My father taught me how to drive at the age of 16 and his instructions were simple and clear. They weren’t from a driver’s manual but based on common sense and his 20+ years of driving experience. He commuted to work through snow, rain, and sun – if there was one thing I was sure my father knew how to do it was drive.
While teaching me to drive one day he told me to pull over and to stop the car. He turned to me and said he knew I was trying hard to learn but there was one thing I had to stop doing. He said, “You can’t hesitate when you are at the wheel. If you are going to go – you go – otherwise you don’t move until you are ready. When you hit the gas pedal you have to commit and move forward. If you don’t you will confuse other people and you will be unsafe on the road. If you can’t commit you shouldn’t be moving.” I listened to his message and understood what he was saying. Driving wasn’t just about learning the rules of the road but about making decisions and executing them confidently – the lives of my passengers and I depended on it.
I recently thought about this experience when considering how we get into the driver’s seat with our children. If we don’t lead – they won’t follow. If they don’t follow us we can’t guide them to maturity, nor be the one to orient them to the world, nor share our values, nor give them their bearings, nor be their compass point through the storms. If our children don’t see us in the driver’s seat when it comes to our relationship with them, they have nothing to hang onto and guide them to safety.
When we assume responsibility for taking care of a child, no one is there to tell us the right moves and we will often feel unsure about what we are doing. If we move ahead with hesitation what do our children see? Do they see someone they trust in to guide them? The challenge is while our children need to feel confident in us, the reality is we don’t always feel confident as being their parent.
When we accept the responsibility that comes with raising a child it often feels weighty. Taking care of them requires us to make decisions that are in their best interest, respond to behaviour in ways that will preserve our relationship with them, while dealing with our own doubt. However, if there was one thing we don’t have the luxury of while raising a child it is reluctance. To be reluctant is to hesitate, to be unwilling, or to be disinclined to take our leadership role in a child’s life.
Being a parent is about responsibility and caring. It is the beautiful dance of relationship where we get into the lead and make sure our kids are passengers. Will we get lost? Yes. Will we skid? Yes. Can we convey we are still in the lead? Yes. It is about trusting that we were never meant to have all the answers as parents but to commit ourselves fully to the responsibilities that lay before us as parents. What our children need most of from us is to take the lead in our relationship and provide enough contact and closeness to satiate their hunger for connection. They need enough caring from us in order to keep their hearts soft and to create the conditions for them to play and discover who they are.
What my Dad was trying to teach me about driving was that it was really about confidence. It was about taking the steering wheel in my own life and committing to moving forward in the best direction. This has also been my path as a parent. It has been about getting in the lead with my kids, not hesitating to take this responsibility on and to care deeply about the impact of my actions, choices, and judgment. The truth is my confidence as a parent has grown each time I was required to steer. It grew when I hit the tricky parts, when I got lost and found my way through, and in spite of being unsure. It is about how my love for my children has changed me for the better, it is a story as old as time.
We have been raising children for thousands of years – this is nothing new. We just need to remember that we will grow as parents when we assume responsibility to care for a child. It isn’t about perfection but ensuring our kids never feel lost because they have us.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is in private practice, on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.com.