Johan wrote this
@ 2024-06-05


I recently stumbled over a reddit thread about children and parenting. Those threads pop up every now and then and I find them amusing and distressing in roughly similar amounts, because boy howdy are people wrong on the Internet, but also: that nagging dread that parents are always carrying in the back of their mind, that they’re being judged by people around them? Yeah, that’s absolutely true.

I think we have to start by acknowledging the fact that reddit—and most of the Posting Internet save Facebook, I guess—is filled with young people. Teens have the time, the energy, and the cocksure opinions that form the bedrock of online discussion. They’ll eagerly dive into complex relationship issues armed with therapy-speak and the 🚩 emoji, telling sad people looking for advice to immediately reach for divorce, grey-rocking, and no-contacting with very little compunction. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the parenting threads, where the perspective is always and forever that of “my parents did this or that, which I am very upset about.” Some stories are completely true, some are obviously exaggerated, some are made up from whole cloth, and they mostly boil down to “parents fail at parenting because they’re bad people and/or naaarcissists” and this, to someone with real actual children, is both eye-rollingly naive and a source of blinding terror. You have no idea what your children are going to be thinking about you in a few decades, after all.

Kids, lemme tell you man

The thing about children is that they’re people. That’s the weird little fact that many online behavioral experts seem to miss. Reddit in particular is pretty antinatalist (I’m generalizing, but again, reddit skews young and is very vocal about this stuff) and there are a lot of “childfree” edgelords in there essentially saying they can’t stand those little anklebiters running around screaming and breaking stuff. MOAR TIME FOR VIDEOGAMES INSTEAD. The people in frontpage threads are a bit more lenient about children actually existing, but they always tend to come back to the idea of parenting being a continuous performance of “do this, and you get that” like you’d do with a pet. Children are seen less as funky little members of your family and more as something annoying that needs to be actively parented or raised by calmly reacting to situations and choosing to punish or reinforce various behaviors.

Thankfully, I’m here to tell everyone on the Internet that this, categorically and unequivocally, is not how any of this works.

You can’t somehow think your way into a logical and consistent worldview that you then project onto your children via some Skinner-box type treatment. They’re not rodents, and you’re not a robot. I can see some of myself in my kids, both good and bad, and I’m sure some of it is down to how I conduct myself around them—but for the most part, their personalities came out basically factory pre-programmed. People say they’ll do what you do, and not do what you say, which has a kernel of truth to it, but

  1. You can’t really change what you do very much since we all respond to situations to the best of our ability, and trying to re-work that around some imagined optimal way for “parenting” someone seems like a fool’s errand, and
  2. Seriously, children seem basically hard-wired in the way they perceive and act on the world: they’ll develop their quirks and behaviors completely separate from you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Once you find yourself in the position of being someone’s father you’ll quickly realize that you’re not actually raising anyone here, you just happen to be the veteran in the trenches alongside them, showing them the ropes and hoping they’ll survive and turn out okay. Ultimately they have their own mountain to climb in life and you’ll be standing at the foot of it, watching them from below with a panicked expression on your face. They’ll succeed and they’ll fail, but there’s both solace and frustration to be found in the fact that they did that by themselves and the most you can take credit for is being around and liking them and occasionally telling them what you think about stuff. The rest is up to them. Terrifying and liberating at the same time. I sincerely believe that as a parent, you really can’t mold or shape anyone: you can absolutely screw them up, but you do that with heinous shit like beating them or being an alcoholic or having big acrimonious shouting matches with your partner in front of them. Contrary to what the Internet thinks, the way you saw me handling tantrum #36 of the week at the supermarket with a resigned sigh rather than a stern admonition doesn’t figure into the equation, like, at all. The “parenting style” that can be perceived from the outside is barely scratching the surface of a complex dynamic that has been evolving for years.

Everyone has ducks and they’re not always rowing

Another deeply-held belief I have about children is that nobody is ever truly ready. There’s another type of post out there that shows up like clockwork whenever children are being discussed: “you need to have travelled the world and ticked half your bucket list and found a reliable partner and a support network and home ownership and a retirement plan and and and” in order to have children. This, too, is completely ass-backwards. There is no equilibrium stable enough that a child can be added without completely disrupting it. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and even a bog-standard neurotypical non-colicky baby demands incredible feats of endurance and patience and you just kinda learn to roll with it, because you have no other choice. The equilibrium will change, and keep changing, and through it all you keep on being yourself. There’s no guarantee it’ll be easier if you have all your ducks in a row before it happens. It turns out you can actually travel with kids, too, and it’ll sometimes make the trip even better.

In general, I think parents are a whiny bunch, myself included. I’d like you to cut us some slack, though: we can intuitively feel everyone’s stares drilling into our necks as we try our best to handle the fundamentally un-handleable, and at heart most of us are desperate to communicate that we’re doing an arduous job to the best of our ability. Seeing it discussed so flippantly by people who have no idea what it’s like because they’ve only ever been on the receiving end is maddening. Being a parent is constantly being at the end of your rope but still having to come up with more rope somehow, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the ways you can screw up without ever meaning to. Plus the good parts are just as hard to convey as the bad ones: an impossibly soft cheek against your own, a little monologue directed at a favorite doll, a tiny hand snaking into yours while waiting at the stoplight. You thought you knew love before them, but you truly honestly didn’t. Sappy, but true!

Nobody really knows how to be a parent, especially not the Internet. Best to just get on with it.