Laughing, Knocking on Wood, and Other Parenting Tips

When Sam, my firstborn, was a baby just learning to roll over, I was halfway down the stairs one day when I remembered something I had forgotten. I put him down on the landing and ran back up. But he was too quick for me. I can still feel the sickening realization that accompanied his body thudding down the steps. Afterwards, once Sam’s hysteria and mine had subsided and it was clear that he was fine, Eric, my husband, made a crack that has been part of our family lore ever since: “Oops, wrecked the baby.”

Our cover story on raising children who are engaged and passionate about life (page 66) makes me think about my own experience as mother of three boys and stepmother of one. About the inevitability that one way or another, the baby will be wrecked time and again, despite our best intentions. About how we can’t make our children’s lives perfect and how we can never wholly protect them.

In the face of that profound helplessness, I adopted two beliefs: that my children have guardian angels who are more vigilant than I could ever be, and that they had chosen the circumstances into which they had been born. My belief in guardian angels was a purely pragmatic choice, based simply on the recognition that I could become a world-class worrier and that the resulting over involvement in my children’s lives wouldn’t do anyone any good. So I delegated the bulk of my worries to hypothetical angels. And though I think the concept of consciousness evolving over lifetimes makes sense, I’m about as interested in remembering the details of past lives as I am in remembering what I had for dinner last Tuesday. But for the purposes of motherhood, admitting the possibility of reincarnation relieves a certain amount of guilt.

Also, I knock on wood a lot, and I have persuaded myself that my head counts as wood.

Having witnessed three out of four children pass through adolescence and into young adulthood (one more to go, knock wood), I have come to a few conclusions. We are animals, healthy ones if we’re lucky, and a lot of parenting is in our instincts, in our bodily knowing. For me, the blessings of having uncomplicated pregnancies and giving birth in an empowering way gave me the initial confidence to follow my instincts as a mother. Perhaps most of what we are as parents is communicated physically and energetically–our confidence, or lack of it, in ourselves and in our children is the water they swim in. Even now, animal that I am, I have to touch my children to really know how they are. Luckily, they are all suckers for back rubs.

Someday I might write a parenting book, and it would have chapters with titles like “In Praise of a Dangerous Childhood,” “The Benefits of Discomfort,” “Opinions Are Highly Overrated,” and “Manipulation Through Laughter.” There are a few themes that would run through all the chapters. Like parenthood may be a lot simpler than we tend to make it. That common sense and mutual respect are key. That it really helps to genuinely enjoy your kids. (My policy on summer bedtime was that they got the hook when they couldn’t make me laugh anymore.)

As for inculcating values, the jury is still out. One day not long ago, two of my kids blew me off when I was trying to talk about something that I thought really mattered. I banged around the kitchen for a while and finally, still fuming, said that I choose to believe that at the core they have good values but they certainly do a good job of disguising it sometimes. They started laughing and said that they had just been talking about how they had to admit that I’m usually right–“But, face it, Mom, you are embarrassing!” Which led to a good conversation about how it is fundamentally embarrassing to stick your neck out, to take a stand. And, generally speaking, people don’t die of embarrassment.

Parents are inherently embarrassing to their children, but it seems to me that we might as well be embarrassing for good reasons. So, how have you embarrassed your child today?

P.S. Look for our second annual Indie Culture special issue, on newsstands Nov. 25. This year we are delighted to include a free CD compiled by InRadio, a company started by former Utne intern and staffer Dan Carroll and incubated under our wing.

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