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Being the Grown-Up

March 31, 2012

Random criticism from a stranger on the Internet (not here, a different tube) has me pinging between irritation because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and irritation because she has nonetheless managed to bump up against one of the most challenging parts of parenthood for me. Research has shown (research = me thinking about it and deciding I make a lot of sense) that a parent can put a child’s wishes in front of her or his own and still be a responsible parent. In fact — amazing, but equally well-researched, and thus undeniably true — sometimes a parent makes a concession not because s/he is “afraid to be the parent,” but because what a parent does in that situation is concede.

One of my guiding principles of parenthood is “Be the grown-up.” Sometimes that means making a decision that is unpopular with my kid, because I know it’s the right thing to do. (Or because I am pretty darned sure it’s the right thing to do, and that’s as close to knowing as I expect to get.) But sometimes, Internet stranger, being the grown-up means making a decision that is unpopular with me, because my preferences are not always the One True Path to Righteousness and Glory, and if I spent my days being told when to get up and where to go and how to behave, you can bet I would like an occasional snack containing high-fructose corn syrup or an extra 30 minutes of screen time, even though my parents are not particular fans of same.

As a grown-up, I spend my time away from my kids surrounded by people who sometimes like things that irritate me, and I have to make similar calls in those situations. I’m not going to suffer in silence while someone stands on my foot for an entire Metro ride, but if you want to blast your iPod so loud that I can hear it through your earbuds, you have that right, because we are both grown-ups.

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Schooled

March 27, 2012

About the school thing: Turns out if you skip one of the events, you get to have a conference with the teacher about it.

There are several things I want my children to get from their education, and this teacher’s particular subject falls into the category of “Good. Potentially life-enriching. But after a certain point, something a lot of people are going to drop, more or less, so if you’re looking to instill passion, you’d better have some clever tricks up your sleeve. I will do my best to promote appropriate levels of compliance in class. Anything beyond that would require me to put less effort into something more important, and that’s not what’s best for my kid. So no.”

But I went to the conference, and it was like a bad date: In exchange for time I will never get back, I got material to entertain my friends. Much as I want to entertain my friends, I’m not sure it was a good trade.

Here are some proven ways to make me think you’re not worth listening to:

  • Bust out a scary-sounding clinical term to describe the youngest. Backtrack rapidly when you learn how old child is (something that you evidently could have looked up or asked his teacher about, given that you were able to find out that the middle child is in therapy). Bonus points if the thing you say the child is having trouble with is not, in fact, something the child is having trouble with.
  • Tell me what a great kid the eldest is. Assume, wrongly, that I do not have a stack of old report cards showing that you never actually had anything good to say about him when he was your student.
  • Tell me repeatedly that you want “to help your child succeed.” When pressed, make it clear that this means, “Make him seem happy and enthusiastic at all times in my class.”
  • Tell me what I should tell my middle child’s therapist to work on. Offer suggestions for what the therapist should tell my kid. Instruct me to report back.
  • Tell me, in a tone of surprise, “You really seem to know your kid!”
  • Describe a child whose parents both work outside the home as being “raised by the nanny.” I know these parents, and even if I didn’t, I’d be pretty suspicious of that assessment of anyone.
  • Tell me the kids my kid likes to play with are all on your troublemakers list. (So what’s your solution, exactly? Write off a bunch of eight-year-olds? Enlist a series of kids you do approve of to serve as my child’s therapy dogs?)
  • Ask me what you could do to encourage my kid. Act as though what I tell you is some of the craziest shit you ever heard.
  • Announce that we need to make it our goal to make my kid less stubborn. Not “To help him learn to be quicker to cooperate” or “To help him understand that sometimes you just have to do things regardless of whether you like them” or “To stop wasting energy being surly.” The kid is stubborn, which I think is a hard-wired trait. Let’s try to harness this power for good, or mute it when it’s not helping anyone.

I went to the conference wondering if I should just let the teacher talk, but “I want to help your child succeed” made me think, “Let’s have a conversation. Let’s collaborate.” The longer we talked, the more I realized that this was not a conversation, and there would be no collaboration. So once again, I’m on my own. And so is this particular teacher.

Your Advice Is Unsolicited for a Reason

March 18, 2012

I know a lot of words. I know how to choose them and how to form them into sentences, such as “What should I do?” or “What would you do?” or “Do you think I should . . .?”

If I haven’t asked for an opinion, it’s not because I don’t know how. It’s because I know my life better than you do, and I haven’t picked you as someone whose advice I want. If you’re the sort of person feels entitled to offer advice when it hasn’t been asked for, you have just shown yourself to be someone with terrible judgment. Why would anyone listen to you?

