On one of the frigid days over winter break, I invited (forced) my 11-year-old son to take our dogs on a walk with me. We hadn’t gotten far when my son, the pint-sized philosopher of our family, turned to me and asked: “Mom, do the pros outweigh the cons as a parent?” I literally stopped in my tracks because I was so struck by his question. While tempted to launch into a long-winded response, I actually took the advice I give other parents and got curious. “Do you mean, is it generally good to be a parent more often than it’s bad to be a parent?” When he nodded, I pulled out another parenting trick and turned the question on him: “Well, what do you think?”
He took a deep breath and said, “Well, the pro is that you get to create another human being and watch them evolve, so that’s pretty cool. But that’s kind of the only pro.” Then I asked him what the cons were and he spent the rest of our 30 minute walk expounding on the negative aspects of parenthood. One example in particular stood out to me. My kid described a scenario in which a parent is stressed out about finishing her work, but instead she has to help her kid with something, so it can be really frustrating. (Ouch. It was not a mystery to me where he got that example.)
My son’s description of this “parenting con” — having to help your kid when you’re stressed about your own work – lingered with me long after we finished our mugs of hot chocolate. First, it made me realize how much the stress we feel as parents, knowingly or unknowingly, gets communicated to our kids. Second, in the context of that stress, my son seemed to have absorbed the message that parents have to help kids, rather than want to help kids. Third, and this was a gut-wrenching epiphany, that my kid, consciously or not, was expressing that his needs were low down the hierarchy in the larger context of our family.
I don’t want my kid to feel like a burden, even though sometimes he is, as are all children. I want my child to feel valued, even in the moments when I feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of raising him and the endless demands of life. The more I thought about my son’s question, the more I realized that he was seeking reassurance that he is a worthy member of our family from me, both in word and deed. So first, I circled back with him and told him that yes, being a parent can be really hard and I get frustrated, but the pro he articulated to me — creating a person and watching him evolve — was more important than anything else I do. Then I came up with three ways to demonstrate to my son, through my daily actions, how important he truly is to me.
Carve out nuggets of time
I deliberately carve out time when I am completely focused on my son without phone calls, social media scrolling, or texting. I aim for 30 minutes at least once a day where we play air hockey or bake together or watch a show and I have no competing responsibilities. These daily opportunities allow me to connect with my son in fun ways and help him feel secure in our relationship.
Thank him for spending time with me
I learned this one from my husband: After my son and I have time together — take the dogs on a walk, make a run to the grocery store, play soccer in the yard — I thank him for spending time with me and for being such a wonderful companion. This communicates to him that I value and enjoy the time I have with him, rather than seeing it as a burden.
Give him lots of notice
If I’m not going to be available to my son, I give him lots of notice beforehand so he doesn’t feel abandoned and I don’t feel stressed that I’m letting him down. We take a minute together to see if there is anything he needs from me before I get to work and make a plan for me to be helpful when I am free. This demonstrates that I believe his needs are important even when I can’t help him at that very second.
None of this is rocket science, but it’s rooted in one lesson I’ve learned parenting four kids over nearly 20 years: So often it’s the little moments, not the grand gestures, that our kids appreciate. Frequently, it’s the passing compliment or words of encouragement that help our kids feel good about themselves. I am always amazed at how consistent, small efforts lead to big, meaningful impact in helping kids to feel loved and valued in our families. As winter turns to spring later this year, I hope that when my son and I take our dogs for a walk, he will know in his heart that for me, the pros do outweigh the cons as a parent.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents.