Parenting. How in the world are we supposed to do it?
I don’t think our parents or grandparents wondered about this question. They knew how to be parents. They did what their parents did, with a few exceptions in abusive situations. Parents were the bosses. Kids were to listen and obey. If they didn’t, they were taken in hand immediately. If that meant they were spanked, so be it. If they were shamed, it was for their own good. Better for your parent to shame you than to be made ashamed in public because you didn’t know how to behave.
Into this culture, we have begun raising our children. As older parents with a fairly good age gap between us (11 years), we complicate things by adding the challenge of different generations. Grandparents, aunts/uncles, teachers, and friends add in their ideas.
Popular books and parenting theories call to us that we’re doing everything wrong, and their ideas oppose one another. Be gentle! Be firm! Let them cry! NEVER EVER EVER let them cry! Be fastidious about germs and cleanliness! Forget cleanliness and spend every waking minute interacting with your kids! Grow/raise all your own organic, non-GMO food! Give them lots of meat! Meat is terrible for you; give them brown rice and sunflower seeds! Brown rice is the devil and will cause cancer! They must learn to sleep in their own bed and fall asleep alone. You must never put them down. Strap your baby to your chest and sleep topless so the baby can nurse around the clock. Seriously. All these things are real advice I’ve been given.
It’s hard on me to know that someone doesn’t agree with my parenting decisions, even if I continue to do what I think is best. At the airport on a layover from our recent vacation, our 2 and 3 year olds were acting exactly like they should. They’d been awake since 4am, confined to car seats, plane seats, and the stroller. They had about 30 minutes before they’d be confined to more seats, so they were happily running and talking excitedly to one another. They weren’t being disobedient or disrespectful and I was enjoying their freedom.
Then I looked over and saw an elderly man looking at them in disgust. He was trying to read a book and was obviously very distracted and displeased by their behavior. Suddenly, I was on edge. While everyone else had smiles and seemed delighted by their harmless antics, this man grouched. The area was crowded and there was nowhere else for us to reasonably go, so we were stuck together. I decided that I wasn’t going to make them sit and be quiet, just to manage one person’s unrealistic expectations, but I did make sure they stayed away from him and kept their voices a little quieter. I thought of explaining to him that they really needed to get their energy out, but I decided to deal with my own discomfort and give them what they needed.
This type of situation plays out for me regularly. I’m sensitive to those around me, constantly weighing how my actions (or those of my children) affect others. I know it’s a fairly neurotic way of living and I fight it, but it’s still there.
My husband has no such neurosis. He is confident in his parenting decisions and doesn’t care what most people think about them. When I point out someone else’s discomfort to him, his response is to let them come talk to him about it. He’ll put them in their place. It’s a good balance for me.
My two-year old son has begun testing his limits. He wants to do everything himself. If we do something for him, he screams until he gets to do it himself. This morning I handed him a juice cup, which infuriated him. He put it back on the table, let it sit there for a moment, then picked it up himself. I mean, really? But oh yes… This child who has been so sweet and compliant for the last two years is suddenly defiant, cranky, dangerous, and oddly clingy. “Mommy, hold-y,” has become as regular as “Me do it!”
Into this situation, I bring all my confusion and frustration over the best way to parent. I try it all, praying the whole time. At first, I try gentle and loving. I try to redirect him. I use humor and show him all the fun, safe things he could do. He rages louder as the water he’s playing with gets dangerously hot. I get down on the floor and ask him why he’s so upset. (Answer: Because me do it myself!) I hold and hug him. I rub his back. He kicks me and knocks my glasses off. I put him in his bed until he can calm down. He bangs his head on the bed and gets his foot stuck between the slats. The look on his face is pure shock at my betrayal of his comfort.
I speak firmly, raising my voice a bit to let him know I’m serious. He soldiers on, determined to have his own way. I physically remove him from the situation. He responds by trying to bite me. Yesterday, I picked him up off his tricycle and carried both him and the bike away from the road as a semi-truck went barreling by. While I carried him away, he kicked and bucked so hard that I nearly dropped him on the gravel driveway.
I am literally fighting to keep him alive while he tries with all his might to kill or maim himself.
Finally, in total fear for his life and frustration with all the competing voices in my head that tell me to be soft and gentle and rational with this tiny dictator, I spank him. I warn him three times, then calmly pick him up and firmly swat his diapered butt twice. He crumbles into devastation that I would hurt him in that way, we hug it out while I tell him that I hate to spank him and never want to have to do it again, and then he toddles off to play nicely with his sister, no longer determined to die.
