I was talking to a young married woman who has four children under the age of ten. She was explaining to me in great detail the rules she and her husband have set for their children. Their list included the typical things, like doing chores around the house and cleaning up messes. Then she launched into their techniques for giving allowances, expectations for church involvement and how each of them will be required to either attain Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts for the boys or complete the Personal Progress Program at church for the girls before they would be allowed to get their driver’s licenses. She went on and on in a confident tone, sure that her methods of raising children are producing nothing but excellent human beings.

Frankly, by the time she got done explaining their parenting ways, I had broken out in a rash just from listening. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and let her talk about how her children would be raised with a strong moral compass and that they would accomplish many great things under her motherly guidance. After all, who knows? Maybe it will all turn out exactly as she expects. I have heard of families who manage to raise all their off spring to be law-abiding, God-fearing, tax-paying members of decent society. My own adult children appear to be turning out fine, although I do admit to holding my breath every time they left the house from age fourteen until the day of their blessed high school graduations. I have lived long enough to understand that silly children can and do make decisions that fundamentally alter any hopes of success that their parents had for them.

No, what really stressed me out listening to my young friend was the complicated household rules and the extraordinary effort she was making to keep all the household balls up in the air at the same time. Granted, she is a stay- at-home mom and finances are comfortable at her house. Her children are healthy so she doesn’t have to pay attention to illnesses or special needs. At her house it is just following through on the chore charts, allowance charts, homework charts, attitude charts, religious charts and who knows what else. I was exhausted just considering parenting at that level. Never in my 20 plus years getting children from my womb and out the front door, did I ever have even one chart of any sort on my walls. I was doing good to cover the legally required aspects of child rearing along with occasionally hitting the minimum health cleanliness standards set by county ordinance.

I am convinced there are levels of parenting. Of course, there are people who should never be parents and have no business ever procreating. For the rest of us who are attempting the impossible task of parenthood, there are things I think need to be acknowledged.

For myself, I realized early on that I needed guidance. Since my own childhood is a sad story of neglect, foster care, abuse and in general sucked rocks every way possible, I knew I needed to do different. What that was, I didn’t know. When my first child was still an infant, I started reading parenting books. Some were helpful, some were horrifying and I was very, very confused and scared. I was terrified that I would accidentally spank my child and hurt them. Did I even want to spank? I definitely didn’t want to beat my children the way I was beaten. I didn’t want to shame and humiliate them the way I was. But what was I supposed to do instead? After spending a few years of reading and intently watching how other mother’s disciplined their children, I was given my life-saving gift. I read in the local newspaper about a free, eight week parenting class being offered by the city to help parents. I signed up and was met the first day of class by a room full of parents who were all there under court order. I was the only parent in the room who volunteered to come and learn how to be a better parent without needing the teacher to sign an attendance form for a judge. It was a humbling experience to spend eight weeks with parents who were really in trouble. I wasn’t nearly as bad of a mother as I thought. I was so quick to feel devastating remorse when I yelled too much or lost patience with typical kid behavior. My husband stayed home with our children so I could attend class. He was happy to comply with all my stuttering attempts at parenting. It was hard, painful work for me.

One of the most shocking and difficult things for me to learn to do as a parent was to hug my kids. I wasn’t raised in a huggy, kissy family. In fact the last day I spent in foster care before being adopted at age seven, I was shocked when my foster mother kissed my cheek and hugged me, telling me she loved me. I didn’t know that. In my years at her house she had never touched me beyond bath time or necessary involvement. The only context I had for touching was not healthy. At the time I was taking parenting classes bumper stickers were in vogue and there were a lot of car bumpers that sported the saying, “Have you hugged your kids today?” At first I was ashamed I didn’t. Then I used the bumper stickers as daily reminders to hug my kids. Over time it became a comfortable habit. It did take time and it did take my concerted effort to remember to do it. Ridiculous, right?

I was so busy dealing with my children’s special health needs and practicing basic, decent behavior towards them that anything beyond that wasn’t even on my radar. Chore charts? Eagle Scouts? You gotta be kidding. I just wanted them fed, clean and not in the hospital.

In some ways my lack of organized parenting has come back to bite me. I had to do extra work when the kids were teenagers to teach them how to clean the bathroom, do dishes, etc. because I didn’t insist on their involvement at an early age. I was happy when I had a vomit-free day back then. Paying attention to how a four year old loads the dishwasher so I could put gold stars on the chore chart ranking their effort was just too much.

I think that it takes several generations of normalcy, meaning free of child abuse and neglect, for parents to be aware enough to pull off higher level parenting. The families that I know who have made drastic leaps in parenting skills in one generation have tended to be fine in some ways and neglectful in others. They did great with chores and rules, but not so great with hanging out and knowing how to have fun with kids. Or vice a versa.

The most successful families I know have been from good families and were able to build from that foundation. Not having to unlearn bad parenting makes it much easier to move on to fine-tuning the details, like caring if a boy becomes an Eagle Scout.

I forgive myself for not requiring anything more from my kids than being decent. I am leaving my children the work of the next level and I expect my grandchildren to tackle the level beyond what my kids accomplish. I am quite proud of the way I was able to demolish the way I was raised and pour a new, smooth level foundation for future generations to improve on. Someday I envision the Young Family to have built a mansion on a strong base of love.