THERE IS NO FORMULA – only probability…

As parents, it can be natural for us to rate our parenting success on the apparent success of our children.

This week my eldest turns 18. She left school a year early to do TAFE and is in a much better emotional and mental state than she was in year 11 last year. This path suits her. She’s bright, funny, creative, neurodivergent, knows what she wants and I’m bloody proud of her.

Can I say the same about my parenting efforts? Am I proud of myself? Well, that is going to depend on my markers for success, right?

For some parents, to have a child leave school one year from graduating, even if they have good grades, might be a sign of failure. But I’d ask, what if that child is going crazy trying to keep up with high academic expectations? What if, instead of graduating high school they are working part time, studying tertiary level qualifications, and saved $10k to buy a car? What if the their TAFE course gets them into Uni anyway? Is this still failure? Maybe. For many parents I know, leaving school early is a non-option. It signifies a failure of sorts. And you know what, I get that.

Despite living in a society where diversity is on its way to being acknowledged as valuable and important, I think parents need constantly reminded of this: EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT. Yes, that is cliche’ but it’s also very true. Every child is different, every culture is different, every parent is different, every financial circumstance is different, every relational dynamic is different, every marker of success if different… we could go on.

Like me, you may have a few children – or be one of a few. It is normal (not necessarily healthy) for parents to compare their children. But as my eldest moves closers to practised adulthood, I’m beginning to explore what I think success might look like for each of my kids.

Here’s what I know: taking each child’s uniqueness into considerations is a LOT of work; mentally, emotionally, physically. And while I’m looking at their unique design I must also consider every thought and expectation I have of them – because that is going to shape the way that I rate my own success and the pressure they’ll sense from me – beyond my words… and this too, is a lot of work. (The examining of your own thoughts, feelings, reactions and motives is called ‘reflexivity.’)

I think reflexivity is possibly one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves and our children. To be self aware can be a real gift. Why? Because if we don’t do the work, we will be subject to the conditioning of others who are not in our position. YOU were given the divine stewardship of these souls you call children. YOU passed down your DNA. YOU cannot afford to use another man’s measuring stick when it comes to how you feel you performed as a parent. Your child may share your last name, citizenship and language – but they are not you – therefore their path and way of walking is bound to be different.

It is too easy, especially if things turn to apparent shit in your adult child’s life, to jump straight into self-blame as a parent. And you know what? Yeah, there might have been some things you could have done better. And yeah, it might be too late for you to change that. But blaming yourself for the entire shit show may not be super useful – in fact, it borders on having an overinflated sense of power in your child’s life. Why? Well, doesn’t your child get to weigh in for the decisions they’ve made? Can’t they take some responsibility for the direction of their own adult life?

The same example might be flipped – and I see this happen – a parent is immature, absent, selfish but a kid will move towards some marker of success in career, wealth, sports etc. and then the parent puffs their chest out and boasts like they are to be applauded for their great parenting – when they were simply crap. Both this parent, who did little but borrows their child’s apparent success, is not much different than the parent who did a lot but wallows in their child’s apparent failure. Both are unbalanced.

It is true, as parents we are powerful forces in our kids life but perfect parenting is a not a guarantee of raising perfectly balanced kids.

“But Dave, it helps, right? Or should I just give up and whatever?”

Sure it helps! Statisticians will tell you that kids who grow up in solid homes full of love, safety, encouragement and support into adulthood are less likely to make a ‘mess’ of things, but we are talking PROBABILITY, not a guaranteed f&*%ing formula!

Want some evidence of parenting probability? Take a look at the lives of many ‘successful’ people. Did they all have perfect parents? Married parents? Present parents? Heterosexual parents? Religious parents? No.  Because there is no formula.

For those who follow religious texts, the opening book of Genesis tells us that God, in a way, parented Adam and Eve. How did that turn out? And how did it go for the kids and grandkids – not exactly ideal, right? Yet there it is, dysfunction 101. Perhaps we could read that as a form of encouragement that doing our best should just be enough.

You see, there is no formula. Sure, there is probability, but outstanding parenting is not a guarantee of success in children.

Again, I think a gift we can give our family and ourselves is one of sober self reflection and examination. And maybe this means you need to be more intentional, loving and caring because you haven’t been. But for others, you may need to cut yourself some slack in the way your kids have turned out (or are turning out) realising that you have’t raised children – you’ve raised adults – each very different, like you.

David Tensen

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