Have you ever wondered what it means to be "a good parent?" I know I did! Our three children were adopted, and we stood in front of a judge in a dark, wood-paneled courtroom each time. And each time, we raised our right hands as he said, "Do you promise to be good parents?" We answered, "Yes." What did that mean? Could we keep that promise?
I made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power to find the answer. You know we don't actually get an instruction book to tell us how it all works. We get instruction books with almost everything else in our lives--washers, televisions, stoves, lawnmowers, and snowblowers. But not with our babies! We are given very little that tells us how to be parents--let alone, "good parents."
My grandmother led me to believe that all mothers are born with an internal switch that would flip on as soon as we held our babies in our arms. We would suddenly know how to be parents! We would care for them, watch them grow, walk, run, catch a ball, and ride a bike. Then one morning we wake up, and it's the first day of Kindergarten! Where did all the years go? Are they really ready for the first day of school?
I told my mom and dad that I wondered if our oldest was ready to start school. My dad told me that of course she was. That was the the job of the Kindergarten teacher. That's what they get paid for! Of course I knew that advancing research into brain development now tells a very different story. We now know that learning begins with babies! You heard right. It all begins with babies!
We know we need to talk to our babies, engage them in little conversations about what we are doing, whether changing diapers or washing windows! We should sing to them, tell them nursery rhymes, and read books. In turn, our babies will begin to show us they understand some of the things we frequently say. After a while they will begin to say their first words, expressions, 2-word combinations, and simple sentences. Of course I can't promise how each individual child will respond, because all children are different, just like you and I are different. But you will know your child better, and you will make simple memories together that will last a lifetime.
My son recently died of cancer at 29 years of age. Shortly before he died, he suddenly raised his head from his pillow and said, "Will somebody tell me about my life?" Family and friends took turns telling him about fun times they had growing up. When they were finished, I talked to him for hours, telling him about all the funny stories I remembered from his childhood. I told him about all his favorite things and his not-so-favorite things. I sang him his favorite songs. I told him about his first stitches, and the funny haircuts he always wanted. I reminded him of all the calls I had from the Assistant Principal from his high school. I told him how smart he was. I recalled the road trips we took together, our favorite National Parks, and those we had plans to visit.
A few weeks later, a friend and I were talking and she said that I should feel comfort knowing I had fulfilled the promise. I asked her what she was talking about. She said, "You have the answer to the question, 'What does it mean to be a good parent?' Being a good parent means having no regrets." I realized she was right. I have deep sadness in my life, many many joyous memories, but actually no regrets. I know we had wonderful times together. I have so many wonderful memories.
We don't get a "do-over" for our babies' childhoods. So talk to your babies, engage them in little conversations, sing those songs (even if they are off-key), read books over and over, and cuddle your babies. You will never regret all those wonderful times together.