The dream of every parent is to live long enough to attend their kids’ college graduation parties, their wedding receptions, the births of their grandchildren, and for their kids to stand up in one of those moments to say you were the best parent they could have ever wished for and that they only hope they can live up to your example. We all want to be the kind of parent who receives this kind of love and appreciation. And if we’re being honest, we want to know all the things we can do for our kids that will not only set them up for success but also, hopefully, create these kinds of moments in the future.
The reality is, the best thing you can do to become a better parent, to become the kind of parent you can be proud of and your kids can admire, has nothing to do with what you do for your kids and everything to do with what you do for yourself. They say you can’t love someone fully until you fully love yourself. In the context of parenting, that means getting your literal and metaphorical house in order before they have to figure out how to live in it.
That might sound self-evident and maybe a little simplistic, but raising your kids well and being the kind of example that produces great kids is incredibly difficult if you don’t have your house in order first. If you’re constantly reactive. If you’re chronically over-tired. If you’re physically unhealthy. If you’re struggling with addictions and psychological issues. If you’re worried more about what your neighbors think than about being on the same philosophical page as your partner. These things stand in the way of great parenting, no matter how good your intentions are, because they are corrupted filters that affect how you receive and perceive the world.
To be a better parent—to be the best parent possible—you need to clean the filters through which you engage the world. You have to rid yourself of the things holding you back.
1) Get on the Same Page as Your Partner
Raising children is hard enough. Guiding them through difficult periods and shaping their character requires all of your focus and parental energy. To do it well is a true feat. To do it at all when you and your partner are in conflict is virtually impossible. That’s why you need to get on the same page as your partner as soon as you can.
So what does this look like? Well, it starts by asking yourselves a number of questions and being completely honest with your answers, then identifying the overlaps and the conflicts so you have a positive place of agreement from which to start your parenting journey and a full understanding of the areas where you have to work toward compromise going forward.
- What do you remember going well from your own childhood that you want to carry through for your kids?
- What mistakes from your childhood do you not want to repeat?
- Where do you expect you’ll come into conflict as parents?
- What are your parenting priorities? What are you going to be a stickler about most? Screen time, processed foods, physical activity, who gets to babysit, etc?
- How important is your career to you?
- How important are your hobbies to you?
- How important is college?
- What is your philosophy on discipline? Foul language? Manners? Dating? Sex?
Those are just some of the questions that are inevitably going to come up in the course of your life as a parent. There are no right or wrong answers to any of them. There is only what works for you and your parenting partner, and what doesn’t work. The last thing you want to do is to try to figure that out in between pediatrician visits and 3am feedings, while you’re sleep deprived and at your wits end, while you’re staring at the report card or in the principal’s office.
You can try to wing it, but that’s leaving an incredible amount up to chance, and it’s your kids who will pay the price if you get it wrong. Good parenting practices are not the kind of thing you want to make up as you go along. Go for a walk with your partner, split a bottle of wine, whatever it takes—just start talking. Because parenting is a team effort, and you are the managers. No team plays well when the leaders are always bickering.
2) Fix Your Heart
No one can question the love you have for your children. No one can doubt what’s in your heart. What you must question, however, is whether the way you express that love affects your children positively or negatively. Because not every parent gets it right. Many of us have unhealed trauma from our own childhoods. We have insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities that, when they go unacknowledged, unaddressed, untreated, become a toxic filter through which our best intentions (praise, admiration, compassion, discipline, etc.) become some of our worst actions (love bombing, adultifying, unreasonableness, condescension, cruelty, etc.). It sounds very dramatic when you lay it out like this (which it can be, though not always) but you only have to listen to The Boss to see how close to reality that drama lies.
In his beautiful and vulnerable memoir, Bruce Springsteen opens up about his childhood and his father, who shows up in many of Springsteen’s songs as “an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent.” His father was home only on the rare night his mother had the courage to drive to the local dive bar and ask him to come home. Sometimes, all she could muster was the courage to ask if Bruce could go get him.
The younger Springsteen estimates that fewer than a thousand words were exchanged between them throughout his entire childhood. He tells the story of the night his father came home probably after a few drinks and offered to give Bruce “a few boxing lessons.” Young and innocent, Bruce was excited to finally get some time and attention from his dad. But then his dad started throwing hard open-palmed punches to Bruce’s face. Bruce wasn’t physically injured but he was emotionally scarred. “We had slipped into the dark nether land beyond father and son,” he wrote. “My heart broke and I crumpled…I stood exiled from my father’s love.”
