Not clear on the concept

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.

32 thoughts on “Not clear on the concept

  1. I can’t wait until your readers give you the answers here, because guess who’s out on the ledge with you? WOnderful, neurotic me. And I don’t know. How much free=spiritedness is good and how much is just flat-out shameful and anarchist? For some reason, I feel this is easier with boys, but just know that’s a bunch of gender-biased bullshit and don’t believe a word I say.

    Is this helpful?

    • Um, no.
      Regardless of whether it is or isn’t easier with one gender or the other, of which I’m not convinced, they’re still no accounting for having no effective feedback loop. Work on a project, succeed or fail, and you make changes for next time. Work on child, get limited, ineffective feedback, keep doing the same thing (or completely new things), and don’t know a darn thing until they’re too old for you to affect any change.

      But yes, of course it helps to know you’re out there overthinking it with me.

  2. I figure the best I can do is model (a word I sort of hate, but there you are) a good life for my sons, explain to them why we personally choose to do things the way we do them, and then trust in their own intelligence and the conscience I hope I will instill in them to choose their own path. A path that may well be very different from mine (God knows, my life is NOTHING like the life I grew up in as a child), but will still be recognizable in the fundamentals: Don’t hurt other people; don’t let other people hurt you; don’t be a jerk; and find what makes you happy and then do it.

    That’s the idea, anyway. Check back with me in twenty years or so to see how that worked out.

    • Yeah, I’ve got the whole model the behavior thing. But there are an awful lot of social interactions in elementary school that are less than ideal, but they’re not clearly hurtful or jerky or unhappy…I don’t know how to navigate those. If someone is annoying him and he calls them a bully, I talk about how annoying is different than bullying, how it’s okay not to like behavior but it’s better to tell someone what you like than what you don’t like. And on and on. My problem is when the on and on is too much and when it’s necessary.

      I miss the toddler days when don’t hurt other people and don’t let people hurt you were easier to teach. Now I’m on that whole crumpled-piece-of-paper-equals-people’s-feelings-not-easily-made-right-again theory. It’s easier to “keep the shovel down low” and “let’s write about your feelings” my way out of things.

      Maybe I’m too simplistic to parent beyond the toddler years.

  3. you have their crazy little backs. and you are who you are and you care and you’re their mom. so you’re still doing as good a job as you can. which is probably way more than most people. time to update your copyright!

  4. I torment myself hourly by these questions too. So I have no useful answers. But, i thought you would want to hear from me anyway. I tend to over explain and analyze my parenting decisions with my three year old and the only thing of which I am certain is that this is not helpful. At least not at his age. But I intend to be a parent who is open to discussing when I am just not sure. But you’re right…where is the line between honesty of ones limitations and creating insecurity due to mistrusting the captain of your ship? And I can’t scroll up on my iPhone for some reason and read what I have just written so I now must ask the question, did I make sense? So many questions. So little time!

    • You know what I love? Readers who overthink things as much as I do.
      Yes, you make sense. No you haven’t solved any of my problems, but as I’ve said before, the empathy counts for a whole heaping lot.

      I overexplained more for the older one than the younger. But now I worry I overcorrect behavior. Sometimes, climbing on the stair railing over concrete stairs is necessary? No, no no…Sometimes, whacking all the plants on the way home with a stick you just found is necessary? No, no no…Sometimes, shoving your brother when he breaks your LEGO creations…I give up. I’m doing just fine. My kids need a blog so they can work out their shite. I’m just fine. ;-)

  5. I wish I could say there was an easy answer here, but the truth is, for me, that the rules change. As parents I think we must choose our battles and think about what is important in the long run. For me, it’s teaching respect for themselves, others, and learning empathy. Little kids are much more black and white, but they also watch their parents very closely. When they grow up, those behaviors will be with them as they move through their own world independently. Don’t worry too much- it sounds to me like you’re doing well. Just that you’re thinking about it says a lot!

    • I feel like a broken microscope. I either dial way down and focus on the macro without spending enough time with the details or I zoom way in, almost breaking the slide, to carefully examine the minutiae but forgetting about the bigger picture.
      Why’s it so hard to do both at the same time? Perfectly? Every single day? ;-)

      • This is called MSF, my friend. Maternal Self-Flagellation. It is epidemic in this country, and I estimate that millions of us have suffered from it. (I include myself, but it ceased long about Year 4 following divorce.)

        MSF comes in many variations and is exacerbated by publications touting the pros and cons of mothering requiring our many mea culpas. (Attachment, anyone? Helicopter instead?)

        However, should you be curious, no corresponding PSF (Paternal Self-Flagellation) has been documented.

        Fuck perfect. Doesn’t exist. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

        Elegant today, aren’t I? (But truthful.)

        • Elegant always. Wise, universally.
          MSF is totally going on my business cards. Because I ROCK at it!
          In fact, find me a graduate program in MSF, cuz I’m gonna get all the degrees. All of ’em.
          Thanks for the push away from the ledge. A little smack at the critics in my head to preserve the lovely heart they’re sniping at is always, always, always welcome.

