My son just turned 29. That means that I have been at this parenting game for almost 3 decades. Before I had children I used to give messages like “10 rock solid rules for parenting,” but after almost 3 decades the amount of things I don’t know far exceeds the amount of things that I do. I no longer have rock solid rules but suggestions that may or may not work.
Let me start by giving you my résumé as a parent. My son is awesome. Riley was an MVP and CIF champion in water polo. He went to UCLA and then graduated from Harvard Law. My son is part of an amazing start up called Evisort that is crushing it right now. I am fairly certain I had very little to do with any of those successes and my son has questioned that as well. I will always remember a conversation we had on our way to tour Harvard and Yale. He was sitting in the passenger seat musing to himself about how he ended up touring these two prestigious universities and said out loud, in my presence, “Well, I guess grandpa was pretty smart.”
I’m sure grandpa could say this more intelligently but let me give you three observations I have made in my three decades of being a dad
1. Don’t judge your parenting skills in the first three months of parenting or between the ages of 13 and 19.
I don’t like to give advice to anybody who is about to become a parent. If you want people to stop listening to you, unsolicited parenting advice is the quickest way to accomplish that. This is the one piece of advice I will give. Don’t judge your parenting by the first three months. During that first three months the parent child relationship is exclusively one way. You do all of the work and get very little in return outside of sleeplessness and spit up on your clothing. Actress Olivia Wilde put it perfectly. She posted a selfie with this caption.
“I call this hairstyle, ‘keep the kid alive. Products you’ll need: sweat, string cheese, diaper rash cream, chewed up crayon, snot, and an enthusiastic spritz of panic.”
What goes for the first three months also applies to years 13 through 19. Just about everyone knows that parenting a teenager can be difficult. I don’t believe that parenting teenagers is hard simply because they are going through a challenging life stage, but because these little humans who used to worship us are now old enough and intelligent enough to see our flaws. They are trying to differentiate themselves from the mistakes that we made as parents. That, and sometimes they are just jerks. It’s a combination of the two.
During my sons high school years our communication got less and less. For some reason, he was more interested in sports and hanging out with his friends and cute girls than chilling with his dad. Go figure. I’m not sure this is fair but I used to say “When my son was in high school he used to treat me like something he dug out of his ear.” It’s a Homer Simpson line. As dumb as it sounds more people have been encouraged by that one line. People can relate to the distance I felt between me and my son during those high school years.
If you find yourself feeling distance with your teenager don’t consider yourself a parenting failure.
Just hang in there and keep loving them and the communication will come back around. Two months ago my son moved to Austin, Texas from San Mateo, California. I was beyond thrilled when he called and asked if I would make the ride with him. Even though that meant three days of travel and 8 to 12 hours of driving a day in a Penske moving truck, I did not hesitate. Over those three days we got at least 45 minutes of good conversation in and it was totally worth it. This leads to the second lesson I have learned about parenting.
2. You are not going to win MVP. Settle for the participation trophy.
I think we’d all like to be considered the most valuable parent and be that one person that has kids that think they are cool all the way through high school and into adulthood. If that’s you, write your own blog. I’m sure we would all be interested in your secrets. However, I have learned that I’m not going for the title of cool dad. I just want to show up for my kids.
The older they get the less time they want to hang out with dear old dad so I am constantly on the lookout for moments that I can connect. When my daughter Sterling comes home from college we get in the car and she deejays on Spotify and we head to Bad Ass coffee. I know the reason why she wants to go. She wants me to buy her a cup of overpriced coffee. But it’s worth it.
The older my kids get the more I have to keep my eyes open for opportunities to connect with them.
A quick trip to the café for avocado toast. A run down to the number 1 rated gelato place in the U.S. that I found on Yelp. (It’s called Bobboi in La Jolla and it’s fricking amazing). A ride on ebikes. Tickets to the movies or a concert or a sporting event. Whatever my kids are interested in I get interested in. I’m just going for the participation trophy.
Here’s one last point. We will call it .9 because I’m still learning it.
.9 You will pass on your imperfection to your kids
It’s inevitable. Let me give you an example. For some reason the job of teaching my children to drive a car fell on me. It’s not because I’m a better teacher or more patient than my wife, it’s because she didn’t want to do it. I didn’t know that was an option. I learned a couple of handy moves that any driving instructor has learned. One is to hold down on the passenger side handle above the door until your knuckles go white. The other is to press down on the floor with your foot as if there was a brake.
There was a moment I knew that I had taught my daughter everything I know about driving. She was driving and pulled up to a car that was going particularly slow and she said, “What’s the deal with this joker?” At that point I knew I had taught her everything I know about driving. I taught her to park and merge and most importantly, I had taught her impatience.
You can work hard and read with your kids and teach them baseball and pay for their singing lessons and do all kinds of things your parents never did for you but you will ultimately pass on bad traits. Why? You are imperfect. Look with me at Exodus 20. This is in the middle of the ten commandments.
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:5,6
No matter who you are or what you do, you will hand down sin to the third and fourth generation. You got it from your parents and grand parents and you will send it on to your kids and their kids. But there is a blessing that goes beyond our mistakes and habits. If we follow God and pursue him he will hand blessing down that will last a thousand generations. If you want to get there let me point you back to point two. Go for the participation trophy.
I have fantastic children, but the reality is I’ve passed on some of my perfectionism and impatience and a hatred for the Patriots. While I’ve handed down some habits and mistakes and dysfunction, there are also gifts I give to my children. I’m there for them. I’m praying for them. When they run into a problem I’ll be there. It’s hardest when I see that the problem they are facing is because of a hand me down issue I’ve given them. I hate that. But at least I can be there for them. And if I’m dealing with that issue I can help walk them through it.
So there you have it. Those are the 2.9 things I’ve learned in close to 30 years of parenting. Check back with me in 10 years. I may have learned something new.
Love this, Jack. You exude grace.
Absolutely continuing to love and enjoy how real the Pastor of my church is, yep, Jack Hawkins, himself. Come and see him Sunday mornings at 9:30. Or catch him and our other equally real and relatable pastors. I hope to see you there.
Thurgood Marshall Middle School
9700 Avenue of Nations
San Diego, CA 92131