Parenting in Color


Have you ever run across an article, commercial, billboard sign, conversation, and even though it was a few days ago, maybe even a few weeks, it doesn’t let you go? It bothers you in some way that you can’t fully put you’re finger on. You try to let go of it but it won’t release its hold on you. Maybe you talk about it with loved ones, maybe you bring it up in casual conversations to see how it lands. You find yourself searching it up, replaying the conversation, driving by the billboard, and finally decide to turn over some stones to see what variety of moss is growing underneath.

This story happened to me, thanks to a couple of articles that came across my Facebook feed. They were a day apart, one harkened back to the other, and both came from women I respect and who I consider progressive in their thinking and who have children. Perhaps that’s what bothered me more than anything—that they were shared with a nod from wise, engaged women raising children today.

The topic of these articles was parenting. There seems always to be a plethora of “experts” ready and willing to offer their advice on parenting (those with and without kids). I decided long ago, through accepting all my shortcomings as a parent and knowing that so much of what works seems to be the opposite of what anyone else would tell me, I would never be one of them. So this piece is not—I promise—an advice piece. Well at least not primarily. I do not deem myself qualified outside of the fact that I am raising two teenage daughters and have my share of lessons learned and failed experiments and also successful, transformative, enlightening conversations, agreements and experiences. So not a lecture, but an investigation; to get to the bottom of that ache in my side that hasn’t stopped poking me since I first read these pieces.

The first article entitled “An Open Letter to Teenager” was originally written by a judge in juvenile court for the South Bend Tribune on Sunday, December 6, 1959 in response to recurring questions from teenagers who came before him: “What can we do? Where can we go?” For whatever reason (we do seem to often resurrect things from the past and fawn over them as if they are a treasured relic) it has been picked up, shaken off and recirculated as if the best parenting advice could come out of the late 50’s. That that generation turned out to be the most well-adjusted, emotionally stable generation yet and, sigh, if only we all had it so good. If you like, you can read the entire letter, or you can enjoy a reflection with me on a few of my favorite nuggets:

“Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink, build a boat, get a job.”

Wow. What are we hoping to create, child labor camps? I don’t hear “Oh, how wonderful, it’s a window washer!” when we fuss over a newborn. Rather, as new, even experienced parents, we are amazed by our tiny miracle of life. We immerse ourselves in every burp, hiccup, cough and bowel movement. We love caring for our children, are reluctant (sometimes) to allow others hold him or her, snap hundreds of pictures and take dozens of videos of quirky smiles, tantrums, first words, and we stand guard over their cribs while they nap. Yes we were tired and depleted, but most of us did not sing to our baby, “Go to sleep now little one, and dream of the day you will repay me for my efforts. Yes, coochie-coo, I’m adding up all my lost sleep, yes I am!” We didn’t view parenting as an obligation, and I for one have not spent time counting the hours I’ve “nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied [myself] needed comforts (isn’t “needed comforts” an oxymoron?) so that [they] could have every benefit.” Sure, I can’t go to a concert on a whim, and sometimes I have to drive my kids places in my pajamas, but overall, I love that I brought these two bright, creative, considerate, challenging humans into the world who so often mirror all the best and worst parts of myself. I’m honored, not bitter, to care for them. I’m not waiting for a reward and I don’t tally points. To sum this up, my husband and I did not have children to have staff on hand. There will be plenty of time for all of that when they are adults.

But about the work itself. I agree that it’s valuable for children to learn the joy and reward that comes with hard work and a job well done. So there is an acorn of truth here. But an acorn shouldn’t be mistaken for an oak tree and a piece of the truth should not ban other truths from the sun’s rays. A friend once taught me the power of saying “yes, and” rather than “yes, but,” so allow me to use it here. Yes, it’s true that hard work allows kids to gain skills that will last a lifetime. And it is equally, if not more true in this age of poor to absent communication skills, screen time replacing face-to-face time, and an ever-increasing diversity of language, culture, religion not just in our world but in our neighborhoods, the value of practicing and honing communication skills (speaking clearly and listening fully) while the price of mistakes is still relatively low has never been higher.

