I had been a Montessori teacher for a few years when my husband broached the subject of starting a family. We had been an item for over a decade at that point, had moved continents together, married, and were about as stable as a couple could be, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he would be thinking along those lines. But I was surprised, and not all that enthusiastic.

While having a child in our lives was all a warm and fuzzy hypothetical for Tom, for me, with years of working with children to inform me, it was the prospect of responsibility – the most profound responsibility. I knew that the work of having a child went far beyond the day to day management of a little human, but extended into the development of real life person in the world. Wow. Mind-blowing. Ultimately we would be responsible for a full sized, flesh and blood participant in humanity; someone with a job, a family, religious beliefs, political beliefs. Someone whose thoughts and actions would impact others and even, possibly, the world. I was 28. I wasn’t ready for that. Not even close.

Knowing my love for the children in my charge, Tom worked hard to understand my reluctance. I tried to explain it from a practical angle first. Applying my Montessori teacher sensibilities I painted a bleak picture of a long life of using walking feet indoors, never putting legs up on the coffee table, always having to push in our chairs, using inside voices, cleaning up after ourselves immediately, and having to recycle absolutely everything (I see now that I neglected to modify classroom expectations for home use). Understandably, Tom didn’t accept those as valid reasons to deny him fatherhood.  I realized I’d have to tell him the truth, and shared the psychic weight I felt would befall us once we had the development of another human being in our hands. And that’s where the conversation started.

Discussion proved that the solution to my problem was us both accepting that having a child was a huge responsiblity, and agreeing that we would treat it as such. We both felt strongly that the adult our child would eventually become deserved major consideration. All going well we would know our progeny much longer as an adult than as a child, so it made sense to try and raise someone whose company we would enjoy in the long term. And much as we might love his or her company, we also wanted our child to grow into an adult whom we could eventually release into the wide world without concern.

Through many conversations (in the kitchen, and the car, and the bathroom, and the pub) we arrived at a characteristic blueprint, a wish-list of sorts, for our future child. We agreed that we hoped to raise a person who was:

  1. Trusting, but not gullible,
  2. Kind, but not foolhardy,
  3. Independent, but deeply connected,
  4. Respectful, but never cowing,
  5. Resourceful, but not afraid to ask for help,
  6. Self-disciplined, but fun-loving,
  7. Determined, but flexible,
  8. A leader, but also a collaborator.

We hoped that our person would know that he or she was as important as anyone else in the world, but also not more important than anyone else in the world. Finally, and possibly most importantly, our future person would have a great love of family coupled with killer sense of humor.

Not too much to ask, right? “Impossible” I told Tom, “Can’t do it”. Tom insisted that if we set out on our parenting paths with that adult child as our goal, it was completely doable. Tom has that Irish charm going for him, so eventually, I acquiesced, and our number one child was on the way. And all throughout the pregnancy the conversation continued. Who we hoped our child would be got at least as much attention as what pattern we wanted for her crib set, or what song I wanted playing as I squeezed her out into existence.

In April of 1998 our first daughter was born. The next day we drove away from the hospital with her, in a fog of exhaustion, excitement and absolute terror. And though I loved that baby deeply, Tom got shot the “I told you so” look quite a few times in those first few weeks. We managed the mechanics and endurance of those early months as well as we could.

Now for the second part of the conundrum; how to instill all those qualities we had talked about? It really wasn’t until she was a bit more engaged and mobile that the “parenting plan” came fully into effect.

It’s funny to call it a plan; there was nothing formal about it, just an overarching consciousness of those characteristics we’d talked about.  We learned early on that almost every interaction we had with her either supported or injured the possibility of her possessing any one of them. No, she wasn’t a blank slate, but she was a little sponge, watching how we related to her, watching how we related to each other, watching how we related to the world, and absorbing it all (even when we wished she wasn’t). How we reacted to each new situation with her was consciously influenced by the idea of the person we wanted her to be. It wouldn’t be fair to parent her in a way that encouraged dependency, bad manners, laziness, or selfishness, and then expect her to be magically endowed with all those wonderful characteristics we’d hoped for her at some later stage. It had to happen organically, and every single day.

We always spoke to our daughter like she could understand. As was appropriate, at every age we expressed our expectations of her. We traveled with her, we introduced her to the world. We gave her as much responsibility as she could manage; we tried to limit doing things for her that she could do for herself. We gave her freedom where we could. We told her that she had our full trust, until she gave us reason not to give it. We had fun together. We lived a life that revolved around all of us, not just her. We never accepted bad behavior or disrespect; though we worked through small lapses with discussions on the importance of being kind and forgiving, especially to ourselves. We let her see that we messed up, and were entirely fallible and human too. And parenting like that didn’t take much effort at all; certainly much less effort than might have been incurred dealing with the fallout of a child we’d raised to be a pain in the neck. Parenting in that way became second nature.

The early years of our backwards design parenting “experiment” went so well that baby number one was followed two years later by another, and then another. Our family was complete with two daughters and a son, all very individual little people. We applied the same principles with each of our children and have ended up feeling very positive and optimistic about the three humans that we have added to the world’s population. It’s not always roses of course, but there’s really no company that we enjoy more than that of our family.

In a few short months our first baby will turn 18. Though there’s a very good chance that we are biased, we think she’s an exceptional human being. She has a grace, and a spark. She’s been class president all four years of high school, held down a part time job for the last two of those, all the while doing a crazy load of AP classes, and still managing to be pleasant to her siblings. Before this year is out she will be leaving us to attend university, possibly very far away. We will miss her terribly, but we know that we have prepared her as best we could to be a successful and independent adult. That gives us comfort. It’s the work of parenting after all; to raise our children to become adults who can go off out into the world without us (and whom we are glad to see when they return).

ciara and riley
With our first baby at age 17 (and her much-approved-of boyfriend).