Just before I had my first child – okay, before my wife had our first child – an acquaintance told me that once a man becomes a dad, he’s no longer cool. But that wasn’t going to happen to me.
Immediately after our girl was born, though, I discovered some truth in the statement. I’ll admit, it’s hard to look cool with a diaper bag hanging from your hip. Just because it’s khaki with a bunch of buckles on it doesn’t mean it’s fashion forward. And pretending it’s a satchel doesn’t work either. Everyone knows what it is. No matter what you’re wearing or how you’re walking, it’s objectively not cool to have poop under your fingernails or last week’s spit-up on your shoulder. It’s not cool having to search for the barista after your toddler just slapped your coffee into your buddy’s lap and all over the floor.
Moms struggle with the same type of problem, I gather. Many would rather die than have a “mom body” or slip into some “mom jeans.”
Can parents be “cool”? What does that even mean?
According to a recent report from Google, teens define it this way: “Being cool is about just being yourself, embracing what you love, rejecting what you don’t, and being kind to others.”
But coolness is actually an abstruse topic, right? Asking teens to define “cool” is essentially asking them this: What makes you feel like you fit in, that you’re worth something, that your image projects something valuable in your social context?
Their collective response is a decent start, I guess. Teens shouldn’t have it all figured out yet. But I think I can hold your attention long enough to outline why that line of thinking presents problems for parents.
Parenting isn’t about redefinition. It’s about regeneration.
Put another way, it’s not about reclaiming or retaining your identity as it was before the kids. It’s about teaching another human about her identity.
The difference between a nurturing parent and a teenager is obvious when you compare their priorities. A mature parent isn’t concerned with “being yourself” anymore. If parents pay close enough attention, they’ll see this happen from the opposite angle. You’d scoff at me if you overheard me whispering to my daughter as she was throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, “You be you, girl. You be you. YOLO.” A nurturing mom doesn’t want her son to remain as he is, to be true to himself. She wants him to grow, develop, transform into a person who knows inside and out who he is, that he’s loved, and that he has the capacity to return that same kind of love to everyone around him.
Likewise, nurturing parents stopped measuring their values against “just being yourself” long before the Terrible Twos or the Threenage years. Hear me: I’m not saying that parents should push a magical button that makes them altruistic overnight. Selflessness, too, is a journey for us as parents. Nor am I saying that we should all renounce fashion because it’s selfish. No, I’m suggesting that allowing coolness – as our inner teenager defines it – to become the pursuit of our lives will cause major problems for us and the little humans we’re trying to teach.
The teenage definition of cool is replete with contradictions.
Nurturing parents know that just being themselves will ultimately mean they cannot fully embrace what they love – namely, their children. It’s not me just being myself when I have to get up in the middle of the night to hold my daughter’s hand as she’s screaming through a night terror. If I was true to myself in that moment, I’d just roll over and go back to sleep.
Nurturing parents know that just being themselves will ultimately mean they won’t always reject what they don’t love. I don’t love telling my daughter she can’t have cake every night, even if she asks so sweetly, clasping her hands together next to her chin. I don’t love telling my buddies I can’t hang out because I need to be home to help out with the kids. There are plenty of things that I don’t love that I have to accept.
Nurturing parents also know that just being themselves will ultimately mean they can’t even be kind to everyone, especially their kids. Kindness doesn’t come naturally for most of us. If we’re all going to be true to ourselves, most of us will instinctively treat our pesky kids like insects buzzing around our happy little lives.
So, the magic happens when I get away from old self and become new. The inner teenager keeps us from being truthful teachers. Just as parents don’t want their kids to remain in their immaturity, parents should seek a transformation of their own.
Can parents be cool? Yes. But it’s meaning has a more positive impact on children when it’s not based on something as fleeting as my feelings.