My dad wrote a lot about me and my two older brothers in his books. Of course we gave him permission. We understood that by sharing his own parenting ups and downs my dad might really help others navigate the same. What I didn’t anticipate was how much many of these stories would eventually help me.
I think about one story in particular a lot now that I am parenting two kids myself:
As the story goes, I was eight years old and it was my turn to clean the bathroom as part of our weekend chores. I wasn’t doing a bad job – not for an eight year old anyway – but it turns out that my work didn’t meet my dad’s standards. He exercised admirable impulse control, for about a minute before jumping in to “help me” finish the job.
Realizing that my dad’s help was an opportunity to have him complete my chore, I handed over my rag and retreated to the corner to wait it out. That is until my mom walked by and stopped quickly at the bathroom door. She motioned for my dad to join her in the hallway out of earshot.
“Do you know what you are doing?” she asked him.
“I’m cleaning the bathroom,” my dad replied.
“But that is Erin’s job,” she responded.
“Yes, but she can’t do it very well,” he said.
“So?” my mom replied.
After a short back and forth my mom concluded with a question to my dad:
“You will need to make a choice. What’s more important to you right now – a perfect bathroom or a capable daughter?”
My dad originally included that story in a book to demonstrate the importance of giving kids opportunities to learn responsibility. But this story also illustrates something even bigger. This story is a reminder that kids and parents alike benefit when we step back and ask: “What is the point here? What is the purpose?”
Parenting is a wild, messy, and imperfect dance between the ideal and the real. Sometimes we take over the bathroom because guests are coming and we just need to move on. Thinking about purpose in parenting isn’t about judging every action against a set of lofty ideals. It isn’t about ignoring the real barriers that often constrain our choices. Instead, it is taking a step back sometimes to gently ask ourselves questions about a goal greater than what is right in front of us. This small act can lead to settling for a slightly dirtier toilet in exchange for something far more meaningful and important.
Purpose can help us decide:
- What to pay attention to.
- What to spend time on.
- What skills to coach and teach.
- What to honor and celebrate.
Purpose can serve as a compass that guides our priorities as we navigate everyday parenting choices and challenges.
Purpose is powerful
Let me give you some more quick examples about how defining the purpose might shape what we do on the daily.
- If our purpose in discipline is to get our kids to comply – then we might choose to use yelling, fear, or strict authority to manage our kid’s behavior. If our purpose is to help kids learn how to manage their emotions and behaviors themselves – then we might choose to use emotion coaching, skill building, and clear limits and consequences to help them practice those skills over time.
- If our purpose is to “catch” kids being bad online – then we might choose to monitor their activities without telling them. If our purpose is to teach and encourage positive behaviors online – then we might choose to open up communication, mentor, and model healthy habits.
- If our purpose is to “catch up” from more than a year in a global pandemic – then we might pack our schedules full of activities, obligations, and work. If our purpose is to heal and restore – then we might identify the things we all need to recharge and prioritize those even if they don’t feel productive.
- If our purpose is to always get the best for our kid – then we might choose to hoard resources or pull strings and cut corners to get our kids to the front. If our purpose is to do what’s best for all kids – then we might be patient, widen our circles of concern, listen, advocate or get involved in and build school or community-based actions and systems that support everyone.
What matters most
We have all experienced a lot this past year. We watched broken systems fracture and practiced repair and resilience. As we slowly and carefully emerge from COVID, we might have more choices about what to do with our time, attention, and energy. We are overjoyed. And grieving. And overwhelmed. And we are still parenting.
So it might be supportive to revisit purpose right now. Sometimes when I am in the weeds myself and any semblance of a compass has evaporated, it feels helpful and supportive to revisit my mom’s words: “You will need to make a choice. What’s more important to you right now?”