raising your child to be

January 30th, 2019

Years ago after Hand Wash Cold came out, I traveled around to people’s homes and gave talks about the book. I called it my Kitchen Table Tour. Folks all over the country were kind enough to host me for a gathering of their friends and sometimes even let me, a complete stranger, spend the night.

I visited a home in Silicon Valley where I gave a short reading and then took questions. One guest quickly raised her hand. I noticed that she’d brought her own copy of the book, which was plastered with sticky notes. She’d done her homework. There was a particular passage that provoked her question. It was the part about how my husband loads the dishwasher differently than I do, and that the way I’d dealt with his unorthodoxy was to just re-wash the dishes, if they needed it, in the morning. Specifically what I’d written was this:

The miracle does not occur in the machine. The miracle does not occur in the second wash. The miracle occurs when I don’t say a word about it.

Why couldn’t I just teach my husband how to load the dishwasher correctly? she asked, adding that she had two sons and she fully intended to raise them knowing the right way to load the dishwasher.

I can understand that way of thinking. We want people to do things the right way, which is often our way, so they will be coequal to household tasks and other critical competencies. Why would we waste the opportunity to produce better, smarter people? It makes perfect sense, so I knew my answer wouldn’t satisfy her.

Because I already know how to end a marriage, and I need to learn how to keep one. 

I think about this episode when I see someone write about what they are raising their children “to be.” Aren’t we all raising our children to be something better? You bet. It’s a fill-in-the-blank kind of thing. We might be trying to raise children to be kind, honest, self-reliant, or emotionally resilient. A loyal friend, a compassionate listener, a good citizen. Raising sons to respect women or raising daughters to respect themselves. We have all kinds of worthy ambitions for our children, I won’t deny that. But how do we teach that? By edict, insistence or imposition? I’d answered that question before too, in Momma Zen, and it might not be satisfying.

My child will do what I do and say what I say, but she will never, without coercion, do what I say.

The answer is that I have to be what needs to be. I have to be honest, self-reliant, and resilient. I have to be patient, tolerant, and optimistic. I have to be open and encouraging. A good listener and a devoted friend. Strong, brave, and self-respecting. I have to be that for her, even now, especially now that she’s gone.

These days when she writes to me, which isn’t often, she says more or less the same thing: that I’ve shown her what a strong and intelligent woman looks like. Here’s how I would answer that.

Not quite yet, but don’t give up on me, and I won’t give up on you.



  1. Maezen, you have been my trusty guide while navigating raising Gabby and Sis.
    I am so grateful for all your whiteboard words of wisdom, letters and encouragement.
    Much love,

    Comment by Marcea — January 30, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

  2. Deep wisdom, as always. I tried to teach my nonagenarian mother, not how to load the dishwasher, but that there is more than one right way to do everything, including my way. That didn’t work either. Now, when in my daughter’s home, I do things the way they do them; it’s their house. Maybe I should have learned that when I was living with my mother. A well-raised child takes what he/she needs, including the tools to figure the rest out. <3

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — January 30, 2019 @ 3:21 pm

  3. I miss you so much. Which is odd because you’ve never been more a part of my life than you are now. I love this essay. Dan

    Comment by Dan Barden — January 30, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

  4. Dan, you are my first and perhaps last fan. In appreciation, Maezen

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — January 30, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

  5. I have no children and I defer to all others on loading the dishwasher, but I must say that I love that you shared that book in that way. 

    Oh, wait. I think I may need to stop fussing about the sock drawer. 

    Comment by Bonnie Rae — January 30, 2019 @ 8:26 pm

  6. Oh,I don’t have a dishwasher but I love doing the dishes by hand. It is definitely meditation for me. And please, don’t anyone interrupt my meditation or take it away from me! Hand Wash Hot

    Comment by Jennie — January 31, 2019 @ 5:52 am

  7. I’ve advanced to the point where I rearrange the dishwasher but quietly and without commentary. (Laundry-folding . . . Not there yet!) Breathing on the cushion reduces loud sighs of exasperation elsewhere.

    Comment by Laura — January 31, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

  8. Beautiful.
    “Aren’t we all raising our children to be something better? You bet.”
    It took me a couple of years to let this tendency go. I have family members who have children in the same age group as mine, and while I didn’t think mine had to be the best children in the room, I just didn’t want them to leave the impression that they lagged behind either.
    We were advised to let our eldest daughter have an extra year in kindergarten, (fortunately her teacher warned us a year in advance so I had time to wrap my head around that). A friend of mine (who is a child psychologist) said: “O isn’t that wonderful, an extra year for playing (our school is very anti cognitive learning in Kindergarten, they think that play in itself is a form of learning)? That can only be a good thing.”
    And so that was one of the things that taught me that a child has a certain path to follow in life and it is ultimately really none of my business. All I have to recognize is that life is good.

    Comment by SImone — February 5, 2019 @ 2:46 am

  9. I remember what a stir that passage caused in our Moab Book Club when we read it—to not correct at every ample opportunity? Radical.

    I came searching for your words today because my oldest leaves for college this week, and I seem to have forgotten everything I ever knew, including that we knew for 18 years this day would come.

    I can’t find the post I came looking to reread, but I found what I needed all the same. Carrying these words with me this week: to let go, to sometimes maybe choose NOT to say the thing, to be all I wish for him. And maybe, pay a bit more attention to the man who will be coming home with me after we drop Aidan off.


    Comment by Deirdre — August 14, 2020 @ 5:57 am

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