Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Million Dollar Question: Whose Issue Is This?

It's amazing what a difference it makes to parent from a place of hope rather than fear, to face an event or situation in my day-to-day with the kids and, rather than panic and react, to sit for a moment and pay attention to what I'm feeling and then take the time to identify why. Is this frustration or anger or concern really about them, or is it coming from some belief or expectation or fear I have that has nothing to do with their actions in the moment? Once I make this significant distinction, I can make a conscious decision about how to address the situation, if it's even necessary. I'm no longer at the whim of my anxieties. I choose how to proceed, and quite often, my subsequent actions are calm, kind, gentle, and empathetic, whether the kids are at fault or not. The knee-jerk reactions to my fear that left me frustrated, angry, and very unlike the parent I aspire to be has found its antidotes: self-awareness, and faith.

Yesterday, for instance, Ben came down from his nap and was using one of the wooden conductors from his train set as a giant sabor tooth, roaring and making claws out of his hands while holding this tooth in his mouth. And I'll be honest, I don't like these kinds of games. When he's pretending to be some violent animal or The Grinch or a pirate or bad guy, it unsettles me, worries me, makes me wonder why he doesn't want to be the good guy, the hero, the nice animals.

When I think about it, though, I understand why. For one, we live in the mountains where wildlife abounds: deer, elk, foxes, bears, mountain lions, and coyotes in addition to the assortment of small creatures like birds, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. The deer and elk and foxes wander through our yard or through the woods behind our house regularly, munching on grass or resting in the shade of the trees. At school, they talk about the various animals and their habitats. We read dozens of books about all kinds of animals and bugs. And inevitably, I'll get these questions from Ben: why do deer and elk have antlers, why do mountain lions have sharp teeth and claws, why do bees sting, why do sharks bite, why do porcupines have pokey spines, why do skunks smell so bad, etc., etc.? And inevitably, I'll have to reply, "To protect themselves" or "To eat." To which he'll counter, "Why do they have to protect themselves?" and suddenly we're in a conversation about the cycle of life and survival and the brutal reality of the natural world.

So naturally, he acts these scenarios out. He checked out a book from the library the other day about a woolly mammoth. It's published by Smithsonian and seeks primarily to provide information about the woolly mammoth in the context of a simple plot. At one point in the book, Woolly Mammoth loses his pack and is attacked by three sabor-tooth tigers. Ultimately, he's able to fight them off with his long tusks and trunk and then goes on to reunite with his pack. So it's no suprise Ben came downstairs enacting the part of the sabor-tooth tiger, claiming he was looking for a cave in order to protect himself.

Before, I would have felt anxious about this. Why choose to be the aggressor? But in my more rational state, I can acknowledge, for one, that this role seems better than the alternative role of victim. In addition, the sabor-tooth tigers are pretty slick looking, whereas Woolly Mammoth is pretty unremarkable and galumphing. And, when I really think about it, all good stories--and even games--require conflict: they require something to work against or overcome or conquer, whether it's an animal or bad guy or act of God or self-doubt or circumstance. And in a play group of one, all roles are played by one person.

So when I step back to think about the situation, to recognize where the anxiety comes from (clearly, I don't want Ben to glorify aggression and grow up thinking it's fun to be a bad guy) and then step back to analyze what's really going on (he's a four-year-old boy pretending what he's seen in order to make sense of it, and this has nothing to do with his beliefs about violence), I can respond rationally. In this case, I simply oohed and ahhed as he roared at me, and before I knew it, he had transformed his sabor teeth into tusks and reinvented himself as a walrus, an animal I feel much more comfortable with.

Because this little boy who pretends to be a sabor-tooth tiger is the same little boy who says he wants to grow up and be a daddy to all the little kids who don't have daddies, who cheers with sincerest enthusiasm when Abby makes something on the potty, who prays for our dear friend's cat not to get sprayed by a skunk again after hearing about the ordeal, who thanks Jesus for putting stars in the sky to look pretty for us, and who makes up songs about how much he loves us. Fear is unfounded here. Joy is abounding. Nothing about them has changed, but so much about me has, thank God.

Here's to the relief of parenting in truth.

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