On the first night my parents brought me home from the hospital, my dad asked my mom what time they should set the alarm to wake up and feed me.
I laugh every time he tells that story. Little did my dad know that I was created with my own little alarm clock that would be waking him and my mom up far more frequently than they could have imagined.
And no matter how many times he reminded me of that story, or how many classes my wife and I took to prepare for the anticipated birth of our first baby, I was completely unprepared.
I will never forget that morning in July 2007 when my daughter Hayden was born. I vividly remember that initial glimpse of her in delivery room as she entered the world. I remember the next 48 hours of no sleep in the hospital. I remember that long, slow car ride home from the hospital where I took every side road and drove so far under the speed limit that people were jogging past me on the side of the road. I remember that panicked look of “What do we do now?” that my wife and I exchanged with one another when we walked in our front door. I remember the acid reflux and the colic, and coming home to both my wife and baby daughter in tears. I remember the 12 months of very little sleep.
Almost everything I know about parenting could not have been taught to me in a book or a class, but came with experience. All of those fond memories I recall about that first year are a constant reminder to me that a lot of parenting is about dealing with the unexpected and trying to innovate in the moment.
Because no matter how many books you read or how many times your friends with kids give you advice. No matter how many cool accessories you pick up on your endless trips to Babies “R” Us, you are never prepared for many things when it comes to being a parent.
As a former college pastor and now a marriage and family therapist, I spend a lot of my time around parents and their children, and I’m learning new things every day as I try and be the best parent to my 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
So whether you have kids or are hoping to have them one day, here are some truths I have found helpful.
Learn to take care of yourself.
I’m not encouraging you to be selfish or self-indulgent, but to foster four core areas of your life: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. This is essential self-care, and you need to work on the balance before and after you have kids. Because if you don’t take care of yourself, you will have nothing to give to your children.
Some parents suck the life out of their children, having nothing to offer them but anger, criticism and emotional and physical distance. Other parents are life-giving, breathing encouragement, strength and emotional and physical connection into their children. The difference between taking away life and giving life is that those who give life take care of themselves.
Be relationally connected.
Our children benefit from the connections we have with others. If you are married, your ability to be a great parent is often directly correlated to your connection with your partner. Lots of parents use their child as a way to fill a relational void they experience in their marriage or other relationships. When a spouse is not connected to their partner and other strong friends, they can become overly enmeshed with their child, distorting boundaries between parent and child in the process.
Pursuing and keeping up strong relationships—with your spouse, family, friends and, most importantly, God—before you have kids will allow you not be dependent on your children to fill unhealthy needs.
Practice managing your emotions.
There is a term in psychology known as differentiation, which essentially refers to the idea that there is a boundary between you and another person in a relationship. You know where one person begins and ends.
When we are unable to regulate our own emotions, we often become overly needy toward others or our emotions are often triggered by them. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our ability to manage our emotions, therefore preventing them from having to be our emotional caretakers, which many children end up doing.
So if you have an issue with anger, anxiety or depression, for example, it’s important to begin working on that issue before you have kids.
Be present and consistent.
Since the publication of my book What it Means to be a Man I regularly have men asking me the key to fatherhood. That’s a hard question to sum up in a short statement, but I do believe that for both mothers and fathers, being a good parent ultimately comes down to intentionally showing up in the lives of your children on a day-to-day basis.
Sometimes, as parents, we are prone to big gestures to demonstrate our love and care for our kids, but nothing shows love and care like being consistently present with them day-to-day. Parenting is the ultimate form of stewardship and discipleship—two things we can practice in other areas of our lives before we have kids.
Ultimately, none of us are going to be perfect parents. Perhaps more than anything else in our lives, parenting reveals our sin and teaches us to rely on God’s grace. But what we do as parents directly affects the lives of our kids and generations to come for good or for bad.
Being a great parent does not start at the moment of conception or at the birth of your child; it starts now. It starts when you take a look at your life and how you were raised, good and bad, and begin to take responsibility for who you are. That is the greatest gift you can give your children.