In the author’s utopia, I ask where is the time for learning how to interact in a group, or speak up for someone, or protest alongside others (I am not one of those parents who complained that children should be in school and not join Black Lives Matter protests. In fact I encouraged my children’s participation and they both found immense satisfaction and solidarity in walking with kids from all races.) What about learning how to settle disagreements, compromise, voice a dissenting opinion? If we think children are learning these social skills  in school, we should look closer. Rare (but treasured) is the teacher who allows for dissenting opinions, hearty arguments, or gives credit for an answer that, albeit wrong according to the answer book, is supported thoughtfully. From school to home and back again, is the author suggesting that our children be simply robots, motivated and egged on by guilt, shame, duty and a belief that one must earn one’s place in the world? Ask this question: what do we need more in the future: painted fences? Or fences mended by well-spoken, intelligent and creative human beings who can engage in healthy dialogue with co-workers, families, allies, and enemies. Cast this scenario out into the future: if our children grow up only with the skills to work, but few skills to interact, how will they get, and keep, that job we want them to have in the first place? Cast it out wider: without developing communication and relational skills in adolescence, how might that impact our relationships throughout the world where diplomacy, negotiation, moderation, and the proper construction of a sentence can mean the difference between peace and war. I do not believe I am exaggerating this importance.

“Your parents do not owe you entertainment. Your city or village does not owe you recreational facilities.”

“The world does not owe you a living…You owe the world something.”

What is all this about owing, and why is it this man’s opinion that the only one who owes anything are the children? I suggest we leave the word “owing” to credit card debts, and let our relationships between parent and child be tendered instead with love, equitable (not always equal) exchange, compassion (it wasn’t easy being a teenager, remember?), and an ability to address each moment as an individual, unique situation. I personally have chosen not to raise my children with this demoralizing burden of obligation. Instead I am encouraging them to seek the beauty and gifts life has to offer, to find joy and happiness in their work and their play, to learn when and how to let go, when and how to push through, and to believe that we all belong here on the basis of our existence alone. But in all honesty, while this is my intention to teach them about life, more often than not, they are the ones who teach me how to live better. But this can only happen because we established our relationship as a two-way street.

A word about the recreational facilities: we may not owe our kids this, that much is true. But why would we not want to give this to them, especially in places like Minnesota where going outside is not always an option? I’ve long believed that investing in a local, drug-free, alcohol-free, and of course gun-free zone is long overdue. What an ideal setting in which to practice all of the social skills children need in adulthood. A place where (maybe before or after they change the storm windows and wash the car) they can be, and play, and laugh, and love their life and make new friends. Maybe this place could offer classes on those things that are not taught well in schools: buying a car/home, applying for a loan, building a budget, preparing and eating holistically, yoga, etc., etc. I’m curious: why is it that we can vote in a stadium which costs the state of Minnesota $348 million dollars for grown men to toss a ball and knock each other senseless but building, staffing and offering a place for teenagers to safely hang out is indulgent and beyond our duty as citizens? I can guarantee that fewer concussions and higher morality will develop in a teenage recreational facility than comes out of a football stadium. But this is all me dreaming, and our author has a word or two about dreaming:

“Grow up; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like a man or a lady.”

Where to start with this one. So we are to tell our children to stop dreaming. What do Harriet Tubman, Vincent Van Gogh, Martin Luther King Jr., Elton John, Steve Jobs, and the founders of charities, the inventors, visionaries and entrepreneurs all have in common? They were dreamers. I for one will never cease encouraging my girls to dream. If they stop dreaming, the author is correct, they might grow up very quickly. But it will not be into into a responsible “man or a lady,” but a bitter, unsatisfied, unproductive member of society with a chip on their shoulder. Dreaming, hoping, wishing…none of us would be where we are today without someone out there being willing to dream.

Additionally, I can only assume that by the phrases “don’t be a crybaby” and “develop a backbone,” he is encouraging children to not allow freedom of emotions and get used to the fact that the world is a hardened place, full of hardened hearts, and so one must also harden theirs to get by. Bah humbug. Stuffed, belittled, denied emotions build up in our tissues and create illness and disease, build up in our minds and take up space meant for creativity, build up in our hearts until we no longer know how to love purely without expectation. How many of us adults are only now learning how to manage our anger, talk down our fears, soothe our anxieties or even embrace our happiness without guilt, regret, blame, shame? To be an emotionally free human being (meaning neither at their mercy nor denying their expression) requires practice, time, and outside support. Emotional intelligence ought to be nurtured, not neglected.

