I think each step of my parenting journey has led to a different catchphrase for me. That’s probably because different things have been demanded of me, based on what the kids’ needs were at the time.
When they were babies, my phrase was “Dare to be calm.” I posted it on the refrigerator, on an index card on the windowsill over the sink, and had it as part of my daily affirmations. Babies, when not sleeping, were in a constant state of urgent or immediate needs, it seemed to me at the time. They were hungry; they were wet; they were poopy; they were bored; they had a rash, an itch, a fever, diarrhea; they were teething; they needed an immunization; they were hungry, wet and bored again. Sigh. It just went on and on, 24 hours a day.
Sleep deprivation played a big part in my choice of phrase. As I became less resilient, less patient, more stressed, it was easy to freak out, to feel overwhelmed, to want to shove my head down the garbage disposal just for a few more inches away from the latest wail. None of that was doing any good, so I re-read my Dr. Spock book. I watched humor shows on PBS, while holding babies. Finally, it dawned on me. Very rarely, in fact, almost never, do babies die of wailing. It is possible to go and stand in the garage for one full minute and curse like hell where no one can hear you, bang a hammer on a workbench to take out your frustration, and then return, with greater patience and less stress, to take care of the screamer. When there is more than one screamer, it sometimes takes superb logistical management skills to get them to sit in two or more different corners until you return, but it can be done.
Over time, my garage breaks and extended bathroom breaks helped “Dare to be calm” become a habit. I didn’t have to physically leave the situation in order to stop acting like every holler was a forest fire. I stopped being an overcaffeinated, REM-deprived Smokey the Bear Mom and became Zen Mom. Om.
I taught my older babies/toddlers Meditation in the Moment before it became a popular parenting strategy. “Let’s all take a step back and breathe deeply three times. Let me hear you breathe. Breathe in, sloooooowly. Breathe out. No spitting. Breathe in, breathe out. Put down the squirt gun, I AM watching. Let’s start over. Breathe in…” and so on. Sometimes it worked smoothly; sometimes it was more of a struggle. But it did work, mostly because the only other choice, from experience, was mayhem and screaming, and I had had enough of both of those.
Which led to the phrase for the preschool years “Make your life easier by limiting choices.” Given unlimited choices and/or a doormat mom, preschoolers will be fretful, cranky, sweaty little despots with snot-covered upper lips (an un-charming look which a friend refers to as the “glazed donut” face). They are never happy, and they make sure no one around them is happy either.
By this time, with three kids, I had given up trying to be the nicest mom any kid ever had, and learned the real lesson of parenting (I think), which is, they need someone to be unapologetically in charge; they need a confident leader. As a sidebar, whenever I watch Super Nanny, this is what I see her teaching the kids and parents – first teach the parents to lead without apology or exception, then teach the kids how to follow. It makes all the difference. Anyway, part of what I learned was to stop offering them too many choices.
It started with scheduling. If I let them wander around in their pjs, without saying anything about getting dressed, then sure as the sun rises, at some point during the day there’d be a problem, they’d whine and roll on the floor, a preschool mutiny would ensue, and stress would begin. So, no choice, they didn’t get breakfast until they were in their day clothes. I also limited breakfast choices – hot oatmeal or Cheerios. I didn’t even buy anything else, much to my husband’s occasional dismay, since he really favors Corn Flakes for a late night snack.
As they got used to it, they became calmer and surer of their universe. I could hear them telling each other things like, “You have to clean up now, Bunny, Mom’s going to read Dr. Seuss to us before we help with dinner!” The more they settled into the routine and became adept at it, the more choices I could creatively add in – at one point, for several years, I made up a menu grid for the month. They each got to pick a dinner (with certain food categories mandated) for each week, and, regardless of how peculiar it might be, if it met the nutritional requirements, we made it, and we ate it without complaint. Mostly.
They would negotiate with one another; Bunny would say, “Spawn, I don’t like peas.” Spawn would reply that he liked peas and Doodle liked peas and Dad liked peas, so she was outvoted. Then she’d ask if they could also have salad (notice that’s “also”, not “instead”). Spawn would, with his very young brow furrowed, seriously consider the request, then decide that salad, too, would be OK, and he’d have me add it in.
When they started public school, the working phrase mutated to “It takes a united team to raise a child, but when in doubt, the parents trump.” Mom and Dad have to agree on standards and practices that meet or exceed school expectations, and that’s the baseline for what we expect and support our kids in doing. And we have to stand by that, every step of the way, or it’ll fail because one thing school kids will unfailingly do is test limits every minute.
Sometimes it has meant making choices the school didn’t like – in 7th grade Spawn had a class called, “Skills for Adolescence”. Now, had this been an etiquette class, or a practical, hands-on class on dealing with interpersonal conflict resolution or study skills, I could have stood behind the school and defended the appropriateness and/or applicability of the class. It wasn’t. It was one of those time-waster, creates more problems than it solves kinds of classes – offering speculative, hypothetical situations that my rurally raised kids don’t encounter, and asking them to make decisions and show decision-making processes for situations that have never even dawned on them, much less occurred. And, at that age, lots of kids are not particularly good at extrapolating situations; they’re still grounded in the tangible – they like math problems to have a definite answer, and they still expect the world to be more black and white than gray.
Spawn did not like the class. He was getting a D in it. I got a call from the vice-principal and another from the teacher, and we agreed to meet. I prepped by reading the workbook, which made my eyeballs catch fire, and when I read Spawn’s perfectly reasonable responses, my eyeballs went nuclear. We met. Their concern was that Spawn had decided to answer every question with, “I’d ask my Mom first.” I asked them what was wrong with that, and they replied that they were looking for answers like, “drugs are illegal and a bad idea, and I could get in trouble, and I should tell school officials right away.” I countered with wondering how Spawn’s answer was wrong, still, since asking advice from a trusted and known adult authority figure was a very good idea before taking any action of a highly significant nature, and why they felt that a minor child should circumvent his parents in making decisions in those important situations. They had no comeback, just asked for more detail in the future.
Spawn got a supportive earful, too. I told him I understood his dislike of the class and let him hold forth about it for quite a while. Then I reminded him that we had standards of academic performance, and that if he was aware of what answers were expected, I expected him to bring the grade up to a C, but that beyond that, I supported his protest of a do-nothing, parent-undercutting class which he found offensive. In retrospect, I think that was one of the best moves I ever made with him; I gained his trust, his willingness to share his problems with me, as much as a teenager will, and his respect, since I had shown him respect, too, and still maintained family standards. The school discontinued the class three years later.
I’ve done the same thing with the other two as well. If the school stands on legitimate ground, they have my full support. If they’re trying to get away with shoddy, slipshod practices, I have words with them, and, if those make no changes, then I remind my kids that they have to live up to OUR standards, not the others. I try to help them to understand that their education must be wrested from the unwilling members of the school, and gratefully accepted from the able and adept. It has yet to be easy.
And now, we’re moving into the college years. It feels like the parenting catchphrase is becoming, “Trust them to fly; they may occasionally need navigational help.” And that’s hard, too.