Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Exceeding Expectations (& Allowing the Process): More Adventures in Parenting

At the Farmer's Market yesterday, we chose to eat lunch at Camp Grounds, the family-run coffee shop situated right in the middle of the Bergen Village marketplace. The Tuesday morning fanfare must do them well, as they were packed when we went in to order. Every table was occupied. So I figured we'd go ahead and eat at a picnic table on the adjacent patio where we could enjoy the sun, the mountain vistas, and the general merriment of the market.

We settled in at our table, waiting for our food, and talked about the electric violin at a nearby stand. We chatted empathetically with an older woman who had lost her cell phone and thought perhaps she had left it at the table where she'd eaten lunch. Ben asked if she had looked under the tables and then proceeded to check under ours for her, to no avail. She smiled warmly at him, remarking at his helpfulness. A minute later, having given the situation some thought, he suggested sincerely, "Did you check down between the seats in your car?" This location must have been fresh on his mind since I had accidentally dropped my keys between my seat and the console when we arrived earlier. Again, she looked at him warmly, surprised but charmed by his participation in her crisis. I offered her my cell phone so she could call her phone and listen for the ring, but it sent her straight to voicemail. Eventually, she gave up on the lunch tables and wandered off to retrace her route again, chiding herself for her atypical carelessness.

Our food arrived, and the kids ate sparingly, full from the fruit smoothies we had bought as a treat from another stand. Ben commented that he was thirsty, so I suggested he go into the coffee shop and ask for a cup of water.

I should note that this kind of task is very familiar to him. He loves being the one in restaurants to walk to the counter to ask for a take-out box, an extra cup, a lid, or whatever else we may discover we need in the course of a meal. He's happy to walk into the library by himself to drop the books in the slot or to pick up something we've requested from another branch or to renew the books that he's still interested in, clutching his own little library card responsibly, proudly. I generally station myself in close proximity or eyesight so that I can help if necessary (though I've been unnecessary thus far), but I happily allow him this independence and the subsequent sense of accomplishment he clearly feels--emerging from every situation with a grin and a confirmation that, yes, he used his manners. These little successes, I trust, are building a foundation of confidence, self-reliance, and poise as he learns how to wait his turn or wait for a pause in the exchanges at the counter before politely saying, "Excuse me," and then making his request.

In this instance, he was concerned about getting the heavy door open, but I assured him that there were plenty of people walking in and out who would be happy to help him if needed. And if he did have trouble, he could just wave to me, since I had full sight of the door and the interior from our table.

He walked over to the door and did struggle to pull it in a David vs. Goliath sort of way, his hands gripping the handle, his body leaned back to offer the full force of his weight in his efforts. He pulled with all his might for less than five seconds when a different older woman, who must have seen my son's futile attempts from her place in line, opened the door for him. I started to wave a thank you when I noticed her slightly scowling and perturbed face. For a moment, I thought she didn't realize that he was with me or that I was fully aware of his whereabouts, so I gestured that I knew he was there, flashed her a thumbs up, and smiled reassuringly. She kept looking at Ben and talking and then looking at me questioningly, perhaps even disapprovingly, so I even tried to say over the din of the market, "He's just going in to get a cup of water." Her demeanor didn't improve but they went inside, and I hoped she didn't feel obliged to help him.

A minute later, Ben walked out empty-handed. As he got closer, I could see he looked confused and a little sad. "She wasn't nice," he told me, a bit teary. I sympathized and rubbed his back and asked what had happened. "She said I couldn't get a drink there," he relayed. "Why did she say that?" he asked, searching my face for an explanation, wondering, I'm sure, if I had been wrong.

I told him I didn't know but suggested that perhaps she was confused: "Maybe she didn't understand we had bought lunch there and you were just going to ask for some water." I waited to see if that explanation matched his experience.

"She said I needed money and couldn't get a drink here," he expanded.

"Oh, it sounds like she thought you wanted a special drink. I think she didn't understand what you were doing," I offered, hoping to relieve her of her mean girl status in his eyes and also hoping to salvage his confidence in my judgement. "Why don't I walk over to the door with you, and you can go ask for water. Since we ate lunch here, it is perfectly okay for you to ask that."

So we walked over together and Ben went in to ask the man behind the counter for some water. This time, he returned to the table with the problem of his thirst solved.

The problem, I realized, is that this woman's expectations of a little boy (and his mother!) were so low. At no point in the exchange did she seem to consider the possibility that he actually knew what he was doing, that he may have had my endorsement of his endeavor, or that he had every ability--and right--to walk into this shop and take care of himself, save his need for a little help with the door. And what if he had been going in to buy something? Ben has his own dog wallet with his own allowance money which he most frequently chooses to spend on "special milk." "A kid's milk with one pump of raspberry syrup" is what he orders at coffee shops and then proceeds to pour out the change from his dog to find the requisite number of quarters, dimes, etc. for his purchase. When asked, he chooses to accept a receipt, this finishing touch adding authenticity to his experience.

Inside, I was furious with her discouragement. Most people are pleasantly suprised, or at least amused by this little guy asserting himself so willingly. But she was certain he could not possibly know what he was doing.

I realize we are raising Ben and Abby a bit differently, perhaps, than some children are raised. We have given him the freedom--nay, the encouragement--to speak up, to set boundaries for himself, to communicate his desires, frustrations, or requests to the people around him, whether they're younger like Abby or peers or grown-ups. Our fundamental belief is that children are people--little people--but real people nonetheless. This does not mean that they are licensed to have or do or say whatever they want, but this is where the normal learning curve of childhood comes in: learning to communicate these things respectfully, learning how to consider the needs or desires of the group in addition to their own, learning to live with disappointment when the answer is no.

This, of course, is a work in progress. The other night, Ben was sitting on the couch with our dear friend when he began drumming with his drum sticks and making quite a racket. She asked him nicely if he would please stop since it was loud, which he didn't like as he's usually permitted to drum. Immediately, and not too nicely, he asked, "Why?", his standard response to almost anything. She explained that she had a headache and that the drumming hurt her head, and this satisfied him so he moved on to a less noisy activity. A bit later, Ben said to her politely, "You can go in the other room."

Her first reaction was to be shocked and appalled at his disrespect, but she soon realized his intention was innocent: he was merely parroting language he's heard us use with him on a daily basis: "Feel free to _____ (yell, bang, pick your nose, speak that way, play with that noisy toy, etc.) in the other room." In fact, my dad still chuckles over the memory of Ben walking to another room when he was two to loudly shout "No" in every intonation imaginable; it had nothing to do with defiance and everything to do with experiment. So Ben gets the concept of communicating an acceptable alternative, but we're still working on the execution. As with any childhood (or adult) skill--drawing, playing an instrument, writing a story, carrying a conversation--it's a process.

But it's a process I'm committed to because one day, ten to fifteen years from now, I hope he'll have the confidence, self-reliance, and poise to say, "Feel free to _____ (open that beer, smoke that cigarette, experiment with those drugs, make that choice) at your house." And I pray that, unlike the disapproving woman at the coffee shop, those around him have the patience to respect the process and the wisdom to come alongside him in grace to help him refine those skills along the way.

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