For as long as I've been old enough to contemplate it seriously, good parenting has seemed a mystery to me. How do you impart all the life lessons, the wisdom, the values, and the myriad other things that your kids need to know? I suspect it has much more to do with consistently being the type of person you would like your kids to become than with anything else. However, I'm sure that deep conversation and occasional confrontations are called for as well. But I'm discovering something that I never expected: parenting is something that you grow into.
When I was pregnant with my son, I would sometimes wonder if we were ready for this awesome responsibility, but as the last fourteen months since his birth have gone by, I've realized that the demands of good parenting come in stages, so that one can master the simpler skills before more difficult things are required.
When you first bring that newborn home from the hospital, your life revolves around it–feeding it, burping it, changing it, bathing it, feeding it . . . you get the picture. There will never be a time when this child is more dependent on you to meet all of his physical needs. But though the demands are constant, they are straightforward. Babies need lots of love and cuddling, but the maternal instinct makes meeting this need a no-brainer, and not much wisdom or creativity is required to figure out how to put the diaper on, what temperature to make the bath water, when the baby wants to eat, versus when he just wants to sleep, etc. The basic skills needed to care for an infant can easily be learned in under a week, and after that, it's just a matter of following the routine.
But babies develop quickly, and soon after you've mastered the baby-care routine, you find that your little one starts to be able to grab some things, then roll over, then crawl, climb, and eventually walk. Each of these developmental milestones requires extra vigilance on your part, but the amount of wisdom needed to keep your baby safe is just at the level of common sense. However, as they develop physically, babies also develop mentally, and at some point the wise parent needs to begin to train the child.
I've been involved in this training process since Samuel was about four or five months old. At first it was simply a matter of setting boundaries ("Let go of Mommy's hair") and enforcing them until he understood and obeyed. But as his mind has developed, so has his will, and now he's starting to challenge more frequently the boundaries that I've set. I recently realized that I'm starting to need to draw on the wisdom of other parents whose examples I had stored away for future reference.
And so the difficult, crucial aspect of parenting deepens, that of helping to form the character of the little life that has been entrusted to your care. But, as I observed at the beginning of this post, it comes in stages. Each new challenge leaves new wisdom in its wake, which in turn, is available to help you meet the next challenge. It's like a series of stepping stones that gradually ascend to a distant peak. Seen from the plain, the heights look unattainable, but taken one step at a time, the journey, though difficult in places, is not only possible, but infinitely rewarding.
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