For some reason, sending my kids off to kindergarten has really spotlighted my parenting insecurities. Knowing they would be away from me all day made me realize how many times a day I would step in with a small correction, say or do something to settle them when they were getting dangerously nutso, give my son a timely “remember, don’t use your body” when I could tell he was angry and starting to lose his cool. But now they’re on their own, their full unedited behavior on display for the teachers to see. They might stand up on the seat while eating. They might bust out a swear word or talk about wine and make me look bad. They might hit someone. They might crack up over a poo-poo joke and not be able to stop for five minutes. They might be completely incapable of completing any task at 2pm because they need a snack. (Seriously, they have lunch at 11am and don’t get home until almost 4. They need a damn snack! It would make your lives easier, teachers, I’m telling you.)
There’s this idea (maybe it’s only in my own head, but I don’t think so) that if you do a good job at parenting, you will have kids who do what they’re told, eat their vegetables, go to sleep, behave pretty well, play appropriately with friends, and do decent in school. There’s this idea (maybe only in my own head, but again, I don’t think so) that if you can find the right strategy, you can fix any “problem.” So we read parenting books, and try new discipline or reward strategies. We have marble jars or prizes or time outs or 1-2-3 Magic or no Wii for the rest of the day or verbal praise or sticker charts.
My sister’s pediatrician once put it this way: We are trying to “raise the shit out of” our kids. We’re high power, smart people who kicked ass at our jobs, and now we’re gonna kick ass at this parenting thing. We’re not going to have the kid who only eats chicken nuggets and applesauce. We’re not going to have the kid who hits the other kids at school. We’re not going to have the kid who says, “Whatever” when an adult tells them what to do. Those kids must have really bad parents. We’re not gonna have those kids.
You get the kids you get. You can move their tendencies around a teensy weensy bit, but basically? You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Or maybe you do get upset, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Having twins has shown me this so clearly. I did all of the same crap at the same time. I had an equal number of “I don’t feel well, let’s just watch TV all day” days with both. They went to the aquarium and the zoo and didn’t go to the library an equal number of times. I used pretty much the same sleep strategies (modified slightly for each kid’s needs, but basically the same). I exposed them the same foods. We read the same books together. I used the same discipline/behavioral techniques.
I got what I got.
One is practically a vegetarian; the other would eat steak at every meal. One prefers vegetables; the other fruits. One loves to draw and color; the other loves to play on the Wii. One is a “pleaser;” one doesn’t give a flying f*** what I say. One is getting “treasure tickets” for good behavior at school every day and brings home perfect papers with all correct answers and gold stars on top; the other has gotten almost no treasure tickets and brings home papers with “please review at home” on them. One comes home from school and tells me all about the day; the other makes up crap that is clearly false and mixes it in with (possibly) true stuff so that I have no idea what really happened. (“No, honey, your teacher did not dress up as Mario today. What really happened?”)
Honestly, I am starting to think that I have very little to do with this process of them growing up. I’m here to offer them unconditional love, and some structure and boundaries. I’m here to make healthy food and set limits. I’m here to teach them about the world and offer opportunities. But they are who they are.
I’ll keep pushing against the tide, because it’s not OK that my son still hits sometimes. It’s not OK that my daughter will cry and gag rather than try a new food, even when that food is a peanut butter and nutella sandwich that I KNOW she would like if she would just stop gagging in anticipatory hatred. It’s not OK that my son rolls his eyes and says, “Whatever” to me when I tell him what to do. (It’s f***ing hilarious, yes. But it’s not OK.) So I will keep reading parenting books and making up new sticker charts or reward systems so that maybe I can shift them by a minute degree.
After years of pushing against the tide, now more often than not, my son punches the air when he’s angry instead of hitting me or his sister. His anger is physical. He can learn to punch a pillow. My daughter ate two bites of chili the other night, one piece of meat and one bean, and last night tasted my Thai sweet potato lentil stew without gagging or crying. She still gives me the evil eye when she sees something unfamiliar on her plate. She still claims to hate new foods almost before they hit her tongue, but she tastes them. And mostly doesn’t gag or cry. And so I push against the tide, working my ass off, for these tiny shifts.
