Wherein we talk about parenting

Hungry? Try this refreshing salad as a side dish to a piece of grilled chicken or pork: Orange Date Spinach Salad

As a small source of side income I’ve taken to cleaning houses, doing organization projects, or chopping vegetables for other people.   I do it because at my particular stage in life cleaning and cooking is what I do most, ergo it makes sense to capitalize on my current domain knowledge and convert it into coin.  (It was also a nice excuse to get on the bike an extra day of the week and peddle on some mileage to the odometer.)  This work has allowed me the privilege of meeting a variety of lovely people at assorted intersections of life and observe, in a very glancing peripheral way, their family dynamics.  Some of these women appear so relaxed and at ease with their vocation of motherhood that I feel actual green envy, and I go home inspired to be a better mom.  Motherhood has not felt like a natural transition for me – more like being a square peg hammered into a round hole by a pneumatic mallet and a person-sized center punch.  I often commit the sin of pride over being completely average.  From my height to my hair color to my shoe size to my basic knowledge of world events to my shared dislike of our elected body I am average.  So, when I say that I go to bed every night asking myself the question, “Am I doing this right?” I am comforted to assume that everyone who is a parent asks themselves that question at some point.  There are particularly horrid days where I hide in the pantry after everyone goes to bed and have elaborate arguments with myself about eating my feelings while I rhesus mate-guard a box of Girl Scout cookies.   Then, there are other lovely days where I skip off to bed on a cloud of triumph and sleep the sleep of one whose children were cooperative and harmonious.  Of course, there are all those days in between where my brow is in a permanent semi-furrow while I evaluate whether or not I should’ve handled <insert variable x for all possible answers> differently.

Truth: I’m a strict mom.  Not full-on tiger mom style, but strict.  The one who doesn’t helicopter at playgrounds and birthday parties but is on the kid like spines on yucca when their behavior slides into the murky waters of unacceptable.  The one who lets the kid dress themselves however they choose but will go Khan on the time outs if they tell a lie.  The one whose children grasp that if they are going to have an argument where mom ends up getting involved ain’t nobody gonna like it. The one who barters story time like gold nuggets at the end of the day to get toys picked up.

I believe in manners.  Both of my children are freakishly articulate and verbal, and we are trying to harness those powers for good.   They don’t have to be the smartest kids in school but they do have to know how to say “please”, “thank you”, “sir” and “ma’am”.  I don’t like interrupting and both of my kids (who still interrupt) have been taught that if they wish to inject themselves into a conversation they must first say, “Excuse me, please”, which  is cute at first until it turns into an “excuse me, please” shouting match between kids to see who is victorious in the interrupting.  I have this banana notion that if my children don’t learn how to speak respectfully, and treat others respectfully, now at their tender ages of 3 and 5 then it will be impossible to imbue them with that skill at older, more obstinate ages.  But, even though I have this core belief there are days when I wonder if all I do is nag at my poor children about their behavior.

I believe in the responsibility of property.  My kids are just like every other middle class American kid: overrun to excess with toys.  Some are creative and some are just plain obnoxious.  One day the (then) 4-yo dumped out each bin of toys into a single pile to, “See how tall it got.” After my eyes were done bugging out we implemented a toy swap system where every six months or so I get the toy box down from the attic and switch out the toys, telling the girls that the toys need a rest and the attic toys are ready to play again.  Naturally, toys go everywhere as part of any given day of play.  When there are enough toys scattered around that the children are stepping on them or kicking them to move around the play room is when I take action, singing the Clean Up song, and requiring the children to put away all their toys in their proper bins before proceeding to the next game or activity.  But, sometimes I worry that I’m completely interrupting and stalling their creative process, and turning them into compulsive neat freaks simultaneously.

I believe in respecting each other.  There’s this super fine almost invisible line in sibling interaction that flips between “tolerance” to “screaming rage monkey.” The way I see it is that conflict is a learned skill, and kids learn how to handle conflict and manage their own tempers and responses at home first.  I am excessively conflict averse so this is at difficulty level 11 for me, but when I hear things escalate into conflict zones I try to check my immediate impulse to stamp it out and restore harmony.  I will intervene if it sounds as if an assault has occurred or is about to occur, but otherwise I really try hard to let them sort it out. But I always wonder if I got involved too soon and am being too draconian; if I’m inserting myself less for their benefit and more for my own comfort zones.

