I was lucky enough to spend time this summer with mamas who are more than a decade younger than myself, whose kids are correspondingly younger than my sons. It’s not just the sippy cups that have changed! These women are smarter than I was, at this stage of parenting, about their options as wage-earners, about how to respond appropriately to tempter tantrums, about which foods to avoid unless they’re organic (strawberries, for example). They are confident, savvy, and fun to boot.
Which isn’t to say they don’t wrestle with the question of “Am I doing this right? Is my kid normal? Am I setting up my precious baby for a lifetime of dissatisfaction that will only be healed through biweekly sessions with a dominatrix?” Typical questions for every stage of parenting, I’m discovering, though the child’s particular behavior, and our responses to it, change.
In one particular conversation, the question was about a kindergartener’s reaction to his parents’ suggestion about after-school decompression time: the kid wasn’t interested in the parents’ ideas of appropriate choices at all. Nope to snack, nope to quiet time, nope to snuggling with a favorite stuffed animal, nope to taking a walk, nope to listening to music. This kid wanted to watch movies, play video games, or go over to a friend’s house. Despite being utterly exhausted, cranky and therefore extremely weepy.
Well! I am very familiar with kids who say “no” to my inherently fabulous ideas of great activities. Those who know my kids realize I am an untapped national expert. Howzabout, I said, letting your kid pick one of their activities once a week? And if it doesn’t go well, they’d lose the privilege the next week?
Oh, no, that’s not my style, the mama responded. I don’t do it like that.
I wish I’d had a tenth of her self-assuredness when my boys were that age. Would have saved me about $500 in parenting advice books and all those subsequent visits to a therapist to figure out why only 2% of the advice worked for me. I was rudderless in regards to the “right” style for me when my kids were in Kindergarten and preschool. I didn’t even know I HAD a parenting style, nevermind being able to discern when an approach would or wouldn’t work mesh with that style.
I have begun to identify – or perhaps acknowledge is the better word – my parenting style (it relies heavily on my kids hearing every pearl of wisdom that drops from my lips the FIRST TIME I SAY IT and then never having to remind them of aforementioned pearl ever again. This translates into me figuring out how much chaos I can live with before I start to notice what actually motivates my children, and then designing an elaborate system of incentives that usually involves an extensive set of hand-crafted, laminated magnets plastered across the fridge in a vast spreadsheet-style arrangement, leaving a measly two square inches of free space for the grocery list, resulting in insufficient pantry supplies, low blood sugar and a ranting, raging mother. Kidding. I’ve memorized the grocery list and replenish our pantry daily. The ranting and raging happens when I discover my just-purchased three pounds of pasta, eight bagels, a bag of carrots and a gallon of milk have all been consumed before dinner.)
It has taken me a long time to figure out, prior to trying a new strategy, if there’s even a remote chance it will work for me, and for my kids. This is in part because we are all works in progress, of course – and because the kids, particularly, progress rapidly, trying on different sports, hobbies, friends, and favorite colors.
But I’m aspiring to parent in a way that echoes Shinichi Suzuki’s philosophy: raise children who will be good citizens of the world. This can be done through learning an instrument, a la the Suzuki method, but I think it’s also done through providing them with enough different experiences and approaches that they will have a well-stocked “toolbox” to open when the world throws problems at them. The advantage of having come late to understanding my style is that I discovered, through frequently painful experience, that techniques I find difficult sometimes work amazingly well for my children.
By being a wimp, I have inadvertently provided them tools that connected with them where they were, not where I wanted them to be, or where I was. I learned about all kinds of sports involving balls, because they love them, and if I can talk to them about how their choice to take another “day off” from cello practice has put them at fourth-and-ten in regards to the recital, they’ll get it. I’ve also learned about red-eared slider turtles, the time-space paradox, the Bach Cello Suites, fart jokes, the local high school’s starting quarterback (only a sophomore!), a neighbor friend’s child’s candle-making business and the Big Nate comics and books (drawn by Engineer Hubby’s third-grade friend Lincoln Peirce). And in learning about things I initially had no interest in, I have expanded my world. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the beauty of team sports, at the not-as-bad-as-I-thought-it-would-be-ness of popular movies, and tickled by my birthday candle. And every single one of those experiences connects me to my children. By stepping beyond my own “style” I glimpse into their worlds and learn new approaches, attitudes, and opportunities for their toolboxes, and teach them about the tools I’m familiar with in language they can hear.
This is also true for my writing. It’s critical to look beyond the forms I’m most comfortable with: left to my own devices I would probably continue to read only murder mysteries and short stories. Thank goodness my mom told me I had to read Madame Bovary when I turned sixteen: another world opened. My freshman year of college required all of us to engage in a humanities course where we read everything from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged!) to Japanese literature, to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Then a creative writing course forced me to write villanelles, Shakespearean sonnets, limericks. I don’t currently write a lot (OK, any) of these poetic forms, but I understand how they’re put together; I’ve experienced the unique expression they afford a writer because the constraints of their form.
And in Taos this summer I had the fantastic treat of studying with Priscilla Long (author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor – buy a copy now if you haven’t already). My week with her opened up another level of writing: she deconstructs sentences and puts them back together, and she demanded we do the same. She copies out beautiful sentences and rewrites them to figure out how they’re made, and demanded we do the same. She reads her work out loud and demanded we do the same. These are not demands I would have made of myself, but my writing toolbox is fuller because of them. What I can find alone is not enough; my comfort zone is too small. I need others’ techniques, tricks and tips to have all the tools necessary to write my fiction.
Now, all that said, writing is very different from parenting: it is me and the words, not me and a small, snot-encrusted, sleep-deprived, sugar-highed six-year-old. Dealing with tiny people is different from detailing a single scene, and my existential angst about parenting would have been far less if I’d had more understanding of why I was in such agony while practicing the 1-2-3 approach. But in each case, observing as objectively as possible what is in front of me and addressing it in a manner that works for the child-slash-scene is critical. Using only “my” style manifests the adage “when all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”
I’m preparing my children to be good citizens in a big world! I owe it to them, and my writing, to venture beyond the preferences I think suit me best — and I also owe it to them to practice discerning when a style will create more misery than not. The world does not need my villanelles.
But I think it’s safe to say everyone in our household will put to good use the knowledge that slider turtles stink up a room as much as dirty socks.