Peanut, inching ever closer to Seven, is growing more and more adult each day and I’m having a devil of a time trying to walk the line between teaching critical thinking and teaching blind adherence to rules. I would prefer the latter for my rules and the former for the rest of the planet, but I’m glimpsing that perhaps that’s not how the world works. Nuances aren’t my strong suit, and now I have to teach a remarkably analytical child about shades of grey.
Not that kind.
Butter is trying out being a grownup, too. When you ask him to give you something, he puts both chubby, babyish hands behind his back and says, “pick one.” But if you hesitate for more than a few seconds, trying to choose the best hand, he takes his empty hand and points to the other shoulder. Useful, as clues go, but rather ineffective for a guessing game.
Peanut has taught his younger brother to be silent when playing hide-and-seek, and how to tell the good guys from the bad guys in most of our books. Unfortunately, that means the toddler also identifies people, loudly, by pointing them out to me as we pass them. “Good guy, good guy, bad guy,” he says in the supermarket. And on walks. And at the doctor’s office.
And aside from being intrigued by who he chooses in real life to label a good guy and why, and embarrassed that he’s calling anyone with a scowl a bad guy, I’m rather gripped these days by my fundamental inability as humans to judge. When should I follow a rule and when should I fight to change it? Which of many behaviors do I use to finally decree someone is a bad guy or a good guy, given that nobody is all good or all bad?
And how in the name of all that is decent and good do we then teach those subtleties to small people, who are wired to think in black and white, to repeat patterns, and to trust us no matter what we say?
Does anybody else worry that getting children to fit within society’s rules makes them want too much to fit in? That getting children to follow makes them too willing to follow? That getting children to prioritize some qualities and actions over others makes them blind to other possibilities? That pretty much all our work is brainwashing?
That hiding our humanity behind our backs while we try to parent handicaps our children’s ability to choose?
If I just learn from my two-year-old and telegraph the answer, my sons will never get to really choose while it’s still safe for them to make big mistakes. But if they’re left with too many choices…
If Peanut refuses to brush his hair after I ask kindly and logically, explaining that a quick brush now means fewer knots the next time, do I just shrug and let him spend the day with knots in his hair? If I get frustrated and put the brush away and he begs me to please comb his hair, did I just withhold love to get what I wanted? Will he similarly change his mind to restore himself to favor if bullies ask him to torment a younger kid, then turn to walk away when he says no, successfully converting him to cruelty by using the same tactics that his bedraggled-hair-avoiding mother used? Should I offer information and assistance but not be attached to the results? Is that true of jackets when it’s cold? Of protein when he’s hungry? Of manners? Of cleaning up after himself? Of thank you notes? Of not walking on neighbors’ lawns or hitting their flowers? Of kindness to his brother?
Of course not. But “of course not” to which ones?
Someone talk me off the ledge here. Show me the line, please, between over-parenting and under-parenting, worrying too much and too little, revealing too much or too little of the Oz behind the curtain. Point me to the answer, please, between good guy and bad guy. Then tell me how they got that way.
Because I’ll tolerate messy hair if they will just grow up to judge well who the good guys are and how to be one, too.