Gene Weingarten believes you shouldn’t be insulted by false statements. Someone calls your sister a whore? What do you care, if she isn’t? According to him, you should only be offended if she is a whore. That makes no sense to me. The person is telling the truth. You may be unhappy about the truth, but it’s not the speaker’s fault that the truth is what it is.

I think people are most offended when something isn’t true, but they are afraid that it is. Tell me I’m fat? Yes, I am, no argument. Tell me I’m stupid? No, I’m not.

Tell me I’m a bad mother? I realize, rationally, that I’m not. But the thought that I am screwing up something so important eats at me. Why can’t I manage to help my kid through his troubles on my own? Why did we have to call in professionals? And given that we did, should we have done it sooner?

So when I say that I dread family vacations, or that making sure my kids do their chores wears me down, the last thing I want to hear is that I need to plan carefully! Or get input from all the affected parties! Or lower my standards! Or raise them! Or any of a host of other totally obvious techniques. No matter how hard I try to see those comments as well-intentioned efforts to be helpful, what I hear behind them is, “Wow, this person has no judgment at all. I shall ride in and save her, heroically.” The desire to offer advice when none has been requested may be kindly meant, but I think it’s a chance to show off: I have your situation figured out and you don’t. The second part is true, granted. But trust me, the first part is not.

Please be advised: Stating the obvious is not helpful.

The Therapist Is a Tool

March 7, 2012

Honey Badger’s therapist comes highly recommended. Honey Badger has been doing better since he started going to therapy. I am grateful, honestly, that we have access to this resource. (This out-of-network resource, and while there is nothing I would rather spend my money on than happy, healthy kids, ouch. Like, kid, could you at least use the full 50 minutes every time? The marginal lowering of the cost per minute would make your mother feel marginally better.)

But.

He speaks in a distinctly calm, soothing voice. I could really do without the soothing voice. Maybe his clients need it; I imagine he deals with a lot of agitated kids and their agitated parents. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the agitated parents maybe speak in a voice that is not so soothing, and so the very soothing voice is a much-needed reminder that things will be different in therapy, and also a way of helping agitated kids calm down, even if their parents don’t lose their shit. (Some of them don’t, right? That’s an achievable goal, isn’t it?)

But.

When he busts out the soothing voice while talking to me, I hate it. I don’t need to be soothed, at least by him. Arranging for therapy was in some ways something I welcomed: Look, there’s a problem, and I am doing what I can to solve it. Look at me, competently bringing in the expert. (You know, the stranger who is going to reach my kid in a way I have utterly failed to do. I feel fine about that!) And to the extent it wasn’t something I welcomed, it was at least something I was resigned to.

The soothing voice makes me feel as though he thinks I should be someone who needs soothing. I should be wound in knots over how profoundly I have screwed up, probably because I am crazy, and he needs to be very very calm in dealing with me. Stop looking at me like that. You think I’m paranoid, don’t you?

I wish I could beam into his head a recognition of my chosen belief that needing a therapist is fine. I AM FINE WITH THIS. “I don’t need soothing. I didn’t have the tools to deal with my kid. I needed a tool, and you are that tool.”

I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t help, though.

Stifling Empathy

February 25, 2012

Honey Badger had a school thing. A public display of something he doesn’t like, led by a teacher he also doesn’t like.

It’s not my first time dealing with a kid’s having an obligation he doesn’t feel like fulfilling. It’s not the first time it’s happened with Honey Badger. Actually, one of the tendencies that pushed us into getting him into therapy was his refusal to do things that seemed pointless to him, regardless of the natural consequences that resulted or logical consequences we imposed.

So we had a kid who needs to learn the gentle art of sucking it up making it clear that this was not something he’d be sucking up. In principle, I object. Into each life some tedious responsibilities must fall, and they need to be met.

On the other hand, I don’t like the teacher either, and this event benefits the teacher’s ego more than the students’ development. Some of the students like it, and more power to them. But at the point that something puts a significant burden on me (and this thing does, for logistical reasons), I want to see some sort of payoff. I want a cost-benefit calculation that says, “Insist.”

I was hoping that we could finesse this. Honey Badger gets migraines, and he has a cold. So when he got off the bus the day of the school thing, I tried to give him an out: “How are you feeling, honey?”

Inside my head: “Please say you don’t feel good. Headache, cough, stomach ache, Weltschmerz, anything. Thin excuses accepted here.”

Instead: “I feel fine. Why are you asking me that?”

“Because you had a headache the day before yesterday and you were coughing a lot yesterday. I thought maybe you didn’t feel good enough to go tonight.”