Bruce had what therapists call “the father wound.” As psychotherapist Jed Diamond defines it, “The father wound is the psychological, relational, and physical dysfunction that occurs in people who grew up with a father who was emotionally or physically absent. Picture a hole in our souls, in the shape of our father.”
For close to thirty years, Bruce tried to fill that hole with music, touring, fame, fortune. None of it worked. All the defenses he built to keep out the stress of his childhood gave out. So at thirty-two, he went to therapy for the first time. It didn’t just change his life, “it gave me the rest of my life,” he said in an interview with Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell. It would be another eight years until Bruce had his first child, and for good reason. He had the awareness that he needed to heal “the father wound” before he himself became a father. “I knew enough about myself,” he writes, “to understand that I was neither mature nor stable enough to parent well at any earlier point in my life.”
On the eve of Bruce’s fatherhood, he saw his father. They sat around a dining table making awkward small talk. Then a short silence fell between them. “I wasn’t very good to you,” Bruce’s father admitted. Bruce told him he did the best he could, but it was far too late to be of any use to Bruce. Thankfully, Bruce learned the lessons his father never did, and addressed the traumas his father created (traumas Bruce’s father surely shared, but would likely never admit to).
We were all deprived or hurt in our childhoods. Even the best parents left something to be desired. Maybe we were ignored. Or maybe we were pressured too much. Maybe Mom’s insecurity was a burden to us. Or Dad’s sense of humor cut too deeply. Maybe our family was poor. Maybe our family was too rich, too materialistic.
Whatever it was, we wished that things would be different. We wished that they could just understand. That they could just give us what we needed. It didn’t happen. And that hurt. It left wounds. It’s a dangerous business not healing those wounds. It will take therapy and self-reflection and patience and empathy and real self-love to heal your childhood wounds. But it will be worth it. And we owe it to ourselves, to the people in our lives and the people we bring into life, to heal those wounds. To break the link in the chain of what the Buddhists call samsara, the continuation of life’s suffering from generation to generation.
This is a second chance. Now you are the parent. The question then is what are you doing to do it differently? How are you going to handle this second chance? How are you going to heal the wounds? Because no matter how much you love your children, or how much you think you know what is best for them, or how much you would be willing to do for them—none of that will be received the way you think it will. Your intentions will be refracted through the lens of your heartache and your trauma so that your actions will look like attacks to your kids, not affirmations.
And if that happens, even the greatest parenting tips of all time can’t prevent a child from feeling exiled from their parents’ love.
3) Fix Your Body
Think back to the months before your children were born. Remember your excitement for all the things you couldn’t wait to do with them. Getting down on the floor to play with LEGOs or have a tea party. Pretending to be a scary monster who chases them all around the house. Going to the park to get shots up, to pitch batting practice, to play goalie for them. Taking them on bike rides around town and hikes in the mountains.
These are formative, bonding experiences that we all look forward to with our kids in one way or another, and the one thing they all have in common is that if we’re exhausted, if we’re out of shape, then they’re very hard to do and still have fun. For many, they’re hard to do at all.
In his late thirties, the ultra-endurance athlete and brilliant podcaster, Rich Roll, was starting to become one of those parents. He was 50 pounds overweight and “sliding into middle age,” as he said in a 2018 talk. His depleting physical health was simultaneously depleting his emotional and mental health. “I was depressed, discontent, disillusioned with this all-consuming career that I didn’t feel like I even consciously chose for myself, suffocating on the promise of this American dream that I felt in my heart, maybe even on an unconscious level that was failing to deliver on its implicit guarantee, which was happiness.”
Just after his 40th birthday, Rich reached a crisis point. Midway up the flight of stairs to his bedroom, he had to pause. Out of breath with tightness in his chest and sweat on his brow, he keeled over. He thought this was it. Heart disease runs in his family. Death was now at his door. And in that moment, he promised himself: if I make it to tomorrow, I will stop neglecting my health.
It was not a decision he had to make for himself, he realized, but for his kids. Through his twenties and early thirties, his negative health choices only affected himself. Now, as a father of four, the implications were greater. So he changed his diet, he rediscovered swimming and started running and biking. He shifted his priorities, putting family above work. His children were his northstar. “I wanted to be able to enjoy my kids at their energy level. That was it.”