I’ll keep pushing. I’ll encourage my rather solitary, easily overstimulated son to make friends, and I’ll be thrilled when he comes home and tells me he held hands with another boy who is now his best buddy. I don’t have to do much behavioral modification with my daughter right now other than the food thing. Did I mention, she’s a pleaser? But when she’s 12 and 13, I suspect I’ll be doing a lot of tide-pushing against her tendency to please when the people she cares about impressing are her friends and (I’m gonna anxiety-puke just thinking about it) boys.
In the scheme of things, I have really easy kids. I lucked out on the kid lottery, and I know it. Yeah, when they’re in the same room, they don’t sleep until midnight. They fight. They would rather screw around than sit down and eat. Whatever. Normal crap. The stuff I am dealing with is nail biting, talking back, sibling rivalry, leaving their toys all over the house. Booo-ring. When I was dealing with my kid hitting other kids at school, when I was dealing with a preschool teacher implying that maybe my kid had Asperger’s, yeah, I busted out a lot more behavioral wing-dings to deal with those things. It didn’t work awesome until developmental changes happened in their own time, but I had to feel like I was trying everything I knew how to try.
I’m not sure it made any difference. But at least I felt like I was doing everything I could.
I watch parents deal with more challenging kids, kids who are not as easy as mine. I watch them push against the tide, and when that doesn’t work, I watch them try to build bulwarks and levees made out of sheer will. I watch them try to plug leak after leak, until the number of leaks exceeds their emotional resources. They have to. I would do the same. When your kid is having a problem, you have to do everything you can. Because what if that next parenting book, or that next strategy, or that next specialist is the one that can help your kid?
But I want to tell them this: You didn’t give your kid this problem. Your kid is not struggling because you don't read enough parenting books, or because you aren't consistent in your discipline strategy or because you let them watch too much TV or eat too many Cheez-its. You’re not getting notes home from the teacher because you’re a bad parent. You got the kid you got. And your job is just harder. You’re working harder than I am, harder than lots of parents, and maybe people think you’re not doing a good job, but that’s because they don’t know shit about how hard your job is.
It’s like the person on The Voice who tries to sing a Whitney Houston song. It’s easy to get all judgey when you can’t sing worth a damn and don’t really know anything. But other singers know which songs are hard to sing. Parents of tricky kids, you got dealt a Whitney Houston song. Sing your heart out. But cut yourself some slack. Worrying about your kids is one of the worst feelings in the world. But you know what’s worse? Guilt. Let it go. Parent as well and as mindfully as you can, do whatever you can to help your kid. And then let it go.
Some kids are never going to make friends easily. Some kids are never going to like sushi or strong flavors. Some kids are never going to make the honor roll. Some kids are never going to sit still with their hands folded and listen to the teacher. Some kids are going to be just a little bit tone deaf. Some kids are going to struggle with temper, or with impulsivity, or with reading, or with handwriting (stupid D’Nealian).
Obviously, there are kids and families with much more challenging problems than these. But without even bringing up special needs, just your average “typical” kids… they are who they are, and it seems to me that you just can’t change it that much. While they’re children, society wants them to sit quietly and be friendly and write neatly. Kids who can do that will have an easier time in school, and their parents might feel like rock stars. Until they have a second kid who doesn’t do those things, no matter what they try.
All of these kids, the easy ones and the tricky ones, will grow up. And handwriting and sitting still will matter less, and there will be ways to make friends who share their interests rather than just share their classroom. And strong family connection and love will matter more than coloring in the lines. And they will find their own way, and become more than you ever could have imagined.
So love them, and yes, push against the tide. Try to help them strengthen the areas that are a struggle for them. Do everything you can for your kid, because you love them and you can’t not. Do everything you can so that you will know you did everything you could. And then let go.
That’s some pretty good advice. I should really try to take it too. Letting go, not my strong suit. Never was. Nothing anyone really could have done about it.