Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Follow-Through is a Bitch

Not to mention that it makes me feel like one, too.

The thing about parenting is that it is fraught with threats. The threats start in the womb, what with the threat of miscarriage and then of developmental disabilities, which give way to threats of catastrophic injury, kidnapping, and cancer. Heck, I was just trying to convince myself the other day that I could probably start relaxing about drowning, when I recalled that a local college student recently drowned in a river while studying abroad.

While the threats may dull, they never fade away completely. And underpinning these fears is the threat of failing at parenting.  Whatever 'failing' is.

Which is part of why we invest so much energy in trying to do it right. Whatever 'right' is. Understanding we can't control the perils of the world and their potential effects on our offspring, we wrestle ourselves instead. Naturally, that desire to control an unruly, entropic universe translates into urges to control our children. Metaphorically speaking, we wrestle with them, too. And some days they tap out more readily.

I've been reminding myself and emphasizing that my job as a parent is to promote the health and safety of my children and help them be the best 'themselves' they can be.  When I focus on these goals, my priorities are intact and I keep my controlling tendencies at bay.  Nevertheless, while eating on the couch is not a threat to health, safety, or good character, I can't let it be okay.  I don't want to have too many rules, but what can I say.  I have some rules.

This summer our daughters and I have spent a lot of time together, traveling, out and about, and at home.      A month in, as I realize that most of time my time has been devoted exclusively to them and their needs, I recognize some signs that helping the girls be their best selves means a little humility training.  These signs include you put the wrong kind of jam on my sandwich, Mom; this isn't the bathing suit I wanted to wear, Mom; why can't we do it right now, Mom?  Okay, how about now?; and, but I don't want to go!

Naturally, ungrateful attitudes and senses of entitlement have been met with the cliched allusions to children without such luxuries as organic jam, swimsuits (and places to swim), available mothers, and fun destinations (not to mention the car we use to get there).  And threats.  Threats, of course!  The threats.  Threats of Time Out, toys in solitary confinement, withholding of privileges.

Years ago, a colleague and parent of two described to me the sad conclusion of a family night out to dinner when his kids were in high school.  Apparently brother and sister were quibbling in the backseat en route to the restaurant, squabbling and being unpleasant as they took their seats and surveyed the menu.  My coworker and his wife looked at each other across the table and asked, "Do you want to be here right now...with them?  Like this?  And pay good money for it?"  No, they didn't.  So, despite having drinks and appetizers on the way, they paid for their order, and calmly left the joint with their kids in tow.  Their children were aghast.  But the parents made their point:  Be nice.  Be pleasant.  Or else.

And I know someone told me about someone they knew who turned the car around on the freeway halfway to Disneyland because the kids were acting like (as my father accused his five children from time to time) ungrateful pigs.  I thought that was big.  I thought that was a real parenting humdinger.  Assuming the parents really wanted to go to Disneyland, too.

Like we wanted to go to Soak City yesterday.  Husband had the day off...a day off in common with me in the summer, a rarity.  And we planned to take the girls to the local water park for a family adventure.  But the morning was a struggle with general lack of cooperation and good cheer, chores were neglected, requests for ponytails and toothbrushing were ignored or met with indolence, and we loaded in the car feeling exasperated instead of excited.  After ten minutes in the car, daughter decided her swimsuit wasn't suitable for a day on the water slides--the same suit I earlier suggested pairing with shorts--and then wouldn't accept her reality and adjust her attitude, OR ELSE, as we threatened.  We watched in the rear view mirror as the car hurtled closer to Splash Nirvana.  Tears were rolling.  Pouting was not concluding.

So we turned the car around.

As a friend who is reading Scream Free Parenting quoted to me later in the day, "Parents, watch what you threaten.  Be prepared to live with it."

Because we wanted to cry too.  We pulled up at home, downcast but resolved, with apologetic yet defiant daughter.  We all needed to retreat to our corners, husband with a magazine, I with cleaner and sponge, daughters to the fairy garden in the backyard.  After some time regrouping, we salvaged our Family Day, which was not to be sacrificed.  We had a picnic and a swim, and everyone was happy, despite the unspoken recognition that we could have been floating together on the Lazy River.

The moral of this story?  I am not sure.  I did not feel the triumph of Ultimate Parenting Follow-Through (there are no prizes for sweeping the family out of the restaurant or canceling plans), wishing instead for a lesser victory earlier in the day, resulting in cooperative, cheerful children and the day unfolding as envisioned.

Were our daughters ultimately contrite and conscious of their choices and consequences?  Yes.  Will they continue to test limits?  Invariably.  Will they believe us next time we threaten to call their bluffs?  Surely.

But here's to not getting there again, anytime soon.

I'm off in search of a mutually agreeable jam for sandwiches.  But ultimately, you'll get what you get and you won't throw a fit.

1 comment:

aitchpea said...

Good for you...in the long run. Yesterday was not a scream-free day of parenting for me. I hate running late and then not having kids hustling to get themselves together. Why must they interpret "Hop in the car AS FAST AS YOU CAN and buckle up lickety-split!" as "Climb in slowly, whining all the way, wrestle with brother, and sit in the carseat without even touching the buckles while whining some more"? Grr.... Bummer that you missed out on the waterpark, but I applaud your decision and hope that I can feel as dejectedly victorious someday. It takes a lot of self-control to pull the plug on fun.