Monday, April 25, 2011

Wire mother, dog in a box, and the pigeon flop

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. But when you have a PhD in Psychology and are raising kids, you wind up with way more knowledge than anyone ever wanted. Way more knowledge than any parent could actually use. Much of the time I find myself hobbled by the strictures of behaviorist theory. I spend tons of time second-guessing what I am inadvertently reinforcing, and how. I don’t laugh at misbehavior (well, almost never… well, I try not to anyway… I mean, unless it’s really funny, like when they make excellent and timely use of swear words with my exact vocal inflections. I mean, I’m only human). I try to make sure that I give more attention for positive behaviors than negative, and give more attention to the twin who is behaving than the twin who is misbehaving. (Try to do this. It’s really f-ing hard.)

When I am in full discipline mode, coldly ignoring their pleas for “one more chance,” I often refer to myself as the wire mother. For those among you who need a teensy amount more context, a classic study by Harry Harlow offered baby monkeys a choice between two surrogate mothers: one made of hard wire who offered milk, and one made of soft cloth who offered physical comfort, but no nourishment. When frightened, the baby monkeys ran to the cloth mother. So yeah, wire-Pam can coldly stand in the hallway while my baby monkeys sob their hearts out because I took away their pink bunny or monster truck Mater or whatever. I listen to their cries with a certain amount of sick satisfaction, because I know the sobs mean the lesson is sinking in. They tested me. They found out that testing doesn’t fly with the wire mother. Of note, at these times, they often beg for Daddy, who is clearly the cloth mother in our marriage. It’s neither easy nor fun to be the disciplinarian, but I’m awfully good at it.

But every once in a while, it all goes wrong. I give in. I reinforce all of the wrong stuff, negotiate with a pint-sized terrorist, or just give them what they want even though it is against all of the house rules. I call my sister to self-flagellate, and she gives me her “dog in a box” speech. That raising a child is not the same as training a dog in a box, with treats as rewards and shocks (a.k.a. time-outs) when they misbehave. Our kids are living, breathing, amazing humans who will only be small for a ludicrously short time. And if we want to say, “screw the rules” for a night in order to enjoy these amazing little beings, we can. And we should.

And we did. This weekend, we tried taking the child-proofing off their bedroom door. So now the little insomniacs can escape. And escape they did. At 10pm, out of their bedrooms, through the living room, through the kitchen, and out the back door because they saw Mommy and Daddy out there having a fire in our fire pit. The wire mother in me knew that we should march them back to their room, threatening horrible consequences (like no books in bed) if they emerged again. But they looked at us, eyes wide with love and adventure, and said, “But we miss you.” Well, yeah. Even the wire mother has a heart. So we took those naughty little monkeys out to the fire with us in their pjs and bare feet. We talked about fire pixies (a.k.a. sparks) and discussed where butterflies sleep at night. We cuddled and kissed and hugged and talked until rain drove us inside. And it was magical.

And the next night, of course, they were holy terrors. But it was totally worth it.

Sometimes it makes me think that it doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we love them. Eventually, they will learn to stay in bed, and they will learn to behave. I don’t think we’re at risk of a Supernanny situation any time soon. (That show scares the crap out of me!!) Sometimes I think we just have to ride out the phases, and all will be well. Maybe I could let myself laugh when they’re naughty once in a while, when it’s really, really funny. Maybe it’s all just random.

Which brings me to my final psychology study. It’s one of my faves. B.F. Skinner, behaviorist extraordinaire, dispensed food to hungry pigeons completely at random. By the end of the study, the pigeons were doing all sorts of weird, superstitious crap in the mistaken belief that it would bring them more treats. That’s parenting, baby. Our infant cries, and that one time we did that thing with his legs and he let loose some gas and felt better. So every time he cries, we try that leg thing again. We give up dairy and onions and all foods with the letter W in them. We do elaborate bedtime rituals. We use noise machines to help them sleep. Or we don’t use noise machines so they learn to sleep through noise. My brother calls these dances “the pigeon flop.” We are just pigeons, hungry for sleep and the cessation of crying, superstitiously dancing and bobbing our heads in hopes of receiving that utterly random 20-minute pellet of peace.

In the end, we do what works for our families. And we sock away some money for the therapy they will undoubtedly need, whether it’s because we are too permissive, or too strict, or too crazy, or too perfect. And we love them. Just love them, unconditionally and with every fiber of our being. In the end, with all of my psychological knowledge and education, I really think that’s all that matters.

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