Years ago, when my sons were toddlers, my psychiatrist father and marriage and family therapist mother provided sound parenting advice but as a new mom, I dismissed them because I thought I knew better. They were outdated; they didn’t know how to raise kids in the 21st century. There were newer, better “rules” of parenting. Besides, I had my masters in counseling and had been working as a school counselor for 6 years. So what if I was exhausted, cranky, and stressed? So what if I imagined running away more than seven times a day? I perceived their suggestions as attacks on my ability to parent, indications that I was failing. If they commented on my child’s obnoxious behavior, I became even more sensitive and defensive.
And there was no shortage of obnoxious behavior in my house. My youngest son had perfected the art of throwing a horrific tantrum by the age of two. A fair skinned child, Charlie’s face would turn a fabulous shade of heirloom red tomato as he kicked and screamed with tears and snot flowing everywhere. He screamed as if his insides were being torn apart. Ask him to do something he didn’t want to do and BAM the world was coming to an end. Say no to him, and WHAM screams hurled through the house.
One day, my parents were visiting and we were headed to the park. Before we left, I asked Charlie – in my calmest and most encouraging voice – to pick up the Magna-tiles he’d artistically strewn across the living room. That wasn’t on his agenda, however. I calmly explained to him that we weren’t going to the park until the tiles were picked up. He didn’t budge. A back and forth of me telling him to pick up the toys or we weren’t going to the park ensued. I cajoled, bargained, and bribed. Nothing worked.
My parents watched until I was so fed up I wanted to fling the tiles at all three of them: Charlie for not listening and my parents for witnessing my complete lack of control.
“How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your toys?” I yelled at my 4 year- old son.
“As many times as you’ll do it,” my mother said under her breath.
“He’s four!” I snapped, feeling immediately defensive and embarrassed. “He’s only four!” I was totally out of control and they were witnessing it. My 4 year old was in charge and I was a failure.
“You know, Cindy,” my dad said in his slow smooth voice that only a psychiatrist of 30 years can master, “seems to me like he’s making your life pretty miserable and you’re always trying to make his life wonderful. Maybe there’s a problem?”
Maybe? Um, definitely.
I repeatedly bargained with a toddler. I issued threats without follow through because holding the line and sticking to boundaries was exhausting. I bent over backwards making sure that he had play dates (social interactions) and park visits (time in nature) and story time at the library (early exposure to reading) and the list continued. I kept doing and doing and doing. Making his life wonderful while I felt miserable. So I decided that I needed to make his life as miserable as he was making mine.
I wasn’t going to intentionally make his life difficult, I just wasn’t going to turn myself into a pretzel to make sure that he felt no discomfort. I decided not to care about the looks from strangers if he pitched a fit in the middle of the grocery store. His tantrums weren’t about me. They weren’t a reflection of my poor parenting. His tantrums were because he wasn’t getting what he wanted. But, he needed to learn that behaviors have consequences. If he refused to clean up before going to the park, he wouldn’t get to go to the park and play with his friends. The other mothers could think I was a “mean” mom. They could think whatever they wanted, but I decided that it was more important for him to learn that life is unpleasant, sometimes. And it’s okay. He’ll be okay.
Now that my boys are teenagers, I’m grateful for my parents and their unsolicited advice. They helped me understand the importance of not fixing every situation, not giving in to every whim. To allow failure. To allow disappointment. Disappointment and struggle are necessary for the developing mind. Young people need to experience sadness, frustration, worry, and embarrassment because they need to know that they have the capabilities to handle themselves and come out on the other side.
Problems lead to problem solving.
Rescuing leads to dependency and the belief the child isn’t capable of handling the situation on his/her own.
We need to be there to listen, love, and support. But parenting isn’t about making life perfect . (Instagram and Facebook have the market on feigning perfection.) Instead, we can parent for independence and true belief in one’s self. Parenting is the hardest job and it doesn’t end when our children become “adults”. If we start out parenting by running ourselves ragged and making sure that everything is “just right” for our children, we rob them of the opportunity to take care of themselves and we exhaust ourselves in the process.