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Parenting the Child You Have

In the end, we are all in the same position: you can’t parent a child. You can only parent your child. 

If there is one thing that parents experience no shortage of, it’s advice. Family, neighbors, strangers in line at the grocery store: all know just what you should do about your child’s temper tantrum, toilet training or trouble getting to sleep at night. From the time they are barely showing, pregnant mothers receive the parenting wisdom of the ages in all kinds of settings.

Moreover, if, like me, you log on or make a trip to the library or book shelves at the drop of a hat (I wonder how hard it is to teach babies sign language. What are the odds that a child will never get chicken pox if they aren’t immunized? When should you talk to your children about fiscal responsibility?), you have discovered that every question you have about parenting produces at least 18,405 hits on your favorite search engine.


Thus, in 21 years of parenting, I’ve received lots of parenting advice, and I have appreciated every single piece. I figure everyone is an expert about something, and that stranger or second cousin or obscure website might have answers I don’t. They usually do, even if those answers do not turn out to be relevant to my situation.


 But in 21 years, the best single piece of advice I have received (and gone back to frequently in times of stress and confusion and even joy), is this: You have to parent the child youhave.

It came from a second-grade teacher with whom we were working on problems our son was having in school. Not one of the 11 years he spent in grade and high school (he skipped one year of middle school) was your average, routine school year, and many of the problems we had during that time were because we lost that mantra: Parent the child you have.


School systems, like all social systems, are constructed to deal with many children who are unique combinations of skills and talents, weaknesses and problems, environment and experiences. Most of the time, teachers, parents and children are able to negotiate and work out a fit that enables children to learn and thrive.


Every now and then, though, the school system is not prepared to provide for a child’s needs. Such a challenge has been our son. He began reading well before his third birthday, read car manuals for fun in preschool and, in fact, read at the tenth grade level when he was tested in the first grade. He can do anything on a computer, seems to learn languages by osmosis and has knowledge of music theory that embarrasses his mother (and her piano teacher). He can spell anything.


He did not do homework, however. He wanted to skip the boring multiplication tables and start with calculus. He convinced the school to allow him to enroll in Latin II when he had not had
Latin I.


We expect the school system to have some difficulty with very unique children, of course. That is the reason for special education, and our son was part of that program by virtue of being classified as ‘Gifted and Talented’ based on extensive testing. That designation means not just that he is very bright, but that the school system is unable to meet his unique needs without special accommodations. Thank God for the first grade teacher who insisted that we go through the process of petitioning for that testing process.


But we were blessed by the advice to parent the child we have – not just because it helped us negotiate with the school system, but also because it alerted us to be more flexible as parents. Like all parents, we entered the parenting game with intense commitment and determination, but it took us a while to learn that we needed to parent not ‘a child’ or ‘every child,’ but our child. 


Every child needs behavior standards; our child required daily modeling and conversation about right and wrong that explore all sides of every issue. All children need patience and understanding; our child is very sensitive and needed a light touch in discipline. Every child needs to feel secure; our child sometimes required more reassurance of his place in the family than other children do. He is a unique person, extremely intelligent but a little insecure about his social skills, ‘thin-skinned’ but often unaware of others’ sensitivities.


We have listened to all the advice and benefited from much of it. We have read about sensitive children, gifted children, unique children, and we have learned from all of it.


But in the end, it has been that advice – to parent the child we have – that has been the most important. No one knows him like we do, and it has been our job to resist his being pigeon-holed into any category, from ‘willful child’ to ‘genius.’ We cannot parent a willful or sensitive or gifted child. We must parent our son.


I think I have earned the right to pass along some parenting advice now, so here goes: Don’t resent advice, even when it is unsolicited. Read everything you can find, consider every viewpoint and stay humble. Use your head, but don’t forget your heart in the process. In the end, we are all in the same position: you can’t parent a child. You can only parent your child.


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