Our poor first-born children.
We parents have no idea how little we know about parenting our oldest child until our subsequent children go through a similar experience. Only then can we look back and say to ourselves, damn, I screwed that up!
First-time parents move through parenthood blindly, figuring things out on the fly because no matter how much experience you may have had with someone else’s kids in the past, you still have no idea what you are doing with your child. You are positive that everything that you do to your child or for your child will have lasting repercussions. Because, let’s face it, that whole nature vs. nurture thing simply means that if your DNA doesn’t screw them up your parenting skills will.
A friend of mine recently joked that she hopes that her oldest daughter recognizes that she is a parenting experiment.
I think her analogy is spot on.
With no roadmap and no instruction manual, most first time parents approach everything they do to their first child like a science experiment even if they don’t realize they are doing it.
Let’s use potty training as an example.
Step 1: Ask a Question
The first step when conducting any scientific experiment is to ask a question. In this case a good question would be: “Will my two-year-old child ever be potty trained or will he be in diapers in college?”
Step 2: Do Background Research
Pour over every parenting book, website and magazine to figure out if it is indeed possible to have a child who refuses to be potty trained and ends up wearing diapers in college.
Step 3: Construct a Hypothesis
In this example your hypothesis could be: “If I buy my child super hero underwear, he will be so excited he will then want to use the potty and never use diapers again.”
Steps 4 and Beyond: Test Your Hypothesis
You test your hypothesis, which, of course, fails miserably because as first time parents you don’t yet know that toddlers are stubborn and refuse to do anything that you want them to do, so, you continue to reformulate and retest your hypotheses until you make your child cry which, in turn, makes you cry and so on and so on and so on until eventually you figure it out.
And then your next kid comes along and it’s SO MUCH EASIER!
It’s not because the second child is less difficult; it’s because you are.
With your second child you know that any fear you have that your child will go to college in diapers is absurd! And, although you may need to tweak your approach with each kid to get the same result (each kid is different after all), without the anxiety of the unknown hanging over you, the process is so much easier.
You would think that once we recognize this pattern we would find a way to speed up the learning curve…but we can’t. Every stage of our first-born child’s life presents some new scenario that we are ill prepared to handle: school, friendships, driving, dating, college, etc.
Everything our first child does is, well, first, which makes everything they do novel, scary, and very, very important.
I was reminded of this again over the weekend when I attended a cocktail party for the parents’ of my younger son’s high school freshmen class. I spoke with several parents who had just survived their oldest child’s first set of high school finals. Every one of these parents had some version of the same story: they had to force their kid to study because their kid wouldn’t get organized or study long enough or care enough: the parent’s anger would grow until eventually the parent exploded; and every one of these parents believed that their child’s failure to comprehend the importance of final exams and their general lack of motivation meant that they would never graduate from high school, attend college, get a job and move out of the house.
“Shit,” I thought. “That’s how I sounded four years ago!”
“If you don’t study, you will fail and you will end up living in my basement!” was my mantra during my older son’s finals.
This time around with my youngest who just completed his first set of finals I took a laissez-faire approach: I did not yell when his focus drifted from his studying, I did not yell when I saw his grades, and I did not yell when he said, “I should have studied more.”
My mantra this time around, as it has been with everything for my second child, was “This too shall pass.”
Because it does…
…unless, of course, it’s your older child facing some new experience, in which case see Steps 1-4 above.