It’s a little bit of a shame that we all have to parent on parade. It has its good sides, I know, but more often than not, the visibility of our children, our interactions with them, and their interactions with others means we are parenting to the audience as much as to our children. Yes, this does keep some parents from publicly beating their kids, but it also keeps the rest of us on edge, with one eye skewed for how the crowd is reading our performances.
This ends up creating scenarios that are painful and unnecessary for both parents and children. We work harder to control behaviors that are normal and not really that big of an issue (but possibly momentarily annoying to other adults nearby); we are more apt to respond with lightning speed harshness to minor infractions; we are more likely to badger our “normally very polite” children to engage in social etiquette performance pieces; more likely to shush normal emotional responses; more likely to force our little ones into any number of actions or reactions that seem to be what the audience wants.
This tendency for us to play to the crowd (and, thereby, against our own flesh and blood) is unfortunately compounded by a widespread epidemic of double-standarding. Take nearly any area of behavior — say, crying over a minor upset — and you will see that there are allowances made for adults in such a situation that are non-existent or even strictly forbidden for children. There are a few exceptions, of course, (like getting to climb on the couch) when it seems children get more privileged treatment than adults, but those are exceptions and they are few. Most of the time, if a kid does something adults don’t like, like cry in a restaurant, then suddenly the adults forget that they have ever done anything even remotely similar, or that anyone might, and react as though “someone had better get that alien nusance out of here, or I am going to lodge a complaint — with the police!”
And we parents usually cow to the public response, and jump up to race our weeping child out of the building lest someone get… disturbed. Or worse, we treat our children as though they’ve done something terribly wrong just for being kids, and scan the sneering voyeurs for signs of approval as we “discipline the little trouble-makers”.
The saddest part, to me, is that we wind-up mistreating our own, in order to please some other. I mean, we often don’t even know that frumpy guy in the booth behind us, but we’re still craning our necks to see if he is perturbed by our children’s gleeful celebration of life, still shushing those sweet laughs, to keep a stranger padded from the experience of being in proximity to these little dynamic gems. Wonder what that models to our children.
One of the areas of wort offense is, oddly enough, politeness. For some reason, parents are willing to be the most impolite a-holes on the planet to get their kids to exhibit politeness. We will badger them to say “thank you”, and “please”, and “sorry” because the crowd expects to hear those words — seemingly irrespective of whether or not the words are meant. We will rip toys from their little hands, and tell them they have to share. We will shove or jerk them out of the way, to make room for another to pass. We will make their preferences obsolete, to please random strangers. And this — in the name of politeness?
Of the above, I have of late been most interested in how we handle the concept of sharing with our children, and for the audience. We spend all day steering children away from things, either telling them, “Those aren’t yours…” or, “not for you…” (maybe, “not for play…” if they’re lucky), or pulling things from them as we drag them away, or defending our own possessions from their constant interest, and as soon as they have something that is for them, we yank it out of their hands and loudly proclaim something about mandatory sharing as we give it to someone else. WTF?! I mean, if we want to teach sharing, is it possible to pick a worse strategy?
I’m sorry, I know that’s not fair — I know we have been trained this way, and it is reiterated everywhere, and the pressure is immense to look capable, to avoid seeming permissive, and to have children who exhibit the outward signs of kindness and integrity. I know the crowd is fierce — and that this is what it wants from our performance of parenting. I know.
I just happen to think there is a better, more dignified, more empathetic approach. What if we treat our kids like foreigners who don’t know the local customs around letting others check out the things they are using? What if we make it our job to actually show them how sharing works? What if we ignore the audience for just a moment and give our full attention to the ones to whom we should be performing? Yeah, our own kids.
I will tell you what we’ve been willing to do in our home, perhaps you’ll be inspired to explore your own options.
- First, we got rid of 9o% of all the Possession in our household. There are no toys out that are not for everyone, including visitors. No one has to guard things. No one has to pass on her thing unwillingly. No one has to covet the possession of the other. Everything is for everyone. Even on birthdays, all three girls enjoy knowing that the new toys will be for everyone’s use. There are, of course, exceptions and special agreements we have within this policy, but by and large everything is referred to as “this ______ I am using,” or, “that _____ you’re using.” Obviously, this phrasing does not extend to one’s own body, though we have all joked about “The hand I’m using…” etc..
- We are also relentless about modeling sharing. I know, it sounds crazy, but they’ll do it more if you do it more… So, we let them use stuff that we are using. (We generally also take the opportunity to request that they ask us for what they want, rather than just letting them yank it out of our hands. Why not, right?) We also model it outward, so our kids see us sharing with other people as well. It’s often quite simple, but we look for opportunities to show our willingness to share.
- We never force a share. Instead we negotiate. Even a very young child can agree to pass on a toy when he is finished with it. And if he is too young to do that, then he is likely young enough that his interest will move quickly on to some new toy and an attentive parent can step in and pass on the old toy within a few minutes. We ask 3 year old Echo, “Will you give that to your sister when you’re finished with it?” Often she says, “No, I’m playing with it,” first, but then comes around. We will talk about it as long as necessary to avoid using force, and we employ a lot of empathy for all parties throughout. “You don’t want to share that right now,” to one, and, “You really want a turn with it,” to the other. And even, “I really want my daughters to feel satisfied,” when appropriate.
- And as with other social edicts, we do our best to allow our girls to be where they are developmentally with sharing. They are learning. And we are actively involved in helping them get it. But concepts such as these are mysterious at best, and expecting our girls to perform appropriately before they understand how things work just doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that trying to force the performance before the understanding means you wind up with an empty performance. It’s like an actor with no subtext — just going through the motions without know why he is doing what he is doing — wondering, “what’s my motivation?”.
The real reason we chose the above methodology isn’t because we are hell-bent on bucking the system. It isn’t because we are so full of ourselves that we can totally disregard the audience, which is in fact littered with people we know, and care for, and with whom we wish to interact and connect, and who we want to like our children as much as we do. The real reason is because forcing children to share, or really to do anything, doesn’t work. It also happens to threaten damaging the relationships that are most important to us.
The bottom line for me is this: I can handle it if my neighbor thinks I’m a jerk because I didn’t force my daughter to share the doll she just waited half an hour to play with, but instead negotiated with his daughter to wait while mine plays for a bit. I can handle upsetting the overly anxious businessman trying to pass my 3 year old in the aisle by not jerking her out of the way and instead asking her politely to step aside, and waiting patiently until she has done so. I can thank the stranger wanting to offer us free passes to the children’s museum myself, instead of prompting one of my kids to do so on their behalf. I can even stay in the booth at the cafe where my daughter is crying her eyes out because we forgot to bring her favorite stuffed friend, and console her as she sobs, instead of shushing her or scooping her up and running outside. I can handle that. Not because I am so strong as to be totally impervious to the scathing perspective of the audience. But because I love my children more than I love the cheer of the crowd. We all do, don’t we — if we remember to think of it?
Here’s hoping we remember to think of it.