Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Everybody, Give Yourself a Pat on the Back

We had a shocking perspective shift over the weekend.  While at a municipal lakefront park, a woman tried to use her toddler to steal my wife's purse.  Lorin was sunbathing nearby but hidden from the woman's view.  She clearly heard the woman directing the child to pick up not her tote bag, but the smaller purse next to it, and bring it to her. 
"Dis one?"

"No, the little one." 

"Dis one?"

"Yeah.  Bring it here, sweetie."

At that point, Lorin revealed herself and claimed her purse.  The woman covered by pretending she hadn't noticed.  "Oh, that's not yours, sweetie.  Go get your frisbee."

With no way to prove that any of this had happened, Lorin had to content herself with shooting the woman a dirty look and moving her belongings to a safer spot. 

We talked about the episode the whole way home.  There's a pretty decent chance that the woman could have lost custody of her child if we'd had more than one witness.  It was shocking to think somebody would risk such a consequence for just a purse - life must be bitterly hard for her to even consider it.  But it was even more shocking to imagine the life trajectory of a toddler who is being taught to steal before he's out of diapers.  Where is that kid going to end up in ten, in twenty years?  If he stays out of jail long enough to reproduce, what will he teach his own children?

The world is full of good parents who try hard.  A lot of us beat ourselves up over the unavoidable little mistakes we make as parents.  Well, let's all take a moment to reflect on the lessons of this episode:

Let's all thank Mom & Dad for raising us right.

You may not be perfect, but if you care enough to read parenting blogs, you're a pretty darned good parent and should take the time to remind yourself of this when you're feeling low.

Poverty and addiction are powerful forces.  We should all be thankful we're shielded from their influence, and give to the organizations that work to address these problems in our communities.

And finally, keep an eye on your stuff.  You wouldn't believe what some people will do for a few bucks.
Am I missing anything?  What other lessons do you see in this experience?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hurry Up & Wait!

Our age-related expectations can
pull kids in different directions.
As a father of three boys, I'm fascinated by the role of birth order in our personalities.  I can't offer much insight into gender differences (no daughters to observe!) but I see a lot of birth order drama play out in our daily lives.  Lately, I've been thinking about how our expectations as parents combines with birth order to create a pretty powerful influence on our kids.  I call this effect "hurry up and wait" because those are the messages the kids end up getting - "hurry up" for the older kids, and "wait" for the younger.

Looking back, I've come to realize that my unspoken expectations have been stretching my oldest son into greater maturity for his whole life.  When he was little, I couldn't wait for him to walk and talk.  Then I couldn't wait for him to learn to ride a bike or cross-country ski, so I could share those sports with him.  Then I couldn't wait for him to be old enough to share certain beloved books or movies with.  And recently (the experience that made me realize I've been doing this) I was disappointed that I couldn't take him to a concert for a musician we both enjoy. 

It's not just about the fun things, either.  When there are chores to be done, we expect adult results from him now that he's almost 12.  When the siblings are arguing, we're probably hardest on him because we have higher standards of fairness and maturity for him than the younger boys.  And in our homeschooling, we expect greater effort and higher quality work from him than from his younger brothers.

All his life, I've been wishing he were just a little older, eager to share experiences that were just out of his reach. That's not to say that we don't also do fun stuff that he's old enough for now - we do, but there's always an eagerness to do the next thing when he's ready.  Looking back, that's had a tangible effect on him - subconsciously, he's always being told to "hurry up" and get older.

At the other end of the spectrum his younger brother is more often forgiven for  childish behavior.  He's more likely to have things done for him, like reading or cooking, though he's capable of both.  He's more often held back by our expectations that he can't do things well enough.  And at the same time, since he's our last child, we seem to cherish his little-ness and act reluctant to let it slip away.  He's more likely to get cuddles, hugs, and other "young" physical affection.  You might say that he's always being told to "wait" - stay small a little longer, please!

I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with doing this.  I think it's a natural and understandable tendency in parents, and it's clearly appropriate to vary our expectations according to our children's age and developmental stage.  But I think it's important to be aware of this tendency, and of the power it can hold in shaping our kids.  Now that I've recognized the pattern, I can choose appropriate times to let up and allow my oldest to be a kid when he needs to.  And I can look for opportunities to let my youngest stretch and grow and earn greater responsibility.  Hopefully, seeing this pattern of parenting behavior clearly will make me a better dad, and will make my kids happier, more self-secure kids. 

I doubt this tendency is universal across families.  It's easy to imagine a different person telling their oldest to "wait" and their youngest to "hurry up."  So I'm not sharing this with you because I think you deal with your kids' different ages the same way I do.  But I suspect that their ages impact your expectations in some way, and I'd bet you it's not something you're fully mindful of.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

I've noticed an interesting behavior pattern in my kids.  It checks out in what I've seen of other people's kids, too.  I'll describe it for you -- see if it sounds familiar.  Your child achieves [some milestone].  You're thrilled for him!  [Milestone] is something he's worked at for a while, something that once seemed out of reach - but finally, it is his.  And suddenly, in the days following this victory, your sweet child becomes obstinate and disrespectful.  Behavior you thought you'd seen for the last time returns, and tactics that have always worked suddenly don't.  What the heck is going on?

Here's a list of the different milestones in my children's lives that have produced the effect described above:
  • Learning to walk
  • Birthdays
  • Learning to read
  • Learning to ride a bike without training wheels
  • Going to school for the first time
  • Advancing a belt in martial arts
  • Learning to drive (our kids haven't gotten here yet, but I've seen it in other families)
I'm sure there are others, but these are the examples that come immediately to mind.  So here's the question: why on earth would these achievements, these positive milestones, cause bad behavior?

I've thought about that and I have a few answers I'd like to offer.  First of all, I don't think it's  always true that the milestones cause the behavior.  There are probably times when we are so excited about her achievement that we subconsciously cut the kid some slack, then reel them back in after it's over.  But I'm pretty sure that's not the whole story; something bigger is going on here.

What I think is happening is this:  children have a powerful drive to mature, to achieve grown-up status.  It's certainly not the only drive they have, and at times it competes with, say, the drive to sneak cookies or the drive to avoid unpleasant work.  But that drive to grow up is one of the most powerful motivators acting on your child.

And in your child's mind, that milestone - let's say it's riding a bike without training wheels - that ability is the next obstacle on his path to growing up.  It's a big obstacle, and he's fixated on it for a while. 
Each peak obscures your view of the next...

So he begins to see it as the obstacle, rather than an obstacle, between him and adulthood.  It's analogous to wanting to climb a mountain.  From a distance, you have a clear view of the peak you're striving towards, but as you get closer, the foothills obscure the peak and you begin to mistake the slope you're on for the path to the summit, still far ahead.

When she  achieves her goal, it feels like she's basically a grown-up now, except for a few details.  But you're still treating her the same way you did before her big success.  And that, right there, is your recipe for the discord I described at the beginning.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sure, it's unpleasant when your child regresses, but I think every kid deserves to act up now and then.  Mistakes and learning go hand in hand.  What would life be like if somebody always interfered with that process? Achieving major milestones spikes his self-esteem a little more than it should, but the world will correct that soon enough without my help.  I know I don't want to be the one knocking my kid's self-image down a peg. 

So I'm not recommending any particular action; it just helps a little to understand why it's happening.  I try - with mixed success - to meet the unpleasant behavior with patience and correct it the same way I would have when they were younger.  Soon enough, we're back on track and their eyes are on the next goal.