIAGE in MOTION from forBetter.