Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Learning Curve

I don’t know about you, but when I was young, I couldn’t wait to grow up, get married and have a baby.

A baby. [sigh]

That image was so appealing: the freshly-soaped and powdered scent, the gurgling smiles, the naps on my tummy. I truly wanted a baby.

I never considered wanting a toddler, a preteen, or a teenager, for heaven’s sake! And I didn’t realize at the time that it was a package deal. Somehow, I missed the fine print. I must have been in some ‘Baby Powder” haze.

My husband and I were young, and eager to get started. We had grand notions of growing up with our child, ‘being friends as well as parents.’ We planned to be kind but strict. Oh, I had it all worked out in my mind. I once saw a preschooler at a grocery store who laid in the floor, kicking and screaming at the top of his lungs, because his mom wouldn’t buy him what he wanted. “Oh, no, no,” I thought. “My child will never do that.”

I was right. At least--it wasn’t in a grocery store, anyway. It was in a filthy convenience store just down the street from where we lived. My Melanie plopped herself down on top of that disgusting black and white(ish) tile and began to pitch a fit that would have embarrassed Dennis the Menace. My mouth dropped open. (By the way, instant recall does work perfectly at a time like that.)

With three kids--two girls and one boy--there was a giant learning curve I had to live through. I had to be taught that children try to kill themselves. It’s true. With forks and vans and animals and roofs and so many other ingenious devices. I learned that you spend a lot of time on your knees. And running. Someone once said, “Deciding to have a child is like deciding forever to have your heart go walking around outside of your body.” I think that sums it up rather well.

A couple of interesting highlights:

My two-year-old, Riley, totaled our family van (you read correctly)
My sixteen-year-old, Melanie, totaled her vehicle
My three-year-old, Tanner, decorated the new, white carpet with blue and red permanent markers (my fault. what was I thinking? white carpet?)
One of the children – (not saying who) dropped the family dog off the top of the stairs to see if it would land on its feet like a cat.
One of the children – (not saying who) painted the newly finished hardwood floors.

Fast forward twenty-six years. I don’t have babies anymore. Mine are all rather large people now. But I know a lot more than when I started. Now that it doesn’t matter. [sigh]

If you’re interested, I’ll pass on a couple of things I’ve learned in these very enlightening years.

The key thing we discovered is that we’re the parents. We were not put here to be friends or buddies to our kids. They have a whole host of people, generally speaking, clamoring for that job. Unfortunately, there are only two…count them, TWO…who can ever serve the roles we’ve been given. If we abdicate, it creates huge holes in a child’s life. Regardless of what they say now, regardless of what their friends’ parents are doing, your children need parents who parent.

We also learned not to train our children to disobey us. Sound strange? When the kids were young, we had a habit of counting to three before unleashing our ‘wrath’. Have you ever done this? (I see heads nodding.) If you’ve noticed, your child may continue doing what they want until you get to that magic number three. (And…have you ever found yourself saying in frustration…..”two and a halllllf”?) One day, we realized we were actually giving our children an extra count of 2 or more to disobey us! Therefore, it was so-long to counting to three! [There were other subtle areas where we did this, too. For example: 1.) “Don’t you give grandma any of daddy’s hugs! Don’t you do it!” 2.) “Well, we’ll do it just this once, and we don’t have to tell Daddy. It’ll be our secret.”]    It’s definitely something to think about.

Hold onto your hats for this one: We were surprised to learn that our kids wanted discipline. I know – crazy! But the world is a big place, and it’s nice to know where the boundaries are. It makes you feel safe. As parents, we clearly laid out the ground rules, and shared what the consequences would be. But then, I can remember several occasions when the kids came in and admitted something to us….We were so proud of them for being open and honest, we were willing to forego the punishment. Invariably, they would remind us! 'Don’t you remember what you said?' And the punishment would be meted out.

Another thing I’ve realized is that we need to let our kids learn-and-do as much as possible without our help or interference. In fact, our whole ‘job’ as a parent is to prepare them to be independent, and to no longer need us. In the book, “Sacajawea,” by Anna Lee Waldo there’s a rather harsh example of this theory.

While on the trail with Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea gave birth to a baby boy. (Amazingly, she never let his presence slow her down.) One night, as the group was resting at camp, Clark noticed the little boy was easing his way toward the center fire, fascinated by the flames. Clark watched carefully, waiting for the child’s mother to stop him. Sacajawea watched as well, but did nothing.

Finally, Clark couldn’t stand it any longer. He jumped up and shouted at Sacajawea to rescue the child before he was burned. The calm Indian woman shook her head. “If I tell him no, he will resent me and yet still be intrigued by the fire,” she said. “But if he touches the flames for himself, he will learn that they are hot and the lesson will be that much stronger.”

Clark was dumbfounded at that reasoning, and me, too, a little bit. But then I see some mothers who help their children with every step, every sip, every movement, and I understand the logic.

Finally, I learned that “No’s” should be precious and few. When your child asks for something, really think about it before you answer. If at all possible, say yes, especially if it means you’ll be involved in an activity with them. And when you do say No, be ready to back it up, because it’s the consistency that matters.

For example, you told little Leah that she couldn’t have a snack before supper, but while you’re in the living room watching your favorite TV show you hear her come toddling past. She’s covered in chocolate. Oops! But, your show is at the best part…and she does look so cute. You glance from the TV to Leah and from Leah to the TV. Finally, you say, “Okay, I’m going to let it slide this time, but next time, it’ll be big trouble, understand? Now, go wash your hands.” Then you make sure you throw in a stern look.

Leah just learned a lesson. She can get away with anything when mommy’s watching her show! Hurray! Party-time in kid-Land!

So, choose your Noes carefully. Ask yourself: ‘Am I willing to enforce this no-matter-what?’ The good news is that it won’t take long to train your kids that when you say it, you mean it. If you act on it. Every time. Without fail. (Now that’s for the moms who are starting out. Sadly, it takes a little longer to RE-train.)

Well, those are some of the highlights. Yes, parenting is a big job and a thankless one. And it often feels like that terrifying moment when a paratrooper has just been pushed out the door of a rushing airplane at ten thousand feet. But there are those moments…those heart-stopping moments when you can barely breathe because your whole body is so filled with love, joy, and pride.

It is worth it? The baby? Who becomes a teenager? Who becomes an adult? Who gets married? Who…. Oh yes. Heavens, yes. And I highly recommend it.

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