A Show Of Force
By: Ann Brown
Doing the work I do and having grown children who no longer pick their noses in public or have screaming tantrums at Whole Foods, affords me a certain amount of, um, flexibility with the truth. I mean, my kids are 25 and 30 years old and they are great kids. They make me look like I knew what I was doing when I raised them.
Which, of course, I didn’t. Nobody knows what they are doing in the middle of doing it. Raising kids is pretty much a leap of faith and a commitment to not keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Yeah, I talked a good talk even back then and I totally lorded over Robin that I WAS A PARENTING INSTRUCTOR and he was an electrician and that meant that I was right about everything, but I was just as clueless as the rest of the hoi polloi.
Which is why it is helpful when my grown kids tell me where I went wrong. And by “helpful”, I mean it is a huge pain in the derriere and nobody asked them, anyway.
Still, you can’t unring a bell. So I endeavor to listen with an open mind when they tell me these things. And I endeavor to share honestly with you about the mistakes I’ve made so you can benefit from my cluelessness. And if you cannot benefit from my cluelessness, then I endeavor to offer really good coffee and snacks in class. And wine in my private groups. Because, you know, raising kids is hard, and eating brownies and drinking wine helps take the edge off. Even when your kids are 25 and 30 and doing great.
Last summer, one of my kids made a comment about my parenting that blew my mind. We were talking about how vehemently he refused to do things he didn’t want to do, and how it was nearly impossible to talk him into trying new things.
He said, “I wish you would have forced me.”
I said, “What are you talking about? You were very strong-willed. And besides, I wanted to give you a voice in the decisions.”
“Yeah” he said, “but you should have just forced me to do some of the stuff. I would have had more experiences, you know?”
Since then, I have been mulling this over. Not only does it fly in the face of my general parenting philosophy, I actually don’t know how I would have forced him to, for instance, go to summer camp. Tie him up and throw him on the bus?
I get his point, however. When it comes to pushing someone (or myself) out of the comfort zone, I tend to err on the side of DON’T. On the side of STAY. On the side of IT’S NO BIG DEAL. CLIMB BACK INTO BED AND HUNKER DOWN.
Clearly, there has to be a middle ground in this. I couldn’t have been the kind of parent who, say, throws a screaming kid into the deep end of the pool. That isn’t who I am. And I had VERY articulate children. Even at age four, they presented strong arguments against my opinions. I remember one of my kids – at age three – saying to Robin, “what makes you uniquely qualified to know if I am tired? It’s my body.”
So, hearing that he wished I had not given him so much power is an intriguing thought to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I didn’t let them make all their own decisions about everything. It wasn’t complete Woodstock over at our house back then. But when it came to issues that pushed me out of my comfort zone, I tended to not push the kids that way. So, for instance, if the kids made a stink about, say, taking a hike on a beautiful day and the truth was that I really didn’t want to have to get dressed and leave the house that day, I let it slide. Or if they hated soccer after one game and I was secretly relieved not to have to schlep them to practices and games, I let it slide and let them quit.
And I was probably wrong to have done that. So I tried to remedy it by forcing the kids to take a walk the last time they were here. They said, “we are grownups now. You can’t force us to take a walk.”
I said, “I am old and might die soon.”
We had a nice walk.
I see that the trick, now that I have the benefit of hindsight, to this forcing/giving a voice conundrum is to get very clear about where we – the parents – are on the issue. We so often tell our kids to do something before we have really processed out how important it is to us. And then when the kid refuses or argues, we automatically take an opposite stand. And a fight ensues. And we get stressed. And we run out of brownies and wine. And life sucks.
The trick is to give our kids a very clear message. This is what we are going to do because it’s something that is important to our family. Or, I would like you to try, but ultimately, it is your decision. Unfortunately, we too often give them a message that is nebulously in-between the two. We say things like, “I really, really want you to do this. You will make me very happy if you do it.” Which is really nothing more than guilt mongering for young kids.
I mean, let’s say you asked your child to clean his room, or come with you to visit Grandma or do the extra credit homework or feed the dog or take the SAT or bring you a glass of water or drive the neighbor to her doctor appointment or write a thank-you note. And your child argues that there is no time, or s/he is tired or it’s not important. The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, “how strong is my commitment to having this done? Where does it find into the big picture of the kind of kids I want to raise?” If you figure that out first, your response to your child’s refusal will come easily. And arguing will be greatly reduced. And it will stop raining and unicorns will dance in the meadow.
But you will still be out of brownies and wine.