The title of this essay was going to be “Kids.” I was frustrated with the interaction of my stepson (16) and son (8), both only children until they were thrown unexpectedly into sibling life in a two-bedroom apartment last year. (Parents, don’t try this at home.)
I was prepared to outline all kinds of annoyances about both boys when I realized (for the thousandth time) that I was the one being annoyed and they were just working through a situation that neither of them had predicted or asked for. That’s when I decided to shift the focus from ragging on them to examining my own viewpoint.
Recently, a man in Byers, Colorado, frustrated with the incessant crying of his baby boy, threw the child against the wall and ceiling until he stopped crying — forever. Whoa. Is this where it leads when we, as parents, don’t monitor our own reactions?
Both my children realize that they can annoy me easily, and they (by virtue of being kids) will take advantage of that. That appeals to them, perhaps unconsciously, because it is a way for them to control the actions of someone who is usually trying to control their actions. And that’s where the difficulty comes in for me as a parent. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I sometimes want to control their lives. I don’t want them hanging around certain people or doing certain things, I want them to have stronger interests in creative endeavors. I want them to be more independent, but I don’t want to give them the freedom to do so.
Somewhere, there must be a line to follow. As a parent, it is my job to guide (not necessarily control) their actions so that they can go into life armed with the skills to survive. It is also my job to protect them and care for them. However, too much “protection” fosters rebellion, especially from teens. Rebellion itself is necessary for them to form their own self image, and is helped (perhaps less significantly) by identification with what they like. Yet, at times I must put my foot down so they know where the lines are drawn. How do I identify when I am pushing too hard? If I am careful, and watch the signals from the kids, perhaps they will let me know.
A person whom I respect greatly once told me that kids “pretty much turn out okay no matter what you do.” That was heartening when I heard it as a 21 year-old, but I think there were some conditions implicit in that statement that I didn’t detect until several years later. First, you must be involved in your kids’ lives. If you don’t show interest in what they are doing, they will look for that attention elsewhere. Second, you must not be so controlling that the kids can’t develop their own personalities. I remember that this parent placed few restrictions on his kids’ coming and going, but he always knew where they were and when they were expected to return. Third, be consistent. Don’t change the rules on them without reason. When disciplining them, make sure the punishment fits the crime; don’t ground them for a month when they come home twenty minutes late. I’m sure there was more unspoken advice in his simple statement, but he was wise enough to know that I was not ready to hear or understand all of the baggage.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m ready even now. Myriad are the times I have reacted first and then realized that perhaps I should have handled a situation differently with my kids. How important are those slips? If I am to believe what I tell the kids, they are very important, just like every decision we make (or refuse to make). Even small acts can act as catalysts and start larger events in motion. It follows that it would be of utmost importance to think through all interaction with your children before it happens, or at least before you act.
Yeah …. Right.
There are at least three problems with what I just wrote. Number one, whether we like it or not, occasions arise where emotions cloud our sense of rationality and bring the issues out of focus. There are also occasions when we do not have the luxury of time to consider our “proper” course of action. Secondly, even when we do have time to consider, we rarely have all the information in a given situation. Even decisions that seem to be good at first can come out harmful in the end (and vice versa.) Finally, we will go neurotic if we let ourselves get so far out of balance as to think we have to be infallible with our kids. I think this is the true core of what my friend above meant. It was not so much a statement about the kids as it was the parents.
In a nutshell, I guess my best option is to do the best I can with each individual circumstance. When I have the luxury of reflection, I will use it. When I don’t have that luxury, I will try to see past the emotions and make rational decisions based on what information I have. And, occasionally, I will be wrong.
But if I make an effort to follow my own advice, maybe they’ll turn out okay anyway.