Dear Parents, You Can’t Control How Your Kids “Turn Out” {So Stop Trying}

Dear Parent,

You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.

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We all are.


In the poker game that is parenthood, we’ve been constantly upping the ante for the last thirty years now. Our criteria for what it means to be a successful parent have gone through the roof, and it feels like there’s an awful lot riding on every card we play—we bear a tremendous sense of responsibility for the outcome of our children’s lives.

Dear Parent, you’re carrying more than your fair share of the burden, and you can cut yourself some slack for how your kids turn out. You just don’t have that much control over it.

Their personality will trump your performance every time.

My kids are teaching me this. My oldest son is a lot like his mother, in ways I adore and in ways that drive me crazy. My daughter is like no one I’ve ever known or even imagined. And, over the last seven years, as I’ve watched my younger son’s personality emerge, it’s become clear he’s a lot like me. Sometimes eerily so. Not because of anything I’ve done to shape him, but because of the DNA I’ve donated to him.

This morning, I walked into his bedroom and there, laid out on his floor, were his Boxcar Children books, lined up edge to edge, in ascending numerical order—a ritual I performed repeatedly with my own series of Hardy Boys books. His books are different, but the behavior is so identical it makes me dizzy. I’ve never once talked to him about organizing his books.

Which gene, exactly, is responsible for obsessive orderliness of a home library?

A few weeks ago, I awoke in the dark hours before dawn, my mind already revising a blog post. A few minutes later, he walked in, eyes still blinking away sleep grit, and asked if I had any electrical tape. He’d awoken with an idea about how to mend a broken electronics cable. He’s seven. How does he even know about electrical tape?

And which gene, exactly, is responsible for a mind that solves problems around the clock?

A month ago, I looked out the kitchen window. He was in the driveway with his back to the basketball hoop, rolling the ball off the hood of my car, catching it, and shooting a turnaround jump shot. Thirty years ago, I did the exact same thing, over and over, in the quiet of my own driveway.

Which gene, exactly, carries the information for athletic practice and self-discipline?

Obsessiveness. Problem-solving. Practice and discipline. These traits have served me well at times and, at times, they have broken bad on me. Sometimes, very bad. Which way will they break on my son? I’m not sure.

And I’m ready to accept that I don’t have a lot of control over it.

There is a basic reality encoded in the children we love. It’s not their destiny, but it’s a big part of their identity. It’s who they are. We are witnesses to their becoming and, more often than not, little more.

Yes, Dear Parent, of course you influence your children. When you mirror them well, they get a little clearer glimpse of who they are and they settle a little more comfortably into their soul. When you join them well, they learn they have a place to belong, a safe place to return to when the world tries to take a bite out of them. When you see them well, they know they matter, and the world needs kids who know they have a part to play in this great big human project. And when you limit them well—with love instead of power—you teach them the value of finitude, the beauty of boundaries, and the contract for community.

But, Dear Parent, beyond that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about how their lives play out. You have almost no power over who they are going to be. In this great poker game called parenthood, the hands have already been dealt and, for the rest of the game, we’re mostly just bluffing our way through the mystery of it.

Yes, every parent at the table is bluffing.

We’re all making it up as we go.

So, instead of worrying about our lack of control, or beating ourselves up for the outcome, may we all cut ourselves some slack and focus on becoming the best witnesses we can be.

May we enjoy their becoming,

pray for the best,

and give ourselves a little bit of grace along the way.

Sincerely,

A Dad Without a Poker Face


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Dr. Kelly Flanagan
Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He also a writer and blogs weekly about all things redemptive at his blog, UnTangled. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. His first book, Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life was published in March 2017 and debuted as the #1 New Release in Interpersonal Relations on Amazon.