Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Good and the Bad

Aden invited me to go with her class on a field trip to a movie downtown.  As part of the Milwaukee Film Festival there was a showing of Landfillharmonic, a documentary about children in Paraguay who live in a dump and play music on orchestral instruments assembled from garbage.  Aden knew I'd be interested, and when her teacher said there were a couple of tickets left for any adults who wanted to come along she was excited to ask me.  It was short notice (she told me the night before), but I was caught up on my work and figured it would be fine for Ian to cover for me in the morning.  I told Aden I could go.  She was delighted.

Aden is 13.  13 is hard.  We are struggling a bit with her lately, because the parenting road is not particularly clear anymore.  When children are younger there are relatively fewer choices about many things.  I'm not saying it's easy, by any means, because it's not, but the variables are different.

With toddlers, for instance, you know all of their friends.  You usually share most of your child's environment.  You know where they are, what they are eating, and what they are watching.  The scope of their potential worries tends to be narrow.

By eighth grade, for many, that all goes away.  Most days my daughter spends more waking hours outside of our house than in it.  I do not know all of her friends.  I have only a vague idea of what her days look like, I no longer have control over what she eats or watches, and her concerns are complicated.

We have to trust that a lot of the lessons we tried to impart early on have made an impact, because as much as it feels like we should have a say about her life and behavior, realistically we often don't.  By 13 a child is decidedly his or her own person.  We're guiding now, not imposing our will.  It's very different from the days when we could physically pick our daughter up and put her where we wanted if necessary.  (My daughter may actually be taller than I am at this point, but she slouches so it's hard to tell.)

Our primary struggle has to do with homework.  Montessori school is not generally big on homework as a concept.  Quinn is in third grade and has never had homework, which leaves him time for Latin lessons and piano and his own projects, so I think that's great.  In many of the upper-elementary rooms (fourth through sixth grades--the ages are mixed in Montessori) they hand out homework packets once a week and kids are supposed to budget their time for doing them as they please.  Mona is in sixth grade and has always been secretive about her homework.  I have no idea why.  She completes it on the sly, but she does complete it.

In the adolescent program (seventh and eighth grades), the kids start the transition to a more traditional learning environment so they won't get to high school and not know what's going on.  The kids are introduced to things such as text books and assigned seating.  (Until then they just use regular books from the library and can work wherever is comfortable including the floor or the hall.)  And there is homework.  Not a lot, really, compared to what I remember from my Jr High days, but more than they've ever been responsible for in the past and it throws many kids for a loop.

Aden has been in full out rebellion against homework, and school assignments in general.  It's hard to know what to do.  We spent a lot of last year getting upset.  We yelled, we made threats, we took things away, we tried to find incentives, we explained consequences, we listened, we cried, we begged....

One of the hardest parts of being a parent when your child is not behaving the way you or others deem acceptable, is the sense that you must do something, even when there is nothing you can do.  Parents always get the blame and are judged inadequate when things go wrong, so there is an added pressure when I'm trying to figure out what to do with Aden.  My instincts may tell me one thing, and in the back of my head I hear imaginary people being critical and insisting I "be the parent."  I am trying very hard to ignore what those voices say because they aren't helping.  I will be judged badly by someone no matter what I do, so I need to trust myself, stand by my beliefs, and accept that people (even some I love) will probably disapprove.  It's much harder at this stage than it is when people either think you are good or bad for letting your kid eat a cupcake.

We've decided at this point that all we can do is create an environment that is as conducive to what we want as possible.  Aden comes to the violin store after school and works at a desk so she won't be distracted by her things at home.  We can't make her do her work, that's up to her.  (I'm certainly not doing her work for her--I've already passed eighth grade.)   Even if she does the work I can't make her hand it in (which is usually the bigger issue).

She knows she's only hurting herself, she doesn't want to disappoint us, but she's 13.  I remember 13, and frankly, she's handling it way better than I did.  I can't ask her to be a better person than I was, and she already is, so I need to relax.

Because the reality is, in any of the areas I claim to care about, Aden is succeeding wildly.  She may be lazy about subjects that don't interest her, but she has never once turned down the opportunity to volunteer at the soup kitchen or the food pantry.  She is kind to people in general and her siblings in particular.  She's creative and caring, makes beautiful art, loves to learn, and she enjoys helping others.  I'm just having trouble convincing her to help herself with as much enthusiasm.  If I were worried about her character then I would really have something to fret about.  But the core of who she is is someone I'm very proud of.  Aden is amazing.

I honestly believe she will come out okay, even if she screws up access to certain opportunities.  I did that, and I came out okay.  She has many unfair advantages that work in her favor and buy her time to figure things out: She's an attractive white girl in America and comes from a stable family with enough resources to provide her a safe place to land for the foreseeable future.  If she were in a demographic with added challenges I would be far more worried, but I have the privilege of being able to step back a little and not feel I have to force things too much.  I have to trust that my parenting has been (and continues to be) good enough, even when I doubt it.

