Shot of a happy grandmother meeting her granddaughter

Minimum Viable Parenting

If I am to matter at all–if I am to be of use and benefit to humanity it will be through my children. Through teaching them who to be, providing insight, education, example and opportunity. That’s how I matter.

And yet, trying to learn how to be a good parent is fraught with absolute insanity. Discord. Unsolicited and sanctimonious advice (especially in Portland, Ore). Instagram fraud.

Looking at books, you see a lot of information that’s more concerned with feeding kids a perfect diet.  As if putting the right things in their body will create temperance, loveliness, kindness.  We know that that’s easier. Its simpler to check a box after having fed GMO free, gluten free food than it is to show patience, teach temperance, humility and kindness.

It’s simpler to feel good about a rear-facing car seat than it is to loosen the reigns and teach them to manage risk on their own.

I’ve begun my process to figure out what kind of parent I want to be. I have a more difficult than necessary relationship with my own parents – even though they were basically good to me. I think that this is largely due to the fact that we deferred a bunch of choices that maybe we should have made together.

I’ve got faults and have made regrettable errors in my all of my relationships. As a husband, son, father and friend. Writing this sentence is (stupidly) hard. A voice from my ego barks back at me and says, “look! look at what THEY did.” Like some slight that I suffered excuses an outburst. Their behavior was worse. My brain says to me to appease my sense of morality.

And so to prevent wounds from crossing generations, I have thought about what a parent should be.

These are my rules. This is the standard that I will govern my behavior by. This is a list of “must nots” and shortly I’ll have a list of “should dos.”  The must nots, however are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a warm and kind relationship with your children into old age.

  1. A Parent Must Never Gossip About Other Family Members, Especially Their Other Children
    When a parent does this, gossips about one child to another, the listening child can’t help but think, “Wow, what must they say about me?”Nothing I can think of will destroy trust faster than gossip to siblings, or even other family members. Beyond a parent-child relationship a family must be a place where we can find relief.  A family is a place where we must be free from gossip, and family members must be thought of in the best possible esteem. There is not a place or circumstance where it is OK to grouse about limitations.
  2. A Parent Must Never Withdraw (Or Threaten To Withdraw) Affection and Love.This is the next big one.No, you don’t have to support every decision a kid makes. There are – of course – times when it’s appropriate to say no to a child’s financial (or other) requests. But you have to make it clear that they’re beloved, no matter what.To weaponize affection – to threaten to withdraw a basic birthright – to control any choice (career, grades, religion) is unspeakably cruel and it undermines any other good actions.Children that do this (and they often do) have a far less significant breech than the parents who do, as parents must be held to a higher standard.In a situation where a child is struggling with substance abuse, this can be challenging, and I don’t have a perfect remedy.  
  3. A Parent Must Never Use a Child To Meet Their Emotional NeedsLife is hard. We’re all anxious. And one of the biggest temptations is to use a child in place of adult companionship. Making a child – at nearly any age- support the emotional needs of a parent is wickedness. This sort of thing causes worry and anxiety because a child feels duty and until the parent reports “feeling good,” a child is bound by some sort of obligation to help.A parent must use their peers, not children to vent. This doesn’t preclude friendship, but a parent mustn’t lean too hard on their children. The line here is probably very hard to see, but a child can’t be burdened with a parent’s problems. This doesn’t preclude friendship, intimacy, but a parent can’t indulge or let their guard down.There are exceptions, obviously – shared grief being one of the key ones.  If a beloved family member passes away, obviously…
  4. Parent’s Can’t Obligate Children with Covert Contracts Or Gifts.Favors don’t create debt in children. Nor do gifts. And to conflate them (I did this for you so you owe me) is controlling and damaging behavior…to anyone.Sometimes business arrangements must be made (can you watch the kids while I attend night school.) If this is the case, it’s fine to say “Yes, but I hope you’ll come to Sunday dinner.” What’s not fine is to have some vague expectation of dinner attendance…that sours the relationship.  If it’s a trade, it should be explicit.
  5. A Parent Must Never Lie To Their ChildrenLying is bad. I’ve done more than my share. Sometimes we lie to stall for time, sometimes we lie because the truth is embarrassing. Little white lies – between a parent and child never are OK.The ends never justify the means. Getting a child to comply based on false pretenses is a lousy way to treat them.Lies kill relationships and credibility. The important thing is to be truthful to children because they’ll figure it out over time, because what we do as we age is replay past moments with the filters of present experience. A 22 year old is the easiest person alive to lie to.  A 35 year old has more sense.It’s impractical to lie: over time, the truth will eventually get sussed out. When caught in a lie, what else have we lied about?
  6. A Parent Pursues The Relationship With Their Children (Never The Other Way Around).Yes, you have to give space. But it’s the job of the parent to extend invitations, to maintain the relationship. The parent extends invitations, and is clear about details (what the proposal is, who is financing it, etc).”I’d love to see you” can’t be unspoken. A child can’t “assume” that they are welcome, they must be invited.A child shouldn’t ever face rejection from their parents, as abandonment issues persist.
  7. A Parent Must Be PermanentAs long as a parent is alive, s/he must provide affection and love and counsel (when asked).This is what a child needs.
  8. A Parent Must Be The One To Ask For ForgivenessEvery relationship suffers a breech from time to time.  It’s not possible to live, perfectly. I have said things to my kids (my boy especially) that I’d take back. I’ve been disproportionately irritated over predictable moments. It’s my responsibility to ask for forgiveness. The actual words: “Will you please forgive me.”To understand, what you’re doing with a child is saying “you’re more important to me than my own pride, and I acknowledge that every human will have moments of selfishness.”This doesn’t mean that a child can do whatever- this just puts the default for ‘breach repair” in the parent’s corner.

I’ve been thinking a lot – lately – about how to have a great family. I want to maximize my odds, so maxims to dictate how we want to live are in place to help with that.

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Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is writing this blog. He's a startup veteran, having built a company called Simplifilm. This blog is about things that he's starting to - but may not actually - think yet. It publishes irregularly.

1 thought on “Minimum Viable Parenting”

  1. I loved the title of your blog and I think so many people can relate to trying to figure out how to parent when there essentially is no map for our particular relationship with each child. I found myself longing for you to have compassion on yourself as a parent and a way of ‘forgiving’ yourself if you don’t live up to the standards. The reason I say this is that when we have lots of shoulda and musts … we can get pretty tense or ashamed when things don’t go the way we want to be acting. Have you ever checked out marshall Rosenberg’s self empathy model? It has helped me hugely to navigate parenting and hopefully shift the cycle of emotional and physical violence that ran through my family and your list touches on too. There are lots of other teachers that I enjoy too. I’ve found rosenberg’s model to be a very practical mindset for being able to have self acceptance and honest learning from my regrets. I enjoy a pretty communication relationship with my teenagers today and I’m sure a great deal of that came from rosenberg’s approach. One quote of his that I laugh with relief hearing is ‘if you want to get really depressed, have kids then tell yourself there’s such thing as a perfect parent’. It’s not an easy job but as you say the most important one we can ever live. Does this give you some sense of encouragement?

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