Thursday, December 10, 2009

Today's Bummer Brought to You by the Conflicting Interests of Parenthood

What is wrong with me?

Just when I think we're having a lovely day, my four-year-old sends me into a tail spin with one intentionally goading comment. I can see he's testing, I recognize he's trying to get a rise out of me, and yet I cannot manage to maintain my cool so as not to satisfy his curiosity. I am a thirty-one year old woman, but sometimes my self-control is little better than his. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

Of course, once the party is rolling, Abby has to join the action. It's fun to see Mommy get so worked up. That's the irony of parenting. Anger fuels the fires of misbehavior.

I hate that my default in situations when I'm angry is to go into "dragon" mode, an accurate term coined by my son's preschool teacher turned parenting coach. I can feel it. My breathing grows shallow, my muscles tense, and my voice assumes the frosty edge of detachment as I feel myself teetering on the brink of explosion. And when the next button is pushed, I wield all of my adult authority in a loud, fiery voice that could still the masses.

Now there's a great model of conflict resolution. Way to show the kids how to handle stress. When all else fails, yell. Really loudly.

The kicker is that it's hardly effective. They may respond momentarily out of shock and awe, but it doesn't actually address the underlying issue. I may have quieted them for the rest of the car ride, but I haven't done anything to build our relationship or their sense of right and wrong. I've only shown them how to get under Mom's skin--and communicated that I can't handle their testing. Lovely.

I don't really have any consolation here. No silver lining to report. Ben screwed up. I screwed up bigger. Two wrongs don't make a right--just two more problems to deal with.

Ben did apologize to me before naps and said he and Abby would need to do some chores after naps. Yep, they sure will. That will address, at least in part, one problem: putting some of the energy they drained back in Mommy. But I still have to figure out how to make my problem right with them and find my own self-control in the meantime.

There is something about parenting that exposes our deepest weaknesses and insecurities. It probably has something to do with the fact that no matter how much we try to control our lives, we simply cannot control our children, who waltz through our lives blissfully unaware of the havoc they leave in their wake as they learn how to get along in this world. I suppose I could manipulate them to always do what I want, but this would involve tools like fear or shame and would only result in children, and ultimately adults, who are afraid to think for themselves, unable to control themselves. And I don't want to raise children who will simply do what they're told, though that would certainly make my life at home easier.

I want to raise children who know how to evaluate choices and make good decisions for themselves while respecting the people around them. God forbid, if one of them were to find themselves in the company of a person looking to take advantage, I do not want them to blindly do what they are told because the teller is an adult or someone who wields their voice with authority. I don't want them to meekly give control over to the nearest grown-up. I want them to evaluate the situation, believe they have a right to respectfully say, "Please stop," and then exert control over their own life to get out of there.

The problem is that in order for them to learn how to exert their autonomy appropriately, they're going to have to try it out, which means they're going to occasionally exert it inappropriately, usually on those of us closest to them. And this is where I should have the foresight to help them feel the consequence of their behavior without lapsing into dragon--or dragon's calmer counterpart, drill master--mode. Because the latter does nothing to further the development of responsible, respectful, autonomous thinkers and doers.

No one signs up for this. People without kids think they're signing up for sweet and charming life accessories who love them so much they would never defy or disrespect those who take care of them, play with them, and look out for their best interests. But the big shocker this side of parenting is, surprise, you've signed up to shepherd an actual person with his own temperament, personality, likes, dislikes, thoughts, and feelings through this world in the company of your family. Actual people, right now. Not eighteen to twenty-five years from right now. This little reality makes parenting much more complicated.

Which is why raising children has to come back to relationship. And relationships aren't built on yelling matches and temper tantrums, at least none of the relationships in which I choose to participate. Rather, they're built on respect, trust, and forgiveness.

I've messed up. It's not the first time and, unfortunately, it won't be the last.

So what's wrong with me? I'm a parent of two independent souls who think for themselves and make their own decisions, occasionally at my expense.

My favorite parenting philosophy says, "We want our kids to make lots of mistakes," especially while they're young and the price tags of those mistakes are small. Sigh. In reality, Ben was doing us both a favor this afternoon by creating a learning opportunity, and I chose to view it as a problem instead. Bummer for me. Bummer for him.

I'll choose better next time.

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