Parenting requires the uncanny ability to function in the tension between the present and the future.
There’s the survival, often reactionary, mode side of parenting, in which everything hinges on food, clothing, shelter and logistics. Then there’s the squishy future world that requires methodical planning and predicting for who-knows-what variables to come.
Survival mode includes untold hours devoted to nutrition: Learning to nurse a newborn, coercing a toddler to eat vegetables, packing lunches for school, delivering team snacks to ballgames, attempting to keep the cupboards stocked for your ravenous teen.
Same with clothing: Do we have enough onesies? How did this child grow out of all her shoes already? Where did all the socks go? Where did you leave your jacket? How did you get holes in those brand-new jeans? Why on earth did the coach select white shorts for outdoor soccer? You need which shirt clean in 15 minutes? The one at the bottom of the hamper?
Ditto for logistics, a tricky formula with increasing difficulty based on the number of children, activities, divergent campuses and available driving adults.
This right-now sort of parenting occasionally garners praise from the young people. Bake a fabulous batch of cookies or rescue a child from walking home in the rain, and you’re likely to hear “thank you.” You might even receive a giant hug.
Hang on to those accolades. You’ll want to revel in them later, when some of your other decisions are less popular. Because in the middle of providing for basic (and sometimes frivolous) needs, you can’t lose sight of the bigger goal: guiding that tiny person into responsible adulthood.
That focus on the big picture requires the kind of work that sometimes goes unappreciated in the moment. Indeed, it may be openly scorned.
That’s OK. Parenting also requires a thick skin, a kind of hard-earned callus that deflects eye rolls and shrugged shoulders and sarcastic barbs.
Keeping tabs on the future means that you don’t always rescue your child. If your son forgets his clarinet at home, you let it stay at home. You let him earn a 70 for participation in band class that day because it’s not a life-or-death crisis and perhaps, if he suffers the consequences, he’ll never forget it again.
When your child loses a very specific pair of socks, you agree to buy a second pair. Mistakes happen, yes? But when that second pair goes missing, you insist that the child pay for the third pair, because how else is that child going to learn how to care for things?
Parenting with the future in mind means a healthy share of household chores — not just because of present needs but because you want your children to become adults who are able to prepare their own meals, wash dishes and laundry, clean floors and toilets.
In our house, it also means pushing a child out of his comfort zone.
If you’re old enough to handle an email address, I believe you’re old enough to handle your own correspondence. For about four years now, I’ve required Cooper to email the adults in his life to solve problems. If he has a question about schoolwork, he emails his teacher. If he needs to sign off merit badge requirements with a Boy Scout leader, he emails the leader.
He finds addresses on his own. He types in complete sentences. He rereads his requests before sending.
“Thank you for making me write my own emails,” he told me recently. “I feel confident in doing it now, and it’s a good skill to have.”
And just like that, the future seems like it’s already here.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org