When you first become a parent, your whole life gets turned upside down. As you scramble to manage and handle all these new, unfamiliar things now on your plate, you will find yourself naturally putting yourself and your own needs second. You’ll shower after the baby goes to sleep. You’ll eat after the kids eat—or you’ll just grab something quick on the way out the door, on the way to work, at the drive thru. Before you know it you’re bargaining with yourself: When they’re a little older, this will calm down and I’ll get back to my old routine. As soon as we get through [insert phase], everything will go back to normal, including my waistline.
It’s this delusion—this lie, really—that we use to explain all the things we’re putting off. I’ll start going to the gym once they’re out of this sleep regression. I’ll start eating better once they’re less picky about food. I’ll read when we go on vacation and they’re playing with their friends. My wife and I will get our relationship back on track once they’re in school more or out of the house for good or whatever.
You have to resist these thoughts. Just like financial compounding, the healthy or the unhealthy choices you make today will feed on themselves and grow exponentially until they define your very existence—for better or worse. There is a saying in relationship advice circles: you can’t love someone fully until you can love yourself fully. This is true for your relationship with your kids too. You can’t fully take care of them, you can’t do all those fun, physical things, if you don’t take care of yourself. You can’t meet them at their energy level, as Rich Roll put it, if you have no energy yourself.
All of which is to say, you can’t put off taking care of yourself. Your instinct to put yourself second and pour all your energy into your kids comes from a good place, we all understand that. But it doesn’t end in a good place…for anyone.
So what does this mean in practice? It means any number of the following:
- Working with your spouse or co-parent to each get reliable sleep
- Creating a meal plan in advance and preparing healthy meals and snacks
- Buying a large water bottle and drinking 64 oz of water every day.
- Carving out 20 minutes each day, minimum, to move.
It’s impossible to take care of your kids without taking care of yourself. What good can you do for your family if you feel awful all the time? Or if you lack the energy and strength to be any good to anyone? How can you be strong for them if you are in fact needlessly weak? Kids deserve parents who are around for a long time. Kids deserve parents who are healthy enough to enjoy them at their energy levels. Kids deserve their kids to have grandparents who they will not just know by reputation but remember from their experiences together.
This is what your children deserve. So do what you need to do. Get healthy. You’ll be a better parent if you are.
4) Fix Your Mind
We all know someone who has described one of their parents growing up as volatile or unpredictable. A parent with whom they became estranged or struggled to love as they got older. Maybe that person is you. Maybe you still have vivid memories of a parent who was prone to fits of behavior that were inexplicable at the time, but which became clearer in adulthood as symptoms of addiction.
Now, not all addictions are created equal. Some kill quickly, some kill slowly. Some don’t kill at all, but slowly chip away at your life until you have nothing to live for. They do have one thing in common, however. They drive a wedge between parents and children, because the very nature of an addiction is that it requires an increasing amount of your attention to service; attention that is more often than not taken from your other relationships.
To become a better parent, you’ve got to get a handle on your addictions—whether it’s substances, or shopping, or gambling, or validation, or whatever—before they start to drive that wedge between you and your kids so far that the gap they create becomes too far to bridge and you can’t reach them anymore.
This was something that Jimmy Carter’s dad understood intuitively and pulled him aside one day, as a young boy, to talk about. “There is something I want you to promise me,” Jimmy’s father said, “I don’t want you to smoke a cigarette until you are twenty one years old.”
This likely took young Jimmy by surprise, because this was the late 1930s, when something like 40% of the population smoked and cigarettes could still be marketed to children. But Carter’s dad was hopelessly hooked and he knew it wasn’t a good thing.
“I won’t,” Jimmy promised. And he kept that promise. When he was 21, then in the Naval Academy, he finally tried smoking. By then, it was too late. He’d missed his window and he hated it. He never smoked another. Tragically, Carter’s mother and three of Jimmy’s siblings followed in his father’s footsteps. Each one of them died of pancreatic cancer. Carter, as it happens, is still alive at age 96.
While it’s great that Carter’s dad helped Jimmy avoid smoking, wouldn’t it have been better if Carter’s dad didn’t smoke? If he was the one who promised his son that he wouldn’t smoke?
The author Jessica Lahey wrote about growing up with a family history of alcoholism, and how she realized one day that her own drinking was starting to affect her family: “My children were too little and too oblivious to comprehend how many glasses of wine I’d had. I figured I’d get the drinking back under control by the time they were old enough to be observant. Because, of course, I could stop any time I wanted to, I just didn’t want to.” Things kept up like that until the day she drank to the point of unconsciousness in front of her family and kids. When she woke up, she realized the choice was between alcohol and her family—and she drove to the first AA meeting she could find.