  6. Nap,

    I love the microscope analogy–that’s me to a T. I’ll worry about the details to death and then chastize myself for it and then over-do it with the casual mode. My kids love casual mode but I find that I cannot abide them after a few days. I am glad so many overthinkers are out here on this ledge. It’s becoming quite a party. My kid is in the clutches of puberty, so I get an extra helping of wine and chocolate.

  7. If you’re thinking about it this much, you’re probably doing it more or less right. I suspect it’s the parents who raise kids with boundaries either too rigid or too loose who raise sociopaths, and struggling with where those boundaries lie means you’re trying to find a good balance, which you’re probably managing.

    • Ladies and gentlemen, we have a professional crisis negotiator here. That’s some darned fine ledge talk, Daryl. I have no crazy left after that. Seriously. Good stuff. I should tape it to my fridge.

  8. Your microscope analogy is perfect. I have worried a lot over the last 14 years as I have been maneuvering my brood through childhood on the way to their independent lives – all while trying to not let them see how unsure I am sometimes. I am not really close to the finish line, but I’ve come to appreciate that different stages and different children really do call for different approaches. My poor oldest two – they really had it the worst with my reflective parenting mode of constantly assessing if I had screwed them up for the rest of their lives. It overwhelmed me for a long time (and honestly still does most of the time). Now, however, I can see that they are developing their own ideas about the world – they are willing to voice their opinions amongst family members and even at times with others about what they see and hear – and I can relax a little. I agree with Daryl, the fact that you think about it this much means that you are doing and will continue to do a wonderful job raising your boys. What you continue to model for them will help them to become empathetic, rational, accepting, reflective, questioning, independent adults. And we definitely need more of those!

    • A lot of my panic stems from the following train of thought: “there must be better ways of handling that, and I’m pretty sure the top three I can think of will come back to bite me in the ass when they’re teenagers.” Somehow I envision teen years as “it’s my last shot to help but they’re already too far gone to be helped” chickens coming home to roost. Then moving out.

      Maybe, just perhaps, there’s an airline that will let me fly with all this baggage. But I doubt it. ;-)

      • Saw this in Diane Ratvich’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and it made me think about our comments yesterday. “Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and evidence.” I think it goes to prove that all the neurotic overthinking shows just how rational we are. At least that is what I am telling myself. ;)

  9. Neither of my sons fit the mold, from the time they were tiny. One talked incessantly (and why, why, why was his mantra – which I encouraged but it’s exhausting – and frankly, teachers weary of it)… The other almost never talked, and lived in his mind and his drawings…

    But I don’t think I worried about how different they were – from other kids or each other – as long as there were other kids in their lives, which told me they were still socializing in ways that worked at various points in time.

    Long about age 16, things start to even out.. sort of… (Are you cracking open the vodka on that remark, reflecting on how many years there are to go?)

    That said, both in college, we still worry, they still do stupid shit, and that’s what Clairol Wash-Away-the-Gray is for, right?

    • So smart to remember that if they have friends they’re doing something right.
      I love that they’re different. And so different from me. I just worry. Boy energy is aggressive and scary at times. And teenaged boys do some really stupid, Darwin awards-caliber stuff.
      How do I lovingly and gently keep them from being jackasses? Testosterone is clinically proven to make otherwise lovely humans into jackasses.

  10. I think it’s different for every kid. I pick my battles differently from my husband. They don’t want to wear a jacket? Fine, they’ll be cold (the hubs MAKES them put one on and there is much yelling). I figure if it won’t kill them, they’ll learn a lesson. I’d let the hairbrushing go but explain that if it’s too tangled later, they’ll have to get it shaved off. Present the consequences, follow through, and see how they react – unless it’s dangerous. Then, put your foot down!.

    This worked for me but may not apply to all kids!

    • That’s generally how I approach it, Stacie. I’m freaked out by how quickly and easily he thought my giving up about the hair was me withdrawing approval and love. He begged to have his hair brushed when I sighed and turned away.
      “I don’t want the Kool-Aid; Fine, be that way; WAIT! Give me the Kool-Aid!”

      Don’t you find the parenting differences thing excruciating? I sometimes bite my tongue when he forces the coat on, I sometimes say, “well how about we carry the coat and you tell us if you’re cold,” and I sometimes ask without any patience, “is it really that big a deal?” Wish I could just let him do things his way. Or get him to do things my way by telepathy. ;-)

  11. After a grown daughter and two young boys at home, I’m learning that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions and certainly, no one-size-fits-all. I’m just grateful for blogs like yours where I can go and not feel so alone. AND find other like-minded individuals with great experiences and great advice. Thanks everyone!

    • Jane, you’re a lovely creature, a wonderful mother, and a socially responsible role model.
      May I point out, however, that you haven’t solved any of my problems and I’m still waiting for a clear, easy answer. Just f.y.i.

  12. Well I am pretty young and not married or anything, so I guess I am not in a position to offer any advice now. In my case, I think I slowly began to see reasons to the various rules and orders that my parents made. I guess children will learn to appreciate the spirit behind the “tyrannical” rulings of parents.
    Loved the post, especially the first paragraph.

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