I believe in learning how to cope.  Stubbed toes, bit lips, unexpected collisions, pinched fingers, and scraped knees are all good reasons to sit on the stairs and hug it out with loads of sympathy and kisses.  However.  Separating injury from drama, especially for girls, is difficult.  After the initial sympathy and kisses comes the coping lessons.  We have a rule: If there’s no blood, there’s no screaming.  Scraping a knee is miserable and stings without question, but screaming about it like a civil war soldier undergoing an amputation is not acceptable. Bumps and bruises are facts of life, and my poor children inherited all my grace, poise, and capacity for random self injury.  But, after a kiss, a hug,  and a quick check to make sure there are no broken bones, risk of tetanus, or threat of gangrene we wipe away the tears and say, “Tough girl?” to which they flex their arms and reply, “Tough girl!” But, I question if I’m teaching them how to repress their ability to effectually express and articulate their feelings, be they physical hurts or emotional ones.  I don’t want them to hide behind “tough girl” and obfuscate what they’re feeling from me, but I do want them to stop hollering unnecessarily.

Speaking of drama, I believe in minimal contrived drama.  In a flash of desperation with my 3-yo who was red-lining towards nuclear drama meltdown in public I snatched her up and told her I was going to nibble the “drama bugs” out of her ears, which redirected her inexplicable upset-ness into giggles and distraction.  I felt like the valedictorian of parenting that day, let me tell you what.  Now when it looks like we are heading down the drama road I ask if I need to inspect for drama bugs and they either frown with frustration and say, “NOOOOO!” or they giggle like only girls can and grab their ears and squeal, “NOOOO!”  Either way, the drama is averted.  But again I ask myself if I’m preventing them from learning how to express appropriately their feelings.

I believe in boundaries.  I encourage my children to understand what they do or don’t like and then how to set and defend that boundary. Teaching the “hands to yourself” skill, and the “not everything requires your input” skill, and the “bedtime is for going to bed and not asking for cereal” skill are all part and parcel to learning basic boundaries, I think.  They’re only 3 and 5, so my grand aspirations are relationally scaled to subjects of favorite colors and foods they don’t like, but still.  The 3-yo doesn’t like bread, but she loves scrambled eggs and hot sauce.  The 5-yo would rather have oatmeal and pancakes and periodically announces, “I don’t like strawberries anymore. I only like foods that are round.”  The 3-yo hates wearing pants and will lobby with an impressive vigor to wear skirts or dresses.  The 5-yo doesn’t care, really, what she’s wearing so long as there is green integrated somewhere on the outfit.  But, while I encourage the concept of boundaries I worry that I’m allowing them to develop into inflexible opinion trolls.

I haven’t met a parent yet who shrugs their shoulders and doesn’t care how their kids are developing.  Everything I’ve defined above as standards for myself, who is the apogee of averageness, has a high statistical probability of being expectations similarly set by most parents.  I’m not unique in my struggles.  Like a modified Marine corps chant about rifles, “This is my struggle.  There are many like it but this one is MINE.”  I ask myself all these questions and many many more. Am I spending too much time keeping the house in order rather than playing with my kids? Should my kids be folding and putting away their own laundry by now? Should I be involving my kids in the housework or just let them play toys? Should I be teaching my kids how to pull weeds? Should I be teaching my kids how cook? Should I be taking them to the library more often? Should my 5-yo know how to read by now? Should I be forcing the 3-yo to learn the alphabet? Am I taking too much time for myself and not giving enough to my children? Are they eating the right foods? Are they eating enough food? How long has that box of raisins been open? Am I crippling their college prospects by letting them use pull ups at night? Are they learning the right attitude about body image and exercise from me? Who hid that Barbie doll in the freezer?  Am I creating neurotic fat-phobic kids? Am I giving them enough opportunities? Are my children over-scheduled? Am I too short tempered? Am I not short tempered enough? AM I DOING THIS RIGHT?!?!

When I’m scrubbing the toilets or mopping floors listening to how other mothers interact with their own children I’m confident they ask themselves just as many questions.  Whether those questions are laced with such heavy doses of self deprecation and doubt I can’t say, but to ask questions suggests there’s an ability to adapt, change, and improve.  I don’t want to be the mom who is strict because I am an abusive controller personality.  I want to be strict for the purpose of developing children  who are going to be genuine pleasures as adults.  I’m like every other average parent out there trying to raise extraordinary kids.  I’m not raising children to stay locked in childhood.  I’m raising children to be adults.  Here’s hoping  it works.


2 thoughts on “Wherein we talk about parenting

  1. Seriously. I wish they gave you a handbook in the delivery suite “This Is How to Best Raise Your Child Into a High-Functioning Member of Society.” It would make life a lot easier.

  2. I agree that it’s hard to quiet the voices in our heads about this whole “parenting” thing. I often wonder if parents from a generation or so ago even considered their manner of “parenting” and just did the job without excessive worry or reflection. They did not have the benefit of the surplus of magazines, books, talk shows, etc. outlining in great detail how we’re “doing it ALL wrong.”

    I gauge my training effectiveness on others’ (both family and strangers) response to my children. Do they welcome them, or have a nasty flinch if I ask them to babysit? Our children are often entirely different people out in the world than they are with us.

    And just so you know, I’ve always loved being with your girls. 🙂

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