You can tell me that’s wrong if you want to. Tell me I should’ve taken him inside the house so he could find a new way to try to kill himself. Perilously steep basement steps, anyone? Tell me to wrap him in bubble wrap and pad my house from top to bottom, remove anything hot and take all the doors off their hinges. Seriously, there are death traps around every corner. Tell me that hitting him teaches him violence and that I’m abusive and unfit.
But keeping this beautiful boy alive is my job. And sometimes that means that I will scream at him (“Don’t touch the hot iron!”), ignore his cries while he sits in a chair alone for a few minutes, and even spank him.
Every day he is faced with things that his dad and I are allowed to do and he is not. He isn’t allowed to walk on the road alone, so should we stop so he doesn’t get confused? He isn’t allowed to use the stove, so should I stop cooking so he doesn’t think he’s allowed to use it? I feel like any kind of correction we give him is the same thing: parents correct, children receive. If he hits me back, he receives another corrective measure. Hitting is not spanking. They are very different. Even at two years old, he understands that concept.
But the truth is that I have no idea what I’m doing. As a nanny, I knew it all. If only parents could take care of their children like I did, the world would be a better place. As a parent, I am lost and afraid. I want to be consistent and strong, understanding and fun, scheduled and whimsical, with a clean house and yet free to play ball all day. I want to keep them away from sugar and super-normally stimulating foods that lead to overconsumption. I want them to enjoy their childhood without so much restriction they turn out weird. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, hoping these kids will turn out okay and know how much I adore their precious selves. Nothing will ever stop me from loving them with all my heart.
Last year I read a book that changed my perspective on parenting and gave me some grace for myself. It’s called “A Walk to Beautiful” by Jimmy Wayne. Jimmy, a successful country singer/songwriter, tells the story of his childhood. He was raised by a drug-addicted mother, carted off from place to place, often left alone, watching as his mom bought drugs with their food money and he starved, and then was finally abandoned as a teenager while his mom went off with a man. Because a few people were kind to him (not over-the-top rescuers, but reasonably kind people), he was able to make something of himself. (I think this is an important book for anyone who works with children to read, helping us to understand what might be going on in the homes of children we encounter.)
A close friend tells me about her childhood from time to time and I stare at her aghast. She seems so normal and healthy, yet her parents almost completely neglected her. There were no drugs or addictions to explain it away. They were just completely consumed with themselves and church. Yes, church. (Sinners are we, one and all.) She wasn’t protected from bullies, fed regular meals, put to bed, or helped with her homework.
As soon as she was old enough to provide for her own basic needs (I’m not sure what happened before that), she found whatever food was around and ate that. She fell asleep wherever she happened to be in the house and slept there all night. She was put in school, but no one ever checked to be sure she was okay there or learning. No one combed her hair or helped her put outfits together. While the most basic care was provided, anything close to nurture was withheld. She learned to nurture herself and to give others what she was never given.
Into the face of those parenting styles, I look and examine myself as a mother. Hmmm… I think I’m doing okay.
My children are well-fed, clothed, bathed, and nurtured. They are treasured and prized, not only by me but by their father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. They have structure and stability. They have a safe place to sleep and play. They have parents who are trying to teach them about God, grace and forgiveness, boundaries, and healthy relationships. We have fun together, we work together, and we occasionally try to sleep in the same bed together.
I’m coming to the conclusion that the rest of it is a lot less important than we think. We do our best, but the outcome isn’t up to us. We decide what works for our family and our own conscience. We deal with the circumstances we’ve been given in the best way possible.
For the time-being, I’ve put down the plethora of parenting books I’ve tried to study and decided to trust my instincts. It seems that God brings the right information to mind at the right time. At the time of this writing, my 2-year old has been making his way into our bed every night for about a month. It was sweet at first, a way to comfort him as he teethed. Now it’s gotten problematic and I’m ready to get him back into his own bed again. My 3-year old sleeps like a little champ, but getting her to sleep is a task… I’ve enjoyed rocking and singing her to sleep for the last 3 1/2 years, but I’m working on teaching her some new habits.
In the meantime, if you see a blank look on my face as my children act up, know that I’m not actually ignoring them. I’m simply scrolling through the massive amount of parenting information I’ve been exposed to and trying to figure out which way to handle the current situation. I’m gaining confidence a little each day. But I’m not the mama who unapologetically knows exactly what to do in each moment. I’m finding my way.