Inside my head: “This is a HINT I’m dropping here. Please pick it up.”

“Oh, I’m not going. I’m not supposed to go.”

“Really? Was it cancelled?”

“No, but [Teacher I don’t like] said if I was just going to goof around, I shouldn’t come.”

“So you’d rather go home, do your homework, eat dinner, and go straight to bed? No screen time, no books on tape?*”

“Yes.”

And then there was a pause in the conversation while I evaluated the merits and likelihood of not only getting him there and forcing him — psychically? — to behave, or of having him ruin things for other kids who were into it. Is making him do something I don’t value, either, worth it? What about the wear and tear on the kid I would have to drag along?

I settled for the austerity plan outlined above, and added — BONUS! — a conversation about how there are respectful ways of opting out and obnoxious ways of opting out, and one is much better because being respectful earns you respect and being disrespectful teaches people not to listen to you.

But that’s not the conversation I wanted to have. I want to have the one about what you do with jerks and their jerky projects. I wanted him to understand how much I empathize with his feelings. But I don’t know how to do that without undermining an authority figure, which I don’t want to do, because I don’t want him picking and choosing which teachers he’s going to listen to and which ones he’s going to ignore.

And I will spend weeks wondering what I could have done better.

*Yes, twenty-first century hipsters, I believe whippersnappers are calling them audiobooks these days, and yes, ours are actually in a digital format. Consarn it, but I have a hard time picking up this newfangled lingo.

There Will Be No Unpleasantness

January 29, 2012

I think that in general, repression deserves more credit. It’s the foundation of civilization. Stiff upper lip, everyone. Keep your head down and keep on marching.

On the other hand, I think Christine Lavin was onto something: “I am not complaining; I’m just making observations.”

It’s a family thing, I guess. My peerless spouse and some of my siblings’ significant others were once chatting about my family’s quirks — or, as we like to think of them, the habits of right-thinking people: Holding out for a bargain. Putting the butter out at bedtime so it will be soft in the morning and easier to spread on toast. And, above all, no complaining.

And not just “No venting. No futile kvetching.” It’s a sacred trust with us: Count your blessings and be quiet about anything in your life that doesn’t seem like a blessing. Expect the same from other people.

In practice, this policy seems to be a lot like telling people how to feel. Sad about your miscarriage? Be thankful you have a kid. Not enjoying those fertility treatments? Be thankful you have access to them (and be thankful you have a kid already).

My mother is a kind, competent woman, and my friends adore her, as do I. But when she talked about her miscarriages — and I must have been 30 before she ever mentioned them — she shrugged them off: Not meant to be. Something wrong with the baby. Unpleasantness. Move along, nothing to see here. Count your blessings.

So I only told her about my miscarriages when I needed her medical history for my RE. And when I did tell her, she told me how depressed she’d been about hers. OK, granted, she also had to think to remember when she’d had them — stiff lip, head down, forward march. Still, it was nice to hear her acknowledge that general good luck doesn’t always feel like an adequate offset to the crappier parts of life.

I wish she were someone I could talk to about all this. I know she’d be awesome at caramel corn and bourbon.

I have no reason to think she’d be awesome at nonjudgmental support.

We visited my parents shortly before Honey Badger started therapy. Mom and Dad knew we’d had a rough year with him, although I didn’t go into detail or describe any of the worst moments. Doing that would have felt like I was telling on him: He commits acts of unpleasantness. He behaves in ways we never behaved as children, or at least you don’t remember us behaving as children, or we did and you do but you didn’t tolerate it and we all turned out fine.

While we were there, my mother made a point of telling me that he seemed like a normal eight-year-old to her. She volunteered it, out of the blue. And because it would have been argumentative, and thus unpleasant, and also pointless, I didn’t say, “Well, it doesn’t seem normal to us. It doesn’t seem normal to his pediatrician. It doesn’t seem normal to the therapist we consulted. And every friend I’ve asked who has a kid in therapy says she knew there was something wrong. Every friend.” Instead, I just shrugged. I am too busy arguing with my kid to argue with my mother.

After Honey Badger had started therapy, I was chatting with one of my brothers, and we were discussing what we’d done for Mom’s birthday. I admitted I’d sent a card and made a charitable donation on her behalf.

But “I didn’t call her.”

“Really?” he asked. Not appalled, just sort of surprised.

“No. The thing is, I don’t want to talk to her about Honey Badger. But I don’t know how I can talk to her and not tell her about Honey Badger,” I explained.

“Yeah, you’re right. You can’t.”

He didn’t try to argue that I could tell her.