But then I take a deep breath, and remember that the above article was written in 1959, and perhaps its recirculation is receiving more jeers than cheers overall. I could’ve maybe let go…but then I saw this one, written just over 10 days ago, January 11, 2016, by “expert” and author Leonard Sax. I will not sweep over the fact that both of these articles were written by men, who, as a whole, do not take on the lion’s share of parenting duties.

The gist: he’s unhappy because he observed a parent calm a child who was about to have a strep test with an offer of ice cream. He believes the parent should have just told this child, in a very authoritarian, let’s-not-forget-the-hierarchy-here voice, to open wide. He believes that a parent should tell this child, (with their actions alone, for having a dialogue is to perilously put the child on equal footing as the parent) that there is no room for their fear, there is no room for their emotions. Open up child, open up now because I said so. I’ve tried the “because I said so” approach a handful of times over the years. But this only serves to widen the gaps between us. My girls prefer to honestly know why or why not. They respect my honest answer, even if they don’t like it, and in respecting my answer, their respect for me overall deepens. It’s like growing a flower: if you stand over it and demand it grow, and grow now, because I said so, it will likely wither and wilt under your presence. But if you nurture, interact, love and care for this flower, it will bloom the most marvelous flower, one beyond imagination. One bloomed on the promise of dreams.

Besides, have you ever had a strep test? Watched someone get one? They shove that stick far back in your throat until you gag. It’s awful. Personally, a little ice cream on the other side wouldn’t hurt me much, although my “ice cream” would probably be a Starbucks mocha.

Sax also insists that it is a parent’s job to teach kids right from wrong, teach kids the meaning of life and keep their children safe.

First question: Do you, Sax, know all that is right and wrong? Do you have the world and all possible actions properly labelled and coded into these two camps? Have you never come across a situation a bit more gray, a problem where the solution is not so crystal clear? For instance, you may think murder is wrong, but is it still wrong if it is in self-defense? Courts of law do not even have everything figured to right and wrong, which is why they must deliberate on a case-by-case basis. The world is not black and white; should we lie to our children and tell them that it is? Or couldn’t we help them weigh the evidence, deliberate, and come to a decision for themselves? I for one am teaching my girls how to listen to their heart, their souls, their minds and to others. To consider any given situation from all angles, to consider all possible outcomes carefully and not to jump to conclusions about what or who is right and what or who is wrong. I encourage experimentation and courage. I do not encourage them to feel sanctimonious when they end up right; nor do I allow them to wallow in self-pity and self-loathing when they choose wrongly. Together we look, we discern, we choose, we learn, we move on. I am teaching my children about a world of vibrant, bursting color, not black and white lines.

Secondly, Sax, do you have the meaning of life all wrapped up in a nice tidy bow? Is that what you’re offering to give children—your answer to the meaning of life? Because the meaning of life has been contemplated since the beginning of human history by countless philosophers, spiritual teachers and masters, homemakers, politicians, authors, and they do not all agree. On the big issue of “the meaning of life,” the best we can do is allow our children to experiment with the idea of life having a meaning, or maybe multiple meanings, or maybe a different meaning for each person, and what they could be. But I’m curious: how much danger do you think I put my children in if I tell them that it’s possible there is no one meaning, and that we are all here muddling through the best that we can? Because along with tasting many theories on the possible meaning of life, this theory too is tossed in for flavor.

Keeping them safe? Ok, Sax, I’ll let you have that one. I am all in with keeping our children safe. Please see my comments above about a recreational facility where kids can hang out, listen to music without their parents telling them to turn it off, and practice the skills that will help them grow into the mature, intelligent human beings I know you want them to be.

I think I’m there now, coming to understand that nagging feeling I felt when I read these articles. It’s an old guilt coming back, one that settled when I believed in these principles, and for a time even tried them (which is why so many of my memories of my girls in their toddler years are of willful matches and dinging rounds.) That guilt tells me that I’m not supposed to enjoy my children so much, that I’m not supposed to “lower” myself to engage in the back-and-forth negotiations over everything from allowance to chores to plans with a friend, and watch with delight how their minds creatively and constantly work through to find solutions that please everyone. This guilt tells me that its dangerous to teach my children about joy and play and joie de vivre and most of all, that it is dangerous to treat them like thinking, feeling, experimenting, brave, trusting and trustworthy human beings. And so I thank these articles, and those who wrote and shared them, for placing them in my path. Because now I can kick that guilt to the curb once and for all and go back to enjoying my children and encouraging my children to enjoy life’s adventures and keep on dreaming in full, vibrant color.

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