No, I’m not talking about the latest glitz-pop album from that used-to-be underground band you loved in college. And I’m not talking about renting your kids out to a slew of commercial producers either. No, this episode of “Things that make you go, ‘D’OH!‘” is dedicated to the tendency most of us have to accidentally, subconsciously, or intentionally put the needs of others (especially adults) before our kids. Remember, the “D’OH!” series (though not extensive yet) is a category of posts that call special attention to some things we parents do that make our parenting lives more challenging; and this time, I’m turning the lens inward (in more ways than one).
Just to set the proper tone for today’s theme, I’m going to start with a little confession. I got a request not too long ago for a post (or several) showing a little more about where and how Natalie and I struggle in our parenting and what we do in the aftermath. That spurred me to write the reiterative post Parents are Human, Too the other day, but it has also spurred me to pay closer attention to the instances of “disconnect” or “malfunction” or just plain “f*ing up” that we experience in order to see what might be there worth sharing with more than just ourselves. We, of course, process our struggles together, regularly, but it honestly had not previously occurred to me that someone else might learn something from our mistakes, too. So I want to thank Martha for that added perspective, and how it is affecting my presence in parenting as well. But that’s not “the confession”.
Admittedly, this is a tiny blunder, really – it’s not like I burned the house down or anything – but I wanted to share it with you just the same. It just so happens to also be perfectly appropriate for the larger theme today. I wrote about Echo’s birthday already, and it was a wonderful day, but what I left out of that description at the time was that I was also repeatedly acting like a stupid jerk. I’m not usually given to name calling, but that’s really the best way for me to describe it. I wasn’t really meaning to, and I kept dutifully blaming it on Bella and Xi, but honestly, it was all me.
You see, I drew a line in the sand, something I don’t like to do, and certainly something I suggest that other parents avoid. But not only that (which is enough), I also drew this line and demanded that they not cross it, in order to please someone else. It wasn’t for their own good, it wasn’t to help them out, it wasn’t even for Natalie, or for me, but someone who wasn’t even present, whose assumed needs I put before my girls’ wishes. Just like lots of us do regularly, and often for people we don’t even know.
On the night before Echo’s birthday, all three girls took a bath right before bed. I knew that Bella and Xi would be departing for their other houses pretty much right after the party, and that both of their moms would probably prefer that they came to them as clean as possible. So the next day when they started running around outside and playing in the dusty, dirt drive-way, I asked them to put on shoes in order to keep those freshly washed feet a little fresher. They complied immediately, and set off gleefully without another word, even though I almost never ask them to put shoes on just to play in the yard. Then they started spinning on the new swing and what was the first thing to fly off every single time they spun… yep, those floppy Crocks they threw on to please me. So then I found myself getting annoyed (a little too easily) and thinking I was going to have to be more explicit.
They were supposed to be keeping their feet clean, so their mothers wouldn’t think we never bathed them! They were supposed to be as concerned about it as I was! After all, I was only trying to please their mothers, and make sure they weren’t given a hard time on the premise that we didn’t take good care of them. So I marched over and helped get shoes back on several times in a row, and reiterated my preference, and blamed it on their mothers. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Throughout the party there were about twenty dozen reasons for the girls to go in and out of the house, back and forth to the yard, the swing, the sidewalk, the porch, the back deck, even the car. And every single time, I was suddenly on alert, at the ready, reminding them to put the shoes back on (as they had no trouble remembering to take them off upon re-entering the house). More than a few times, I “had” to chase them down and remind them in the yard. I even got adamant with Xi, at one point, to such a degree that I became embarrassed by my own vehemence. Here I was, asking Xideka the quintessentially stupid parenting question, “How many times do we have to…?” over some shoes, and some assumption about what her mom might prefer or think or say about me if Xi had dirty feet…
After that, I was feeling so dumb about it, that I went to try and correct it a little with both Bella and Xi, but “the damage was done.” I went up to Xi, who had just stepped out for a second onto the deck without shoes, and as soon as she saw me, she dropped her head and apologized and ran in. Bella had decided to step out front into the grass (that, in her mind, was completely different from the dust and dirt for which I had asked her to wear shoes) and so went out barefoot and sat down. I saw the shoes on the deck and proceeded to the front yard where she sat so that I could tell her that I didn’t mind if she never wore shoes again in the yard. But as soon as I said, “Hey I was thinking about the shoes…” Bella jumped up and ran and got them without hearing another word.
