I have a reasonable obsession with coffee. I don’t dream about it but I mark parts of my life by conversations I’ve had over coffee. There was the time at Shaw’s Coffee in St. Louis where I sat with a good friend who helped me understand a particularly difficult season in life. At Shenandoah Joe’s in Charlottesville, VA, I spent hours talking to a friend who was trying to figure out if he should stay or should he go. Another time there, I listened to a mom and dad pour our their heart about the struggles they were having with their teenage daughter. And then there was the time a man looked across the table at a coffee shop that’s no longer in business and said, “If you do these things you’ll have perfect kids. Guaranteed.”
At the time of his biblical prescription two of my kids were just beginning elementary school and my youngest was toddling around. It was tempting to believe him. Who doesn’t want a formula for raising kids that are guaranteed to be perfect? However, I knew enough from years of working with students and their families, and from simply being around humans, to know that there are no perfect kids or parenting formulas. Nevertheless, when parenting has been tough my mind has often drifted back to that conversation.
I think all parents go through tough times with their children, or at least I only want to associate with those who are honest enough to admit it. Being with parents who can’t or will not admit to having moments (or years) when the relationship with their children was challenging creates a sense of wonder in me. I wonder how they can keep up the facade; I wonder how honest they are or how aware they are; I wonder if they really want me to believe they have always had “amazing relationships with their kids, simply by following a few biblical steps.” However, I don’t have a poker face; the haggard look I’ve acquired from trying to figure out why my teenagers make the sort of decisions that they do gives me away. It is a blend of confusion, rage, and shock.
Looking at myself in the mirror one morning I began to understand why my mother once pointed to a gray hair the way an artist points at a painting. She said, “I call this one Mark at 2 a.m.” I was not a perfect son and I’m confident my parents did not expect that I would be, after all, I’m the youngest of six – they had plenty of experience by the time I came along. At the same token, as much as I love my parents (they’ve been deceased for a number of years) they were not perfect.
However, expectations have shifted during the last forty years and there seems to be mounting pressure on moms and dads (or moms and moms, dads and dads, step-dads, step-moms, grandparents, etc.). Both parents and kids must get everything right the first time through; every moment must be Facebooked (or is it Snapchat now?), and it must look perfect. Not only that, there is the pressure of never admitting that some days are a struggle; even if someone does admit it, the struggle has to be manageable enough to post on FB so as not to bum people out.
I feel that pressure more so now because like I said, I’ve got that haggard look of a parent who is wondering if perhaps I should have listened to the guy selling parenting perfection in three biblical steps. When parenting gets tough, it is tempting to get historical and look back on Facebook posts and wonder what happened to that lovable little guy – and wonder what I did to mess him up. Pictures on the iPhone bring a string of memories of missed opportunities, stern words, rash punishments, frustrations expressed unkindly, and more. It is tempting to blame others, too: schools, culture, parents, spouses, DNA, technology. The real challenge, however, is to remain hopeful for the present and the future; and that’s the damnable misery of it.
Most struggling parents that I know love their children. Love is not the issue. The struggle is to have hope that one day it will clear up and we will like one another again. The last thing parents need is someone telling them (or a voice in their head reminding them) if they had just done A+B+C they would not be in the boat they are in. But there is no hope in what might have been nor is there any hope in linear parenting.
For one thing, linear thinking isn’t relational thinking and A+B+C doesn’t even spell a word (at least 1+2+3 gives you 6). In other words, even if it were possible for a parent to do all the right things (whatever those things might be) there is no way to guarantee that their child would respond to them perfectly. Secondly, that ship has sailed and sunk off the coast of Neverland. There is no such thing as A+B+C parenting – even for Tiger Moms. Relationships are not formulaic.
For instance, I’ve known some pretty great parents in my day. They loved their children and provided for them. They spent quality time as a family. They took trips together. They prayed together. They went to church. They ate dinner together. They played together. They sent their children to private schools, or home-schooled, or good public schools. They took them to music lessons, sports camps, science fairs, and art institutes. They never raised their voice. They did not spoil their children. They did all the right things (whatever they are) and their children turned out solid citizens, with good jobs, and a lousy relationship with their parents. A+B+C simply doesn’t consider that people are people and sometimes being in a relationship with the people you love the most is just tough. And very often, in the most difficult season, it is tough to muster up hope for the present or the future – especially when lots of other folks just simply can’t be honest enough about how real life works.
What parents need is the freedom to come clean about their struggles without judgment. They need safe places where they can be honest with trusted friends. They need friendships with folks who not only sympathize and empathize, but know when to buy them a beer and talk about the weather. They need people who will pray for them and with them, even without being asked. They need to know they are not the only imperfect parents with imperfect kids. And, they need hopeful stories from parents who have been through it, recovered, and only have a few of the lines left over from the haggard parent face. And they probably need a good cup of coffee, too.