Spending time with my mother and mother-in-law over the holidays made me realize that in some small way our children – yours, mine and the grocer’s down the street – are “doomed” to dysfunction. Not intentionally, mind you, but it’s often the thing that you see your own parents doing, which you swear you will never do, that ends up being part and parcel of how you parent your own children. Because if nothing else, we are our parent’s children.
Still, you might witness something they do now that you secretly pray won’t eventually manifest in your ageing years if you promise to be vigilant. Call it human nature, but the early warning signs are there.
For example, there are certain things that my mother does that I have had to make a concerted effort not to do with my children. She was a big proponent of the “Do as I say, not as I do” school of parenting. Which means my two sisters and I were not ever “allowed” to question her. You read that correctly. According to the “Law of Birdiline Williams,” if my single parent mother decided something was “best” for us, there was to be no argument or discussion as to why it was best for us. It just was. And that was the end of the discussion.
Now that I’m a parent, I often wonder if this was some sort of self-protection device she used to lessen the amount of talking and explanation that was necessary to “corral” her three children into doing what she wanted us to do at any given moment. If that was the case, I can totes relate.
Some days, all I want to do is not talk. Period. Which I explain to my family by actually saying, “I don’t want to talk anymore.” This non-too subtle way of saying, “I do not have the patience or energy required to explain anything, and I neither do I have the energy, nor the patience, to break down each initiative as if it were a science project.” It simply means that my parenting reserves are empty. Depleted. Dry.
I’m also painfully aware that in order to be a “good parent,” much of what our parents did back then could certainly benefit from a present-day reality check – if the bookshelves aligned with parenting novels are any indication.
That said, I’m a big proponent of the “there is no perfect parent” school of parenting; however, I’m pretty sure that doing certain things will not yield the kind of preferred outcome one wishes for if one doesn’t extend themselves towards perfection just a little. And by “perfection” I mean the textbook examples of how to, say, prevent a tantrum, or to how to foster inquisitive, caring and sensitive children. You know the drill.
The other day I sarcastically Facebooked:
“I’ve decided that I like complaining with the premise that once I get tired of the sound of my own voice I’ll stop. Ha!”
To which my friend replied:
“Pfff, I can’t STAND to hear myself nagging or complaining. Thank God my kids are pretty much grown. No more nagging at them :)”
Her reply gave me pause, not least because in some convoluted way we were in both agreement, but because she immediately equated children as the source/reason for her “nagging” and “complaining.” I might have shed a metaphorical tear because in many ways being a child with a parent who has lack-of-patience-issues is no fun.
Children, as soon as they’re born, find ways to please their parents not because they are born with the innate desire to do so – are they? – but because they quickly learn which actions curry favor with adults. I find myself still doing this with my own mother and it kind of pisses me off. Perhaps it’s because I’ll always have the family distinction of being the teenager who dared to defy her, and the object of her Tough Love, or perhaps it was because I was so good at pleasing her that when I displeased her I heard about it until I mended my wicked ways. I also quickly learned that the love would not return until such time as I righted the grievous wrong. (For the record, I was Tough Loved because I was perceived as a Miss Sassy-Pants, and not for the variety of more serious infractions or situations some teens find themselves in.)
My husband and I do not want such inflexible discipline for our girls. From jump I decided that I would do my best to not parent out of control or anger, and when that happened — as it inevitably would — I’d immediately place myself in my children’s shoes. And as I endeavored to teach them how to manage their behaviors, I’d make sure that I had the self-awareness to manage my own. Which meant that in the beginning of my parenting journey, I had lots of apologies to make. “Sorry mommy raised her voice.” “Sorry mommy is irritable today.” “Sorry mommy overacted,” etc. I’m also big on making sure that my daughters learn how to process and navigate negative feelings — theirs and those of others — without letting it destroy them emotionally or wreak havoc with their developing psyche.
In other words, I constantly reassure them that it’s okay to feel bad; it’s okay to be angry; it’s okay to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, but it’s not ok to wallow in these feelings for extended periods of time, nor should they feel obligated to take on other people’s dysfunction. I also tell them that just as they are responsible for managing their behaviors, that their friends and the adults in their midst, too, are also responsible for managing theirs.
The biggest life lesson in all of this of course is the realization that the moment we, both young and old, exhibit behaviors that are often perceived as un-loveable — anger, tantrums, sulking, defiance — are precisely the behaviors that require that we be loved the most. Unconditionally.
What about you? As a parent, how do you handle those behaviors that you perceive are most dysfunctional and what steps are you taking to remedy them?