I stood in the yard for a minute. The breeze was blowing lightly, and the voices of the birthday revelers stirred around the corner of the house. There were some little ones laughing with total abandon. And after a deep breath, I smiled. Then I talked myself through the whole thing again, just having empathy for myself throughout. I wasn’t justifying it, I wasn’t excusing it, I was just identifying with the feelings I’d had at each level of the scenario, and letting them be. The thing that felt the worst was not just that I had bullied my girls into compliance over something so trivial, and not just over something I assumed (which sometimes causes trouble, but is virtually unavoidable in daily practice), but that I was “putting them out” (by asking them to do something they are never expected to do) just to attempt to please someone else.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to please others. I like it when I do something that someone I know or care for will enjoy. I even like to help strangers. And I can really get behind the idea of teaching kids compassion and loving-kindness. Heck, we own an empathy teaching tools company – so teaching others to empathize with, and make allowances for, each other is my actual business. And those who know me, would likely name me among the most considerate people they know.
The problem for me, again, isn’t that I was asking them to do something and they had trouble remembering it. And it isn’t that I think they should never have to do something they don’t want to do, or that they should never have to do something just to help someone else out. The problem for me is that I annoyed all three of us, and even jumped on Xi’s proverbial case, just to suit someone else’s preference. And a preference they didn’t even actually assert! It would be one thing if either mom had previously expressed some need or desire to have the child brought to her spotless. But I was making the whole thing up to please someone who wasn’t even around, hadn’t asked for anything, and would likely not care or even notice that I had badgered my daughter(s) for hours just to please her.
All too often, I think we parents get in the habit of subjugating our children’s needs and even their very existence to the needs and preferences of other adults, even when those adults haven’t asked us for anything. Everywhere there are parents scolding, yanking, and shaming their own precious children just to succor the assumed preferences and needs of others. You see them in line pushing their children out of the way so that other adults won’t have to pause, or say “excuse me” in order to get by. You hear them telling their kids they’d “better be quiet” just so some adult doesn’t have to hear anyone, especially kids, enjoying life. You watch them forcing their kids to say “thank you” and “pardon me” for nothing. We do it ourselves, whether we want to or not, just trying to “be nice”.
And I say we don’t have to. Nine times out of ten, when I see someone force her kid to say “thanks”, or pull the kid briskly out of the aisle to make space for another adult to pass, I notice the other adult(s) in the equation make placating faces, as well, muttering phrases like, “It’s no problem,” and, “Oh, I’m fine.” You see, they usually don’t want us to make a fuss either, but for some reason, the culture of parenting won’t let us live with that. It says we aren’t doing our job if we haven’t made sure our kids know they aren’t as important as the adults in the room. And it says we haven’t made that clear enough if we don’t push them around a little – if only to prove to the watching world that we are “in charge” enough that we can.
It’s all part and parcel of the widely accepted (but unspoken) notion that kids are “good” when they are unusually quiet and always out of the way of any adult anywhere. Not many people under 65 would admit that, but you get an undeniable sense of it anytime you see parents doing the “yank and scold” I mentioned above, and anytime you hear people on airplanes remarking how “good” that sleeping baby was. It strikes me as a strange sort of cultural dysfunction how intolerant we all are of children making noise – and not just crying – we’re just as likely to shut-up an overtly exuberant kid as we are a whiney one. And I think it’s even weirder how über-sensitive we parents are to how much (we assume) we are putting other adults out just by having kids present with us. It can’t be good for our children, let alone society at large.
I believe it is easily possible, and plausible, that we could utterly change how society views children if we would just stop subjugating their needs to the needs of other adults all the time. If we would just stand up for the humanitarian treatment of our own children in public and in relation to the treatment of everyone else, it would ignite a sociological transformation the likes of which we can not even imagine from our current standpoint in history. Just imagine if the adage, “Children should be seen and not heard,” could be obliterated from human consciousness – imagine what that would do to self-worth around the globe. If no kid grew up thinking of herself as a second class citizen until she could vote – well, we’d have a social evolution, I tell ya!
To make a long story short, I did go back and redress the situation with each of my girls. I explained in brief what had been going on for me, what my motivations were, and why I thought I’d made a mistake. Then I apologized and said that I would do my best to be a little more considerate of them next time. Xi, as she would no matter what, said, “That’s ok, Papa.” Bella looked up from a private revelry, as she would no matter what, and said, “I barely even noticed, Papa.” I was glad for that; but only half as glad as I was for the feeling that came when I let go of my line-in-the-sand-guarding and got back on the same team as my girls.
The bottom line, here, is this – we do nothing to support our children’s natural assimilation of socially conducive behavior, nor for our standing with society at large or even with our familiars by subjugating our kids’, or by debasing their value or the value of their needs relative to anyone else’s. Furthermore, if we want to maintain the trust and connection we have with our kids, then we’d do well not to appear traitorously suspect by selling them out for any stranger over four feet tall…
If it helps – think of it as “modeling self-worth”.
Be well, my fellow kid-advocates.
P.S. If you’d like to read some about doing the opposite of the above (so you don’t have to go, “D”OH!”) then check out this post from Natalie.