So when Aden asked me to come with her to the movie I was really pleased.  She loves me and appreciates my company, but it's a different level to be invited into her school environment.  I talked to a parent on the walk to the school who was also going on the field trip. and she told me her daughter was irritated she was coming, and didn't want to be seen with her.  I compared that in my mind to Aden wanting to sit with me on the school bus, making a point to introduce me to her friends, and explaining inside jokes when they came up so I wouldn't be lost in the conversations.

We sat together in the theater and thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  Landfillharmonic is well made and moving, but I'm left unsure what to do with it.  On the one hand, it's inspiring to see the power of music and what it can mean for children to have the opportunity to be creative and dream.  On the other, nobody should have to live in a garbage dump.  It's hard to want better for people while also not having it be condescending.  There was a sweet woman in the movie (the wife of the luthier building all the instruments who struck me as one of the dearest men on Earth) who described her home in the dump as beautiful.  It wasn't beautiful, and I wanted her to have better, but the love her home represented was beautiful, so she wasn't wrong at all.

I was reminded strongly of scenes I witnessed in India, where there wasn't as much segregation of wealth and the rich were often juxtaposed with the desperately poor.  I saw children playing in a dump there, too, and they were so happy.  It brought my mind to a halt, because they shouldn't have to play in a dump, but they were happy, and I realized part of me didn't want them to be because it didn't fit a simple narrative.  That's wrong.  Just like their situation was wrong.  But life (particularly in India) is a complex web of the good and the bad.  Some things are hard to make sense of, no matter how long we puzzle them, and we must learn to accept them as they are.

I've been thinking a great deal about the young musicians in Paraguay we got to know in the movie.  I contacted people on the website to see if there are things they need, such as old bows or strings.  (There are places I currently donate to, but never bad to extend those boundaries.)  Specifically I would like to provide the luthier with tools or supplies that may be hard for him to come by, but I haven't heard back yet because I'm sure they are inundated with offers with the release of the film.

But I imagine there might be complications from in influx of generosity.  The kids in the dump in Paraguay did have access to real violins to play, but their value in such a destitute place made them a bit dangerous to possess.  Between that and the sheer number of instruments they required, the need for the unusual instruments was created.  The garbage instruments are what made their ensemble unique and got people's attention.  Would people still listen to them if they played traditional instruments?  Are they being done a favor if they are given something "better?"  If they are happy where they are do we still want them not to be stuck in a dump?  Or do we want them in the dump because from our vantage point it makes for a more inspiring story?  Sometimes the good and the bad are too inextricably linked to dare pull at any threads lest it all unravel.  I still hope they send me an address to which I can mail supplies.

Aden and I talked about the movie.  We talked about how beautiful the theater was (the Oriental is an elaborate old atmospheric theater from the 1920s and I didn't realize she hadn't been inside it before).  I thanked her for inviting me.  She looked surprised at the idea that I might think she wouldn't.  I love that girl so much it hurts sometimes.

We're still struggling.  13 is still hard.  We have a lot of nagging to do and frustrations involved with applying to high schools this month, but it's okay.  I have to let go of the idea that I can control my daughter's life, even though she's still a child and we're still responsible.  Being in charge isn't the same as having control.

I feel like we're in one of those driver's ed cars, with the extra brake on the passenger's side.  Aden's at the wheel, and we're just observing and preparing to jump in during true emergencies.  It's scary, but it is what it is, for both good and bad.  I'm trusting it will come out mostly on the side of good.


  1. Hmm. I agree- good and bad is often very intermingled, especially when dealing with poverty and what you're describing with the instruments in the dump. (Which sounds like a fascinating movie, by the way).
    It sounds like you are doing a good job with your kids. I have no suggestions, obviously. I can barely managed my five year old in kindergarten! I can't yet comprehend homework. :)

    1. I highly recommend the movie if you come across it. (Good to keep in mind if it hits Netflix or something--I never got out to actual movies when my kid was in kindergarten!) Everyone's homework struggle is a bit different. Hope it goes smoothly for you when you get there.

  2. Oh how I love this post because we are also parenting a lovely, hilarious, interesting, frustrating 13 year old. Damon is such a great kid. We get emails from other parents about what a kind boy he is. His teachers at school comment all the time how he's nice to everyone. He is respectful to all the adults in his life--teachers and coaches. He gets great grades...BUT...he is so frustrating when it comes to getting his work done. He is the king of procrastination and it drives me bonkers. He actually has a lot of homework and a very busy sports schedule. We just added Olympic development soccer to his menu and we told him the only way we'd let him do that is if he gets all his homework done on Saturday since practices are every Sunday night. So far, so good but we're about to add basketball back into the mix and I'm worried he's going to start the same routines again. He also fights us going to bed, getting up, eating food, etc...But again the big all the areas that mean the most to us--being a good kid, intellectually curious, great work ethic in his sports, he's exactly the kid we expect him to be. 13 is just so hard and his big brother is just not like that at all. Our Aidan is frustrating in his own way, but when it comes to being academically responsible he's breeze. Good luck! And please let us know if you come up with any other good ideas.

    1. I don't know how families who do sports manage it all. We feel run ragged by our schedule and there is very little to it compared to sports stuff. I ask my kids every year if they want to try a sport and am always relieved when they say no.