What would you do if you were in my shoes? It’s easy to imagine living someone else’s life for them, only minus the bad dates, hangovers, and nights spent stuck in layover at the Newark, NJ, airport. In our imaginations, we can see all the positives in a person’s life, and also the ways in which they’re not living up to their potential. Nowhere do we do a better job at living someone else’s life for them than we do with our children.
As a built-in part of my perpetual Dad duties, I constantly find myself giving advice. What no one tells you when you take this tiny little crying, peeing, fledgling humanoid home from the hospital is that the kid can hear what you’re saying, and eventually responds to your suggestions. You start chanting, “Say Mama … say Mama …” and sure enough, they finally say “Mama.” You think, “Wow, this is incredible! I can tell them what to do and they do it. I’ll just keep telling them what to do and they’ll keep doing it. Parenting isn’t going to be that hard at all. My kid will always listen to me because I can make them laugh just by playing peek-a-boo. I can make them happy just by giving them a cracker.”
So you keep telling them what to do, how to behave, where to go, when to go, how to do their homework, when to go to bed and take a bath and get up in the morning, where to put their dirty socks, how to pour a glass of milk, make toast, fry an egg, tie their shoes, just an endless series of little life lessons, and advice on everything that you know they need to do, and everything you hope they’ll do, even though you never did.
“Did you finish your chemistry homework yet? You need to stop playing video games and clean your room, take out the garbage, pack all your stuff for camp, and write a thank-you note to your Great Aunt Hilda right now! And while you’re at it, telephone Sara and say you didn’t mean to call her measle mouth worm compost; you were just cranky because I was nagging you about homework.”
So you advise them, coach them, guide them, guard them, and take their temperature, monitor their intake of vegetables, roughage and fiber, encourage them to exercise, reward them for doing good deeds, punish them for neglecting chores, and you can’t help telling them what you think they should do, what you would do if you were them.
But you’re not them. They need to make their own mistakes. They don’t know what it’s like to live in your shoes, and you don’t know what it’s like to be in theirs, even though you think you do, because you were once their age, and you know their quirks and strengths and weaknesses and habits and the ways they can procrastinate, and tempt fate and all the mistakes they will make if they don’t listen to you.
It’s really hard to stop giving advice to your kids, especially when they ask for it. It’s also really hard to watch after you’ve given them advice that they asked for and they don’t listen anyway. It’s almost like they needed to hear what you think they should do, just so they know what to do to piss you off. “Hmm, what would Dad do in this situation? I’ll ask so I’ll know exactly what not to do. Because I don’t want to wind up like him!”
I guess it makes sense. Say your dad was a convicted felon and racketeer and you ask him whether you should take the job working for McDonald’s and he says, “Hell no, go to the corner and talk to Lefty; he’ll get you a job running numbers; you’ll make 10 times as much as at McDonald’s for half as much work and you won’t have to wear some kind of little paper hat and striped uniform and smell like bad hamburgers everyday when you come home from work.”
“Well, that’s great advice, Dad, if I want to wind up like you, having Louie the Lip stalking me with a baseball bat if I come up short at the end of the month. That’s not going to be my life. I’ll work at McDick’s, save my money, go to college and become an accountant, and sing in the gospel choir on Sundays. Screw you, Dad, and screw your life!”
Anybody that wants to live life in your shoes is waiting for you to die so they can inherit your car (and car payments), your house (and mortgage), your bad back and bald head, and closet full of clothes with burn holes from the cigarettes you said you’d quit smoking every day for the past 10 years. That’s really not the kind of kid you want to raise. You want one who’ll go out on their own and do something completely different than you do, maybe than you ever thought of doing, maybe than anybody ever thought of doing. You want a kid who will recreate the wheel, reimagine the hamburger, reinvent the electric light, only a version that’s environmentally safe and not only lights the room but builds strong bodies 12 ways.
You want a kid who wants a new pair of handmade shoes from France that fit perfectly and help her walk straight and tall and run fast and live long and maybe even fly, or at least hover above the ground so she can get a good look around and see where she is before she takes her next step.
It’s always easier to imagine what you’d do if you were in someone else’s shoes. Maybe it’s finally time to stop giving so much advice and just listen and laugh and love it that your baby doesn’t try to repeat anything you say, or even try to do anything you suggest. Maybe it’s time to listen and do what she tells you to do for a change.