Charles Darwin: Parenting Extraordinaire

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I don’t have babies but it’s never too soon to start looking for a potential partner to help raise them when I want them, right? In less contrived circumstances than that makes it sound, I shared a sweet, romantic moment with someone a couple of weeks ago when I told him, “I think that you would make a really wonderful father someday.” That may strike some men as too reproductively-focused in a way that seems weird, forward, intimidating, or just plain terrifying, but I meant it as a very sincere acknowledgement of his possession of qualities that I think it takes to be a good parent, and especially a good father. He actively listens. He takes good care of others. He’s generous, gentle, and accepting. And when it comes to social expectations of presumed gender roles in a heterosexual relationship, he’s man enough to say, “I hate it when I feel like I have to be a guy.”

We revisited that conversation more recently. He said he liked that I told him I thought he’d be a good dad. So then I popped the question, “Do you agree?” With a careful pause that’s true to his character, he responded, “I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, I think I could be.” He then went on to explain how he maybe could be a good parent because he thinks parenting requires the ability to adapt, to deal with the unexpected. And he can do that.

When I think about the kind of parent that I hope to be I tend to emphasize the importance of raising kids in ways that help them feel confident, creative, capable, and curious. I want my kids to be courageous and compassionate, to know how to connect with others and communicate their wants and needs. And, evidently, I want them to know that a lot of important character traits start with the letter “c.” As a potential parent, then, I’ve brainstormed ways to support and encourage their interests, to cultivate their skills and passions, to be honest with them about tough questions, and to revel with them on the importance of laughter and play. Of course I don’t know from experience but I appreciate that parenting is hard work, so I don’t fool myself into thinking that I’ve got it all figured out in my head even before I hold a new little head in my hands. But his answer was so simple, much simpler than my ruminations: To be a good parent requires the ability to adapt, to deal with the unexpected.

I’m often amazed by the stories parents tell about the weird, unexpected things their kids do. Like when my little brother came home bleeding from his head because the neighbor kids shut their car trunk on his head. He was eight or so and needed eight or so staples in his scalp. Or when my older brother was ten and got caught for shoplifting cigarettes. Or when I was a screaming five-year-old in the bathtub with an obsession for contact lenses. My mom ran in to find me with a hard, purple little sequin stuck to my eyeball (she didn’t know then about all of the ice cubes I would melt down into super thin pieces and put on my eyes). These aren’t the most outrageous parenting stories, I know. Sometimes it’s a wonder that most of us even survive childhood at all – there are poop escapades, travel horror stories, terrible illnesses, epic messes, food fiascoes, ridiculously stupid decisions, bizarre behaviors, and many things that I’m sure only a parent herself or himself would believe, let alone be able to respond to appropriately. Anyway, I started to think, “Yeah, maybe he’s on to something here. Good parenting requires the ability to adapt because kids are totally unpredictable (and the worst).”

But then, with another moment’s thought, I realized that the seemingly simple call to “be able to adapt” meant much more than being able to handle a crisis situation when it arises. Good parenting really is about being able to handle the unexpected, which is especially clear and valuable when the “unexpected” is precisely who your child is and who they become.

I know plenty of adults who are still plagued by feeling like, as kids, they could never live up to their parents expectations. No matter what they did they weren’t the kid their parents had hoped for and wanted them to be. “I always wanted to have a little girl so I could braid her hair and buy little dresses. But you were never into girly things.” Or worse, if the kids put parental expectations aside and tried to be content with just being themselves, they would be made to feel like they weren’t good enough. They should be more outgoing. More athletic. Less rambunctious. Less talkative. More interested in school. More interested in church. Less weird. More feminine. More masculine. More polite. Less challenging. More normal.

Being a parent must be hard. You bring a person into the world and want to raise them up well to be a good person. You try to instill within them a sense of morals, strong character, solid work ethic, and proper manners. And for the kids whose parents just didn’t seem to ever understand them, what they were up to, or why they always insisted on doing things in ways that seemed unusual, unnecessary, or perhaps even offensive at times, I can imagine that it was all assumed to be “with the best intentions.” I’ve been told (or begged) more than once in my life to “conform a little more” because, it is thought, being different is a struggle that can make life hard, maybe harder than it needs to be. Fitting in is so much easier. For some. Maybe. Not.

While there is obviously something to be said for providing children with guidance, those calls for conformity, to be a certain way, to do certain things, to conform to a parent’s desires, wants, hopes, dreams, preferences, and ideals are examples of parents not adapting to the unexpected nuances of a child. It may make it easier to be a parent if your child lives up to all of your expectations, but a little boy might love to dance and a little girl might want to play football. Some kids may never strive to have a girlfriend or boyfriend and some may want to study obscure things. A young woman may not want to get married and a young man may want to be a stay-at-home dad. Some kids grow up to not want children of their own while other children won’t grow up at all because they do not have a future.

Being able to adapt to the unexpected details of your child strikes me now as completely fundamental to all of the other qualities that I’ve thought of before. Obviously it’s hurtful to say “I love you in these ways and on these terms.” To love children well, you have to listen and respond to them. To accept them, you have to adapt to them. To encourage and support them, you may even have to change your mind on some things. So, although kids are assumed to be doing the growing up, it seems that good parents take on the challenge of continually growing, adapting, and changing themselves so that they can handle the unexpected things that having a child brings. Like a brand new person.

On a related note, I want to share this video. It’s beautifully done and anyone who’s been a kid can probably relate to the message. Also contained within, although less obviously, is a hint at how parents who refuse to adapt can also be their children’s bullies.

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