Lately my kids have been breaking me. Just reducing me to a pile a wet rags. I’m supposed to be in charge. I’m supposed to be strong and have all the answers. I’m supposed to know what the heck I’m doing. But the truth is, most days, I have no clue. Many days, I’m faking it. My kids are strong-willed, highly opinionated, smart kids. We raised them to be that way. It’s our own damn fault.
My parents had their way of thinking and were not great at exposing us to a variety of schools of thought, but they did love to travel. My Dad was always researching things and studying. I admired him greatly and always wanted my kids to think and learn because of his example. It was expected that we would attend college as adults. Mostly to expand our minds and horizons, and only secondly to get a good job.
Adam was raised in a conservative Christian home. He was just supposed to accept the truths he was presented with. He’s a good, sweet soul and naturally loves to do right by others so he more or less just went along with his parents thinking without question or debate. At some point, Adam grew up and met more and more people outside of his early life bubble and expanded his horizons. He started listening to NPR and had a drink or two. He read and thought a lot and now, it’s important to him too that our children form their own beliefs and question everything.
Of course, we desperately want them to come to the same conclusions we have. We love Jesus and believe in his Kingdom on Earth. What a miraculous place this could be if we all loved each other as He loved us. So we teach our kids to live by His example and we pray they love Him too. We teach them to stand up to bullies, fight for those weaker than themselves and use their privilege to do good in the world. It takes some thick skin to walk that line. Our kids don’t take crap from anybody, and aren’t afraid to speak up when they feel they need to. Unfortunately, that means they “speak up” to us all the time.
Just tonight, my daughter said in her mature voice, “you’re being a little harsh tonight” as I prodded her to get through her bedtime routine. Exasperated, I yelled at her to “go to her room right now”. I don’t care that she’s right. I don’t care that I taught her to communicate her feelings well even when others are communicating poorly. Sometimes I want to be “a little harsh” and actually get results. She scolds me when I speak “harshly” to the dog too. She’s always sticking up for animals, just like I taught her. The only person that doesn’t seem to get her protection is her big brother. Although, I often catch her quietly pointing out when he does something good. She even sticks up for me at times. Defending my decisions when her brothers protest. She can be my closest ally, but woe to me when she chooses to be my opponent. She never backs down. Ever.
My daughter isn’t the only feisty pants in the house. My oldest son can debate anything. I can ask him to do a chore and he will dig to find the one reason why it should be someone else’s job. It isn’t that he isn’t willing to help out. He is, he is just absolutely committed to fairness, when it’s in his best interest. He wants every task, toy and opportunity for fun to be spread evenly between the three of them. I exhaust myself trying to make that happen for him. Though, truth be told, outside of his family, he also cares deeply about fairness. He understands that he is blessed to have a home and toys and pets. He knows that not everyone has the many privileges he has and that makes him very sad.
My youngest son is precious. He is the snuggliest, most thoughtful and affectionate of the three. But he’s also the most likely one to throw things at me during a temper tantrum. It is really difficult for him to share his emotions. I’ve worked hard to teach him the words to say and the best ways to express his feelings. But he’s 6, so he’s still a little booger. Stomping around and throwing things is still his favorite way to communicate his frustration. He likes to scream and run terrified at the slightest threat from his brother. And he loves to break things in general. He’s always enjoyed taking toys apart, especially his siblings’. So the pattern is, he’ll break a treasured toy that doesn’t belong to him, then he’ll be threatened with violence from the owner of the broken toy and scream bloody murder and come running for me. I am then pulled unwittingly into the fight and am forced to pick sides. Who do I believe? The vengeful older sibling who wants to maim my baby? Or the whimpering child hanging onto my leg? I often choose the wrong side, but I’m starting to get wise.
My biggest struggle as a parent lately has been staking my claim as the boss. I’m in charge here. Ya’ll are going to do as I say, no butts about it. But I’m weak. The best parenting discipline advice I can give, but not always take is, it doesn’t matter much what your punishments are (time outs, extra chores, removal of privileges, etc.) as long as you are consistent with them and only threaten them when you are prepared to enforce them. My worst days of motherhood are the days when I’m not on top of following through with my threats. I know this, and yet I get sucked in to this lazy pattern all the time. Empty threats are poisonous to maintaining respect between parent and child. I can usually deal with my boys effectively just by tightening up on this front. And they are understanding when I fail at follow through and just start yelling. They are not deeply offended when I yell at them. They know my intentions are good and they don’t fault me for my sometimes poor execution. I apologize all the time to them for losing my temper or not listening to them. They forgive me and our relationship is healed.
Not so with my daughter. Every time I fail as a mother, I feel like she’s keeping tabs. Storing away hurts that she can nurse when she’s feeling distant from me. She famously says things she doesn’t mean, or uses a tone of voice in error. She desperately wants us to let it slide and not call her out when she’s sassy. She doesn’t want her tone of voice to be as powerful as it is. But, she is quick to point out when my tone of voice is sassy or “harsher” than I intended it to be. She never lets my faults slide. She always expects me to be the bigger person. If I’m not being the bigger person, than she doesn’t afford me the respect that the bigger person deserves. I have to earn her respect. Ugh. I HATE it. I’m the mommy, end of story. Why isn’t that enough for her?
She’s a fighter by nature. She’s a storm. And she needs a calm to keep her grounded. It’s a lot like me and Adam. I’m the storm, he’s my calm. I respected him, because he was steady. I wanted to be more like him. My emotions were so big, scary and out of control. But he was measured and contained. I longed to be that way. It seemed simpler, and safer. It’s what drew me to him. He was my opposite, content, kind and joyful. I wanted what he had.
Sigh. So often I compare my daughter to myself. She and I are so alike in so many ways. I too was often fighting. But mostly I was fighting with myself. I fought bitterly and hated myself for so long. I always wanted to change, to be a meeker, lovelier woman. But it’s not in my nature. I pushed people away, but hoped they would chase after me against their better judgement. I was manipulative and angry, and terribly depressed. I don’t want that for her. How can I help her avoid the destructive patterns I followed after for so long? How can I use my hard-won wisdom to protect her from herself?
So much of parenting well, is fighting with one’s self. Our kids are going to share so many of our traits for better or worse. Our propensity towards laziness, our unwillingness to challenge ourselves, or believe in ourselves. I truly believe that one of the best gifts we can give our kids are the tools to undo some of these inherited traits. Not to mention patience and grace when they do exhibit the negative traits. They didn’t ask for them, neither did we. But they are part of who we are and therefore, who they have become. But with each generation we can soften these behaviours and fine-tune them into strengths. My daughter’s daughter is destined to be feisty. But she will be strong. I just hope she’ll let me be in charge…sometimes.