There are very few absolutes in parenting. Many of us have similar goals but employ different methods of getting there. The one element of parenting I had never considered in more than very basic terms until I became a parent myself was how vulnerable that role makes you feel. It is the one job that we want to do better than any other, the one by which we are most closely judged, and the one where we are guaranteed to be seen as failures along the way by someone.
Some of us parent more
successfully than others, but I have never met a parent who was
satisfied that he or she was doing it as best they could. I’m proud of
myself if I get through a day without having raised my voice at my kids,
but before I had children I would have thought that bar to be set
pitifully low. I love being a parent, and my children are wonderful,
but it’s hard. And part of the reason it’s hard is that many of us
grapple with feeling inadequate as we do it.
The real problem with that sense of inadequacy hovering over what we
do as parents is that it creates a vulnerability that makes us more
likely to be defensive. I think that’s the root of where most of the
snarkiness (often called ‘the mommy wars’) between different parents
comes from. If you’ve spent a long time researching an issue (breast
feeding, daycare, co-sleeping, organic food, homeschooling,
vaccinations, television….) and have reached a conclusion that you think
is the best choice for your family, it is very difficult to accept that
the opposite choice can also be fine. It throws everything into
question at a time when we’d like to feel certain. To see other parents
making very different choices can make us feel like they are
undermining our own. Accusing someone else of bad parenting is often
just a means of making ourselves feel more secure in an attempt to prove
our choices are superior. The reality is, as painful as it is to
admit, the opposite choice made with loving intentions can be equally
One of the trickiest areas where I see a lot of judgement tossed
around but haven’t seen it discussed anywhere to my memory, is the line
between accommodating a child’s needs or whims, and overindulging him or
her. This is an area where I know I feel particularly vulnerable and
try not to take other people’s opinions too personally.
Every day when my kids ask for something or just start behaving a
particular way, I have to balance in my mind not just whether it’s good
or bad, salubrious or unhealthy, but if it’s something I should care
about at all. Unfortunately that’s where most of parenting lies. Most
of the things our kids do minute to minute don’t matter, and the degree
to which we feel the need to control those things as if they do varies
wildly from parent to parent. If a child wants to use a red crayon
instead of a yellow one, most of us don’t offer an opinion, but what if a
girl only wants to wear pink? Some parents actively fight against that
and others would encourage it. Now imagine a boy who wants to wear
pink. Suddenly there are people who see meaning in that and either feel
a need to defend or condemn it, even though to a kid it’s probably just
a shirt and not a statement about anything.
How much do we let our kids make certain choices on their own? It
comes down to how much meaning you personally think that choice is
imbued with. Most of the time when I find myself going head to head
with one of my kids about something, I ask myself, “Is this the hill I
want to die on?” and most of the time the answer is no.
When Mona taught herself to escape her car seat at age two, that was a
battle I had to win. We had a painful month of not being able to drive
on freeways, and a five minute trip could take me an hour with having
to stop and re-buckle her every few feet, but I was willing to go to the
mat on that one. But most situations aren’t like that. That was a
clear safety issue where my opinion was the only one that mattered and
the two year old shouldn’t have a say.
But what about getting dressed?
All my kids went through a naked phase. (Actually, I just watched a
naked little Quinn go by carrying the bingo set to ask his sister if she
wants to play, so he’s still in it.) I know this is not something my
mom is comfortable with, and I can feel her biting her tongue when she
visits and watches a naked little person walking around the house. This
one doesn’t bug me so I’m not inspired to fight it. Am I being
accommodating or overindulgent? Depends on your own arbitrary stance.
I know there are many people who feel I overindulge my kids. I don’t
make them do chores but they help me when I ask. I don’t put any
significant limits on the TV
but there are days I announce we’re leaving it off and they don’t
mind. They have too many toys but most of them aren’t from me (and
frankly, I like toys too), and they are very good about sharing them. I
figure as long as they are respectful and kind they are entitled to
make choices that appeal to them and get on with enjoying being kids.
They are good people and seeing them look delighted is what I live for
most days. I don’t want to get hung up on too many irrelevant details.
But I’m constantly amazed by ways other parents feel they are simply
accommodating their kids. The main example that comes to mind is when
people let boys act out on the playground simply because they are boys.
My definition of what is acceptable behavior is not gender based. I
once had a problem with a little boy who kept shoving Mona out of his
way on a play structure, and after telling him firmly a few times to not
touch my daughter I asked him where his mom or dad was. He pointed to
the woman sitting behind me on the grass a few feet away who had watched
the whole thing. I told her I thought her son was being too rough and
she just shrugged and said, “He’s a boy.” I make a point now when I see
boys on a playground who are polite to my kids of telling their parents
that I’m impressed.
I show my kids how to set the table, but remind myself it’s not a
law, and that whatever way they do it makes just as much sense. I would
rather my kids stand when they practice violin the way I make my
students do, but if sitting means less fuss to get them to play then I
let it go. It’s pointless to get anxious about play dough colors
getting mixed together, or Mona wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, or
Aden not being ready to put her face underwater at the pool yet. There
are just days I’m better at reminding myself of that than others.
sure there are other parents who feel there are underlying issues of
control that need to be enforced in order to teach children respect or
to just be able to make things run in a more orderly fashion, but that’s
not me. It makes me uncomfortable to watch other parents enforce some
standard on their children that I would find unnecessary, but most of
the time I trust that they are doing the best they can with what they
believe is right. Just like I expect them to let it go if I bring Mona
to choir dressed as a kangaroo.
So my biggest challenge when I’m out in the world and confronted with
other parents and the choices they juggle minute to minute is to
remember to ask myself if whatever seems overindulgent to me really
matters. On rare occasions it does, but most of the time it doesn’t. I
think it’s important to give other people the benefit of the doubt
because we don’t have all the information. I hope other parents do the
same for me. It’s hard, but I think if we can recognize our own
feelings of vulnerability we may go a long way toward extending
compassion toward the people around us and stop being so defensive. (In
the meantime my kids have gotten eerily quiet, so this post is done.)