Your own problems may not be that extreme. Maybe it’s smoking. Maybe it’s eating junk food. Maybe it’s chewing tobacco. Maybe it’s caffeine or adrenaline or work or soda or social media or watching cable news. We’re all negatively hooked on something. But think about how easy it is nowadays for a problem like drinking to get normalized—with memes about “wine moms” and cute “Mama Needs Some Wine” signs. It doesn’t take much for your particular addiction, whatever it may be, to get a similar treatment. And it will take a really impressive amount of honesty with yourself, like it did for Jessica, to recognize when you have a problem.
One thing about having kids is that they have X-ray vision for seeing through BS. They know when you’re paying them lip service, when you’re giving more of your attention to your addiction than to them. No matter what, your kids are watching everything you do. You cannot escape their eyes. You cannot not be their example. And you cannot give them the attention they need to reach their full potential, when you’re giving some significant amount of that attention to your addictions.
So deal with them. If not for your own wellbeing, then for theirs. For that little fellow following you. You have to learn from Carter’s father’s failure. The costs of not doing it could be everything you’ve ever valued, everything you’ve ever hoped for—beginning with becoming a great parent.
5) Don’t Worry About Other People
One of the quickest ways to fail at being a better parent is spending any time worrying about what other parents are doing and measuring yourself against them. It is a sure fire way to lose sight of what matters most—your kids and your relationship with them—and to get lost in the unwinnable race to keep up with the Joneses.
You probably remember hearing about the 2019 college admissions scandal. Wealthy parents paid an admissions “fixer” to boost the chances of their kids’ admission to elite colleges through methods that included cheating on exams, bribing college officials, and faking their kids’ athletic credentials. So far, 53 people have been charged for their part in the scandal.
One of the most remarkable things about this story is that these parents’ kids—no matter which college they attended—were almost certainly set up for success in life. They didn’t need to get into Stanford or USC or wherever. Admission to one college or another wasn’t the thing standing between them and poverty…or prosperity. By virtue of their parents’ wealth and backgrounds, they were almost certainly going to be fine.
But their parents didn’t see it that way. They saw college admissions as a furious competition between parent peers of similar status, for a limited set of resources that would have an outsized impact on the shape of their children’s whole lives. They were so desperate to win that competition—as they defined winning—that they resorted to dishonesty. But the story resonated for so many other parents because it captured, in extreme form, an increasingly common aspect of parenting, at least in some social circles: the idea of parenting as a relentless competition.
You don’t have to get sucked into the competition—not on social media, not at your kid’s daycare, not when it comes time to think about college. We know that’s easier said than done. So, if it helps, keep in mind that very little of what you do to “optimize” your kid will make a difference in the long run.
As David Roberts writes, social science shows pretty consistently that what you do as a parent is swamped by other factors that shape your kids’ outcomes:
Like any parent, I would love to believe that my awesome kids are a result of my awesome parenting. Sadly, expert opinion indicates it ain’t so. Genes have an enormous influence. Peers and culture have an enormous influence. But parenting styles inside the home, apart from extreme cases like abuse or neglect, have very little long-term influence on a person’s personality or success in life, at least that social scientists have been able to detect.
Your goal as a parent is to be there for your child, to meet them where they are for who they are, not to build a perfectly-optimized college admissions package that beats what we package your neighbors or rivals at the country club have managed to put together.
And beyond that, as the entrepreneur Paul Graham writes, even if you try your best to optimize your kid, you’re very likely optimizing for the wrong thing—namely your relationship with them and their capacity to reach their own unique potential. One reason parents make mistakes is that…
like generals, they’re always fighting the last war. If they want you to be a doctor, odds are it’s not just because they want you to help the sick, but also because it’s a prestigious and lucrative career. But not so lucrative or prestigious as it was when their opinions were formed.
So relax! You don’t know if the thing you’re pushing your kid toward will still be valuable in 18 or 20 years. But you do know that some values are timeless and some relationships—like your relationship with your kids—are priceless. Focus on those. Let the competition take care of itself.
You’ll be a better parent for it. You’ll be a better parent for doing all these things to get your mind right, your body straight, and your shit together. Because you won’t have to worry about any of the specific, granular decisions that are a major part of the day-to-day parenting grind. You’ll know that whatever you decide, the decision will have come from a healthy, balanced, unified, confident place.