The One Question I Always Come Back To

by Annie Reneau
mother-child relationship
Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

This parenting gig is hard, man. I’ve been at it now for almost 16 years, and while there are ebbs and flows, it has never been easy. Kids are constantly changing, frequently frustrating, and always unpredictable. Just the logistics of keeping track of everyone’s development, dietary needs, sleep habits, and education seems like it should be enough. Then there’s the psychological weight of motherhood and the worries about kids’ physical and emotional safety to deal with. And then to top it all off, we’re bombarded on all sides with advice, “expert” opinions, and self-appointed internet judges and juries.

It’s a lot to manage and figure out.

I used to read parenting books to try to make sense of it all, but a few years ago, I stopped. It had become clear to me that most parenting advice is, for the most part, totally bunk. I mean, it might be great for a while, but most methods of behavior modification, tips for sleep training, etc., are effective for a little while and then kids figure out a way around it. Most of my kids’ “issues” have been phases that they outgrew, ingrained personality traits, or symptoms of some kind of imbalance in our household.

But there’s one question I always come back to when parenting feels like it’s going off the rails, a question that keeps me centered and eventually brings us all back on track:

How is our relationship doing?

If I’ve learned anything during these 16 years, it’s that parenting is all about relationships. Discipline is important, but none of it is effective if my children don’t feel a close bond with me. Without that connection, without a relationship that is defined by mutual love, respect, and trust, all parenting strategies are going to be temporary at best.

Very often, when my kids start riding my last nerve, it’s because there’s a distance growing between us — not a normal, kids-growing-up-and-away distance, but an unhealthy, empty distance. I’ve learned that that’s when I need to pull them in closer. That distance can give me an urge to harden, so I purposefully soften. I remind them that I am their safe space and their cheerleader. I open up and let them in, embracing them with my love and support. I remind them that I am their mother, not their friend, but I don’t see a huge difference when it comes to closeness. A mother should be someone you can go to with your worries, fears, and frustrations, someone you can 100% be yourself with, someone you can trust with your dreams.

I ask “How’s our relationship?” when my teen is getting angsty. I ask “How’s our relationship?” when my middle child takes out her quick temper on her little brother. I ask “How’s our relationship?” when my youngest tells a lie. I ask that question not in place of correction and consequence, but as a precursor and a follow-up to those things. I want my kids to know, without a doubt, that my goal is to strengthen both their character and our bond. I can help my teen through this normal adolescent upheaval much more effectively if she feels connected to me. I can talk my middle child through her anger much more easily if she can snuggle up to me and know we’re on the same team. I can teach my son the importance of honesty more clearly if he sees and feels how important trust is in a relationship.

I remind myself that I will be a parent to these children forever, that this mother-child relationship will last beyond all of the time-outs, the screen time battles, the messes, the annoyances, the hard lessons. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of parenting and forget that connection is not guaranteed. My relationship with my kids is the most important thing, so it makes sense to be mindful of it in all of our interactions.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I never want to run away from my children or flush them down the toilet. Sometimes maintaining a good relationship with my kids means taking breaks from them. But even then, I try to remind myself why I’m doing it — getting away so that I can give them the best of me and keep our relationship healthy.

So far, that approach has worked wonders. I’m thoroughly enjoying my almost 16-year-old. My middle daughter told me the other day that she always wants to tell me everything, and so far, she has — even some really hard things. I know that it’s not realistic to believe that that will always be the case, and as she grows, I’m sure there will be some things I’d rather not know. But my goal is for my kids to not just know that they can come to me with anything, but for that habit to be their go-to reaction when life gets complicated.

Parenting a child who feels close to you, with whom trust and respect are mutually shared, is so much easier than when you’re disconnected. Keeping those relationships strong and healthy isn’t easy, and it takes conscious work, but it’s totally worth it.