I remember being three and cutting holes in my mother's thermal blanket. I was supposed to be taking a nap, assigned to my mother's bed so that my younger brother could sleep undisturbed in the room he and I shared, but I wasn't tired. In my mother's room, dimly lit by the midday sun through closed curtains, I could barely see the top of her tall chest of drawers, and was tempted by the way the light glinted off a paid of nail scissors - such tiny silver scissors, made of such thin metal, and with small handles that fit my little fingers perfectly. Some quiet voice in the back of my mind cautioned, only once, that my mother would probably not want me to touch them, but they were already in my hands, cool and smooth. They opened and shut in a satisfying firm yet fluid pivoting way. I pointed them downward, sharp tips barely grazing the mustard-colored velour, and made them snip, snip, snip. Oh! Tiny peaked half-moon slits appeared where I moved the tips. Snip, snip, snip. Oh, amazing. What a beautiful shape they made. How nice they felt. What treasure.
To say that my mother did not share my delight would be an understatement. She was angry, terribly angry. Angry that I was not napping. Angry that I had ruined her blanket. Angry that I had touched something that did not belong to me. Angry that I had used scissors without permission. I understood that she was very angry, and that she would have preferred that I had not cut her blanket, but I only understood this as a fact told to me, not on a gut level. I could not understand how she could not see the miracle of the tiny half-moons. I could not understand how any possibility other than cutting the blanket could exist.
Did I cut it purposefully? Yes, I suppose. Did I have a choice? I'm not sure that I did. There was an impulse, and it could not be ignored. I simply did it, not out of defiance, not out of any sense of willful disobedience or destructiveness. The scissors gleamed, and I had to pick them up. I had to work them with my fingers. I had to see what they could do. There was no active choice. I was three, and I had only the faintest glimmerings of the beginnings of moral development, little to no empathy, and a powerful drive to explore. I still can remember those moments in vivid, almost magical detail, and I still cannot see how I could have taken any other action other than to experiment with the nail scissors.
Two years ago, Dan and I had our first taste of the other side of that experience. He knew it was wrong and he did it anyway, we thought. He did it on purpose. He must be punished. He has to learn. But at the same time, we were learning about other ways of parenting. Does punishment actually teach what we assume it is teaching? Are children willfully disobeying? Are there other ways to teach these lessons? Am I really certain that I understand my child's motivations, abilities, and limitations, and am I really certain what the effects of my parenting choices will be?
What would have happened if my mother had recognized that I had meant no harm, that I had followed a drive to learn, and if she had focused on the glory of my discovery rather than the damage to her (slightly snipped but not at all destroyed) bedding? What would have happened if instead of punishing me, she had showed that she understood my interest, had explained why the blanket was not her top choice for practicing my new skill, and had redirected me to some paper?
What would my childhood have been like, and how would my own parenting impulses be different, if the focus had been on assuming benign intent, identifying the need, and helping to fill the need in an acceptable way, rather than viewing childish actions as misdeeds demanding instant correction, and attempting to "nip them in the bud" via punitive action? What if the focus had been on guiding the learning of a neophyte human rather than on causing sufficient suffering to rehabilitate a miscreant?
I wish that I could say that I practiced perfect patience with Griffin, that I never gave him a time-out or treated him roughly. Instead, as is usually the way with us humans, I learned by trial and error. Now that I have a second three-year-old (it is such a hard age, harder than two, and nobody tells you this until you're in the thick of it), I am having more trials and making more errors, and slowly remembering the things we learned the first time. I am trying to find time to read Naomi Aldort's book, which I would have rejected as silly touchy-feely garbage five years ago, back when I was still convinced that being a parent meant being in absolute control, that when I say now, it means now. Naomi discusses "old scripts" - the things that pop into our heads about making kids stop this and forcing them to do that. For their own good, teach them a lesson, nip it in the bud, they have to learn. What if they never learn, what if they get hurt, what if they disturb those people, what if they think I'm a horrible parent. Things we have been programmed to think, unquestioningly, by our upbringing and by a society that encourages us to fear. We fear that our children will turn out to be dysfunctional and socially inappropriate. We fear that other people will think poorly of us. We fear a loss of control.
What if I stopped fearing the "what ifs" and simply trusted that my children are good people who need a good role model, not a drill seargeant?
I am trying to remind myself to ask, does it have to be done? And if my answer is that yes, I do choose to make this thing mandatory, does it have to be done right now? When I choose to do something (virtually nothing ever has to be done, really, we choose it), can we find another way to do it?
The first time around, we often coerced certain things because of "safety", but now we're trying to take the time to ask ourselves, is it really unsafe? and what am I afraid will happen? and what are the chances that it really will happen? and how horrible would it really be if it did happen?
With Griffin, we learned to identify the "adult agenda," as I called it, and we're trying to remind ourselves that maybe kids deserve to have an agenda, too. With Reese, I'm attempting to fully realize that when he gets a certain gleam in his eye and does something that my old scripts tell me is just to get attention, that I need to remember that it's ok for humans to want and get attention, and that he is learning what his body can do, and that I can guide him gently, and that he is only three and is not being willfully disobedient or malicious.
I am trying to remember to look for the need behind the behavior, and to figure out how to meet those needs. I am trying to remember to anticipate pitfalls and make choices that set all of us up for success. I am trying to remember that I can (and should) take responsibility for my own choices when I gamble and lose. Did I expect too much of the kids? Did I put them in a situation that required more than they were able to provide? Can I admit when I'm angry with myself, not just with them?
A while back, I was musing on a few particularly trying days with Reese and realized that even for the parenting gurus, surely sometimes things just suck. Zen parenting or not, stuff that sucks is still stuff that sucks. It's ok to be disappointed in a day that didn't go as planned, or to feel upset about holes in a blanket. It's ok to be tired and grumpy. It's ok to show honest emotion, and it can be done in a way that is respectful of ourselves and our children.
Dan reminded me this afternoon that our children seem to take the same amount of time to
recover from a tantrum whether we're strict and disapproving or
concerned and nurturing. They seem to take the same amount of time to learn new skills and reach the next developmental stage, regardless of whether we punish and scold or redirect and wait it out. Would we rather spend the journey in struggle and conflict, or giving them the benefit of the doubt, trusting that they'll grow, and fostering as much harmony as possible? All those lessons they have to learn? It seems as though cognitive maturity does the job - plain ol' nature - 95% of the time or more. The rest is role modeling, patience, facilitation. Would I rather my children view me as a fearful dictator or as an approachable mentor?
When Griffin was younger, we had a lot of fear. What if (insert behavior unacceptable to adults here) wasn't just part of a phase? What if it wouldn't pass? What if we were screwing him up for good? Ah, but every single time it did pass, and it was a phase. And every single time we saw conflict behaviors recede, we saw a surge in emotional, social, and moral development. Knowing that helps me to believe that when we meet difficult times in the present or future, that those will also pass, and that the good traits we see growing in him point toward a loving, considerate, socially well-adjusted future for him. Ditto for Reese. And, I'm sure, for Xander. None of them are adults. None of them can be expected to show adult empathy or responsibility. They are not making "bad" choices - they are making the choices that are available to them in their current state of emotional, social, and moral development. They don't really foul that up any more frequently than I do, and really, when you correct for developmental maturity, most adults I know screw up far more often than children do, and we expect far more tolerance from each other than we typically give our kids.
I need a reminder again that these things do pass, that my job as a parent is to be a guide, not a tyrant, and that my children will best be served by a flexible and patient role model who sees the miracle in the half-moon slits, mourns the mangled blanket gently, and (politely) shows them ways to maximize the miracles while minimizing the mangling.