Family

What I Learned About Parenting by Telling Other People How to Parent

Some preliminary conclusions.

A woman looks thoughtfully with her finger on her chin while two kids in the background play tug of war with a stuffed panda.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Answering parenting questions does not allow one to compose a scholarly monograph on the subject. Nor do I have any meaningful qualifications to do so. But it’s impossible to wade through spreadsheets of parental anxiety, as I have done as one of your Care and Feeding columnists all these many years, without drawing a few conclusions. As I am now on hiatus while writing a horror novel, I am glad to stop writing about eldritch terrors in order to share some of those conclusions with you. Perhaps they will be of use as we leave the nightmare of 2020 behind and embark on a better (hopefully!) year to come.

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Swann’s Way: Raising a child will almost invariably “Tasting a Madeleine” you right back to your own childhood. You may be overwhelmed with a sudden awareness of how painfully your own parents loved you and be filled with forgiveness for the human errors they made along the way. Or you may say: “What the actual hell was wrong with those people? I’m never speaking to them again.” Most likely, you will vacillate a little between the two. It’s not feasible for everyone to fix their own wounds from childhood before becoming a parent, but I encourage you to make a stab at it, if at all possible. You will say things you said you would never say—that’s a given—but know that things will bubble up as your children pass through all the stages you yourself passed through, and sometimes you’re going to look around waiting for your medal, which never comes, and sometimes you’re going to say, “Tomorrow I will be a better parent.” Try to be a better parent tomorrow or, ideally, this afternoon.

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Is My Child Gay or Trans? Maybe! I don’t know. Raise them to feel like you will not be an asshat about it either way, and don’t get your underwear in a wad if they wait until they’re out of the house to tell you. People say things when they are ready to say them.

NOW? Children will not ask the Big Questions in the time or place of your choosing. They will ask them as you are unloading the dishwasher while on the phone with the plumber. They will ask them at the grocery store, just as you realize you have forgotten to put milk in the cart. They will ask them when you are in the bathroom. On top of this, the Big Questions will never be answered in a single conversation: You will revisit Death and Sex and Electronic Devices (likely the title of my second book) over and over again as the questions evolve with your child’s development and level of understanding. It’s an ongoing exchange, not the SATs.

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Your Ex: Neither to be shit-talked in front of your kids nor lied for. White-knuckle it whenever possible. If they only swoop in twice a year and take the kids to Disney World, one day your children will realize who was OxiCleaning their underwear after a night shift.

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I’m Not Reacting: Often, the answer is “desperately try not to laugh or look horrified” when your child says or does some real nonsense. That being said, children are exquisite barometers of your inner emotional state, and all attention is good attention. They will not always yell “POOP” or “YOU HAVE A VAGINA” when you are in public. Or they will, and those children will one day have very popular social media channels.

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Your Teapots: Rearranged.

Who Knows? You have no control over what moments of your parenting your child will form memories of. A solid year of immaculate, gold-star parenting will be lost, like C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, like tears in rain, and your adult child will only remember the time you had a meltdown at the gas station when they spilled their milk. Nothing you can do about that. So, if possible, try to have a good time parenting, because there are no guarantees that anyone will be appreciative later. If you are partnered, try to find time every day to be together and remember you are not, as that Ethan Hawke character once said, running a nonprofit day care with someone you used to date.

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Facebook/Instagram: It’s all lies.

Potty Training: Bribery is fine. Having them “help” you clean up in order to incentivize getting on with it is fine. It’s fine if they are 3 and you’re still working on it. It doesn’t matter when your aunt thinks they should be out of pullups. You may also have a disabled child who will never be potty-trained. We all come into this world needing our butt wiped by a third party and most of us will leave this world needing our butt wiped by a third party. Some people will always need their butt wiped by a third party, and they are still humans deserving of dignity and respect.

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Hitting: Please don’t.

Who’s THIS Person? You can read your older child all the books in the world about welcoming a new sibling. You can get your older child a present “from” the new baby. You can spend the exact same amount on everyone’s birthdays and holidays down to a single red cent. These are good things to do. It will not magically prevent sibling rivalry, nor will it result in adult children who love and have warm relationships with one another. Your older child is probably going to reach Maximum Clinginess just as you are all touched out from their new sibling and want only to collapse onto the couch and watch Ted Lasso. They may regress in potty training, self-soothing, independent play, you name it. You will get through it.

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Therapy: Absolutely.

Milestones: Your child will do some things early and some things late. Talk to your pediatrician. If you have a gut feeling that things are not progressing as they should, ask for a referral to a developmental pediatrician or call one directly: I don’t know your insurance situation. You can always contact your state’s free Early Intervention program. Don’t wait too long—there’s a waiting list and if your child suddenly has a language explosion, you can cancel it with a single phone call. It’s better than hearing “We’ll be over to your house in 11 months.”

Should I Get a Dog? Probably.

Your Mother-in-Law: Not the boss of you.

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Is This a Parenting Question or Is This a Marriage Question: gives you a meaningful look.

Where’s The Bar? Ah, this is the big one. The bar is not what the hypebeast Type A parents at your school are doing. The bar is to provide your child with food, clothing, an education, unconditional love, no abuse, firm boundaries, and, ultimately, to ready them to live decently in a civil society. If you’re doing that, you’re doing great. Everything else is gravy.

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I hope this was helpful. I learned from my readers every day. Sometimes I emailed them later and said, “On second thought, try this instead.” Sometimes I emailed them to say, “Please don’t let this go,” and never heard back, and woke up about it at 2 a.m. every day for a month. Sometimes I said, “Wow, you’re overreacting about COVID-19, letter writer’s husband from January,” and felt like a real fool two months later while buying dried beans in bulk. Sometimes (often!) I had my own parenting dilemma and said, “OK, what would I tell one of my readers to do?” It helped. I miss you very much, and I plan on returning after my book is very successful, blurbed by Stephen King, and optioned by Mike Flanagan or Ari Aster or Karyn Kusama. You’re in great hands with my colleagues. I love you very much. I actually do. You’re trying to do a little better than you had been before, and that’s the only way the world improves.

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