Parenting Is a Guessing Game
Are society’s expectations of children’s social behavior unrealistic and potentially harmful?
Recently we went to a friend’s house for a play date. All of us desperately needed to get out of the house after two weeks of no school and Ohio below-zero temperatures.
Our 4-year-old son was a bit of maniac. Dexter feeds off of the energy of others, which inevitably means he’s full of life when other kids are present, and after two weeks of no school, Dex was more wound than usual.
Despite his wild ways, Dexter was overall well-behaved and played respectfully with his friend and sister. He shared, included the other two, and listened to me and the owners of the house--for the most part.
However, he repeatedly jumped from the couch to the overstuffed bean bag chairs on the floor, which our friends insisted was perfectly acceptable, but my husband, Alex, told Dexter to stop jumping, but Dex ignored him.
Maybe Dexter figured that the owners had already said it was okay, or maybe he was just being an ornery 4-year-old. I suspect it’s because he and his dad have been butting heads lately.
When we left, Alex calmly reprimanded Dexter for not listening to him. Our sensitive boy teared up, thinking he had disappointed us, and refused to listen to what we had to say. When we arrived home and I was able to talk to him one-on-one, he burst into tears, hugged me, and whimpered, “I’m sorry! I love you.”
The whole situation got me thinking. Even though Dexter was, in my opinion, acting acceptably (although honestly, I could have gone without the jumping), Alex was embarrassed that Dex didn’t listen to him. I’m equally guilty of this. When I take the kids to gymnastics or the store and Dexter fails to follow my directions, I center on my mortification, worried about what strangers or my friends might think. We love our son, and we think he is absolutely wonderful, and when others don’t see the same kind, obedient little boy, we get flustered.
But why am I focusing on my own chagrin? I rebuke my sweet boy for relatively minor things because of an embarrassment stemming from real or imagined judgment from others. Dexter is such a rule-following perfectionist that he becomes inconsolably upset when he thinks he’s screwed up.
Obviously Dexter should listen to us, but he’s also four (almost five), and a little bit of stubbornness is to be expected...perhaps even encouraged. He can’t be perfect all the time, and we should not expect that, nor should anyone else.
I don’t think our friends were judging Dexter’s behavior harshly, but I do think our immediate jump to embarrassment stems from the overall judgmental parental atmosphere these days.
Or is that judgment imagined? ARE parents secretly judging our kids? Or is that all in our heads? Are parents more judgmental than they were in the past, or has society always expected the perfectly behaved child?
When I was working in Luxembourg, one of my older French friends told me that Americans expect too much of their kids. In the French culture, they “let kids be kids” (or the French equivalent of that phrase). At the time, I held my tongue, but I remember thinking my friend couldn’t possibly be right in her analysis. However, now that I’m (significantly) older and a mother of my own, I wonder if perhaps there wasn’t some truth in her words.
Do we expect too much of our children, specifically in comparison to other countries? If we do, how do we walk the line between discipline and freedom? Kids can’t just run rampant...right?
I hesitate to share this next parenting story because I imagine I didn’t make the wisest parenting choices, but here it goes:
I subbed a toddler yoga class at the Sanger Library because my friend Jen was sick, and since it was last minute, I had to bring both kids. I know from experience that Dexter does not like to share me in the role of yoga teacher, but it was only 35 minutes and I was helping out a friend.
I bribed (I know, I know) Dexter with a Jamba Juice smoothie if he was good during the class, which meant two things: he needed to listen to me and he needed to be quiet.
Instead, Dexter ran around the room, egging Camille, my 2-year-old, on to do the same, and was far from quiet. The rest of the class was also pretty active and loud, so it wasn’t incredibly noticeable, but I knew that Dexter was doing that so I would pay attention to him instead of the class. I tried not to let myself be embarrassed, but I was a bit. After all, these people were attending my class in hopes that yoga would help their own children, and then mine were running around like goofballs, definitely not doing yoga.
On top of it, while I was helping Camille put on her coat after class, he tried to exit through a fire door and set off the library alarm.
Dexter immediately burst into tears, repeating, “I’m sorry...I’m sorry...I’m sorry.” The librarian took one look at my sobbing little boy and melted, telling him it was no big deal and it happened all the time, even to adults.
Needless to say, we did not go for smoothies. Dexter said, “If you don’t get me a smoothie, I’m going to stay in my room. For a week.”
This was the first official threat from my 4-year-old, and after a quick burst of laughter, I regained my composure and explained why we weren’t getting smoothies. Dexter did not accept my explanation.
Then I said, “But I want you to know that I’m not mad at you, and I love you very much. Nothing you could ever do would make me stop loving you, and even if I get mad, I will never stay mad at you.”
Magically, that worked. Dexter stopped crying and whispered, “I love you, too. Will you hold my hand?” So I reached behind the driver’s seat to grasp his little hand, and Camille reached out and put her hand on top of ours.
It was a sweet moment, but it broke my heart. I think he’s so sensitive and sincere that he equates our frustration with disappointment. I never want him to think a mistake means I love him any less.
I wish that our society accepted and expected unruly behavior from kids, or at least that I could brush off the judgmental comments and looks. I don’t want to make my son bawl because he made an innocent mistake or because his moderately wild behavior embarrassed us.
Taylor Hunt, authorized Ashtanga teacher and author of A Way from Darkness, said in one of his workshops that he was an acutely empathetic individual, and he had turned to drugs and alcohol, in part, to deal with the overwhelming emotion. I know Dexter is only 4, but I have no doubt that he is also deeply empathetic, and I want to protect his sweet temperament as much as possible. I don’t want to break his spirit because I’m worried about what others think.
In The Yamas & Niyamas in her chapter on Svadhyaya, or self-study, Adele discusses how a stranger borrowed her shoes during a retreat without asking. Adele was bothered, not because the woman took her shoes, but because the woman did not ask her first. Adele clarifies, “I was upset that she hadn’t done what was ‘right’ according to my belief system.”
She continues, “Our conditioning and formation of beliefs begins very early in childhood….We learn early to accept our family’s way of doing things and to pattern ourselves after cultural norms. These early conditionings continue to form and move deep inside us creating pieces of our identify. Add to that our reactions to our own life experiences and we become neatly wrapped in layers of packaging.”
We are conditioned to expect certain behaviors from children, which will in turn condition them to expect the same, but the question remains: are those expectations realistic and healthy?
I honestly don’t know. One of my interviewees said parenting is a guessing game. We do the best we can with the knowledge we have. When I’m flustered and feeling like a failure, I try to remember that. And that’s the story I will stick to when my kids are complaining about me in therapy someday.
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