Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims:
Ability Is the Key to Successful Parenting

By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks . with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Cliches archives.

If a clich is something that society begins to accept as traditional wisdom, then this has certainly become one! Parenting wasn’t even a word we used until a few years ago, but now it’s treated as a science, or an art, or at least a set of sophisticated methods or techniques. If you need to prove this to yourself, go into a bookstore and find the child-care or parenting section. It will be easy to find because it is a big section. You’ll find books on every conceivable aspect of child-rearing, and virtually all of them carry a tone of expertise, of step-by-step how-to, of technical ability that is intimidating.

The more books you pick up and look through, the more inadequate you feel. How can an ordinary person, without a Ph.D. or years of psychiatric experience, possibly succeed at something so complex as parenting?


When our first child was born, I was a graduate student, so I took the scholastic approach to parenting. I went down to the used-book store and picked up every child-rearing book whose author I had heard of. I ended up with eleven of them. My idea was to use spring break to speed-read the books, discover the points on which experts agreed, and adopt their consensus as my personal parenting philosophy.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they didn’t agree on anything! Just when one author had won me over to a method or approach, I’d read an equally compelling contradiction from someone else. This “science” of parenting, as it turned out, wasn’t “exact” at all; there were as many different opinions as there were writers.

The one good thing I found about the numerous points of disagreement was that I gradually became less intimidated. If the experts couldn’t agree with each other, then I was under no obligation to agree with any of them. Besides, I noticed a couple of other disturbing things as I read. One was that several of these experts were not actually parents themselves. They had learned all this from other people’s kids. Some were practicing psychologists or psychiatrists whose main experience was with sick or troubled kids. And the tone of many of the books was negative – as though parenting were essentially a defense. “If Johnny does this, you do this,” or “If you have a problem, try this response.”

I decided I wanted to take the offensive rather than the defensive, and that while I might find some good general advice here and there, it wouldn’t apply to my kids. I think the main thing I gained through the process was a healthy skepticism of parenting “techniques” and authorities. (I even chanced upon a definition of “expert” that said that an “ex” was a has-been, and a “spurt” was a drip under pressure.)


If methods, techniques, expertise, and ability are not the keys to parenting, what is? Perhaps the answer is as easy to come up with as it is difficult to apply.  Think about it. What do kids need? They need to be listened to, to be understood, to be valued. They need parents who will take the time to show them, teach them, help them, nurture them. They need to be made our priority, even when it is inconvenient.

They need the long-term commitments of quantity time rather than the quick fixes of “quality time” (which, by the way, is another extremely overused and counterproductive clich).


I’ll always remember a particularly large family who lived near us in northern Virginia. It was a large family, and the father was a laborer who struggled constantly to provide his family with the necessities. The mother worked part time, in addition to caring for several small children. 

Despite their struggles, there was a remarkable feeling of respect and cooperation in their home, a feeling I greatly admired but never fully understood.

Several years later, as I finished a lecture at a university, a young student came up and asked if I remembered her. It turned out that she had been one of the young children in that family. It took the opportunity to ask her what secret her parents had discovered and why their home had been so special and each child ha turned out so well. I was especially interested in her father. “What did he do? What were his techniques?”

She smiled. “Come on – you remember my dad. He didn’t deal in techniques. I’ll tell you what he did do, though. He was always there for us.  He never quit trying.  We could always tell him that we were the most important thing to him. I remember  once, I was five or six years old, when he came to my room to apologize for blaming me for something I didn’t do. I held his face in my hands and said, ‘It’s okay, Daddy. I can tell how hard you’re trying.'”


This is the easiest of yesterday’s clichs to turn into a maxim that works today. We just add five letters to the beginning.


The more we are there for our children, the longer they’ll be there for us. What they need isn’t our expertise, it’s our attention.

Ability is not the key, availability is!

Next column (in two weeks) we will move away from parenting

and talk about the folly of wanting to “have it all.”

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.