I remember one summer afternoon my granddad took me out fishing. I don’t remember if we caught anything and I couldn’t tell you what mountain lake we were at, but I remember like it was yesterday when my granddad backed his pickup truck into someone’s trailer. He climbed out of the truck and walked over to investigate the damage. Not too bad but the trailer’s tail light was smashed and laying in pieces in the dirt. We looked around. Whoever owned this trailer was floating out in the middle of the lake somewhere.
We climbed back into the pickup and I realized we were going to make a run for it. Nobody had seen a thing. We would peel out in a dust cloud high-fiving as we sped away.
Parents of all types have different philosophies and approaches to child rearing. There are those who wield a heavy rod so as not to spoil the child. Others take Harry Truman’s approach “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”
Despite the wide range of artistic license parents take, there seems to be a common thread among most of them. That is fear. Worry. Anxiety. For most of us this starts very early, maybe even before our children are born. We worry about what kind of parent we will be and is there a right or wrong way to do any number of child rearing tasks? And then they become teenagers, and clearly we are doing something wrong. Look at them?!
As I was preparing for my grandfather’s Bonnie and Clyde-esk escape, my fantasy was interrupted when my granddad climbed out of the pickup again, this time with pen in hand and scribbled his name and phone number on a piece of paper he slipped under the windshield wiper. I don’t remember if they ever called or if he ever paid to have that tail light replaced. I do know that an indelible lesson was burned into my psyche that day: There is a right thing to do, whether anyone’s watching or not.
In this case there was someone watching, it was a ten year old me. A ten year old boy who watched his granddad drive poorly, be inattentive, and curse after he backed into someone’s trailer. It was none of that I remember though, it was how he handled the failure that I remember. In the end this may be one of the often missed gems of parenting advice.
It’s not getting it right that counts as much as how you handle things when you get it wrong.
Our fear of parenting poorly drives most of us to try and get it right. We listen to experts, garner the unsolicited wisdom of friends and family, and read all the parenting books we can get our hands on. With Parents Magazine-approved child in hand, we set out upon trying to be the perfect parent.
Without fail of course, we are not. And we worry about that too. But let us as parents take some relief in knowing that maybe the goal isn’t to teach our children to be perfect but rather that they learn how to fail. How to fail with character. With dignity. How to learn the right lessons when they fail. How to fail the right way.