Yesterday was the first day of school for many children in our community.  I received an email with the annual photo of the Dennis girls (Abby, Katie, and Dani), seated on the front step, backpacks on, ready for the big day.  It was a bittersweet day this year, because their mom, Wendy, was missing her mother (Jan) who passed away in the spring.  As I thought about Wendy and Jan, and the three girls sitting expectantly on the step, I found myself ruminating on parenting — and what a difficult undertaking it is.

It may seem strange for a woman without kids of her own to write about parenting.  However, there are many children in my life: nieces, nephews, children who think they’re my nieces and nephews, children who know better but call me Aunt Jen anyway.  I love these kids without reservation, and I love that their parents let me be part of their families.  In the course of these relationships, over years of observation, I think I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a “good parent”.  And while I have observed parents making some classic blunders, I stand in awe of what I have seen them do out of love for their offspring.

One of the things I’ve learned, that I didn’t realize until I started hanging out with these little people literally from the day they were born, is that they are born that way.  I mean, their personalities may still be forming, but some essential part of who a child is arrives with them, day one.  The happy ones, the morose ones, the serious ones who seem older than their years — good parents accept and nurture them for the unique humans they are.  My friends Ryan and Jill have two sons, whose personalities couldn’t be more different.  Watching them parent Myles and Ryker is like watching a golfer select the right club: the tools are different, but the same love and skill guide their use.

A few years ago, I received a call at 11:30 on a weeknight in August.  On the other end of the line was Ben, approximately 12 years old, nephew of friends.  He said, “Jen, can you come over and play truth or dare with us?” The “us” he was referring to was a group of 10 cousins having a slumber party.  It was a work night in the busiest month of the year for my job, but there was no way I would have said no.  And it turned out to be a truly memorable night!  I can never thank Wendy enough for being the kind of parent who said yes to calling an unrelated adult that late at night. (She also trusted me with a bowl full of flour for the most awesome “dare” ever).  In parenting, the small choices are often the telling ones.  We worry over what to tell our children about war or God, or when it is ok to leave them alone without a babysitter.  But the accumulated minor decisions may carry more weight in determining who children become as adults.

Good parenting means putting your children first.  This is extremely difficult in a world that says we deserve to put ourselves first.  Giving them everything they want is not what I mean by putting your child first.  I mean they are first in your heart.  When I asked my brother, Jeff, what his favorite thing about his family’s trip to France and Italy this spring was, his answer was perfect: it was listening to his daughters giggling together in the next room.  Not the Louvre or the Amalfi coast, but hearing his nearly grown girls enjoying their time together as a family.

Something else I’ve learned from watching my friends and siblings parent is that a child may have every advantage and excellent guidance, and still screw things up.  They behave badly, they have temper tantrums, they poke a pen through the new baby’s soft spot (wait, that was me…sorry, Gwen!).  They don’t appreciate what they have or the parents who have sacrificed for them.  They sometimes do bad things or terrify their parents by threatening the unthinkable.  When this happens, it is easy to blame the parents, and in our culture, we are very judgmental toward parents whose children behave in these ways.  I believe this is a defense mechanism which allows the rest of us to feel safe from having these terrible things happen in our lives — they must be bad parents, not like me.  But the real truth is, bad things can happen to good parents, too.

Last week, I became a great-aunt for the first time when my nephew Tim and his wife Nikki became the loving parents of little Emma Joy.  And in November, I will become an honorary aunt to Molly and Derrick’s daughter.  I will adore both of these little ones.  I already know these children have awesome parents. To these new parents, as to the other parents in my life, I promise to help when I can, to forego judgment, and to offer you my love and support in this most difficult of life’s roles.