I recently wrote a post at Parent Hacks sharing my favorite kid-friendly vegetable recipes. In it, I
whined talked about my kids’ pickiness — something that has bothered me for years. But in re-reading that post and listening to readers’ responses, I realized my kids’ finicky food tastes have gotten better. I was writing about their favorite vegetable dishes, after all — not their refusal to eat veggies of any kind, which used to be the case.
That got me thinking about one of the more interesting parenting conundrums: how to know if a parenting problem is better solved with immediate action or by waiting it out. More and more, I find the answer lies in taking the long view.
I was a compliant kid raised by loving but strict parents. So that was the model under which I operated with my first kid. I tell him what to do, because that’s what parents do, and he does it, because that’s what kids do.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way. The moment my son hit toddlerhood (14 months — he didn’t even give me the courtesy of the “terrible twos”), my life became one continuous head-butt. Horns I didn’t even know I had locked with his. This continued until, like, 2 1/2 years ago. And my head was really, really sore.
On the convoluted path from there to here — which included a year and a half homeschooling my son — my parenting approach expanded. It had to — our constant battling was damaging our relationship and cementing his self-perception as a bad kid. “My way or the highway” was leading us down the road to disaster.
One of the great gifts of homeschooling was the sheer amount of time we spent together. Not because things were all rosy and companionable (the 10-year head-butt, remember?) but because I could finally see those subtle shifts that happen as a kid matures. You know how you can’t see a clock’s hour hand move, because it moves so slowly? Well, if you watch it long enough, you see it move. That’s how it was with my son.
The changes were imperceptible at first, but eventually the growth that comes with maturity — and from repeatedly hitting your head against the same wall — became visible. (I was referring to my son’s maturity, and my son’s head, but to be honest we were in the same boat.) I learned that he was receptive to my directions, just not at the moment I gave them. He did listen to and value my advice, but it needed to sink in before he could (or was willing to) act on it. Sometimes it just didn’t compute ’til he was a little older. But it did compute…eventually.
“Losing the battle but winning the war” has become one of my parenting mantras. It’s not easy, because it requires you to trust your kid at the very moment he’s driving you nuts and bruising your ego. Also, plenty of people will judge you for not being “tougher” with your kid. But I found that knowing when to take the long view gave me more a powerful influence during the moments I had to hold the line. My son now knows that if I won’t budge on something, it’s for good reason. And he cooperates most of the time. He also knows his voice matters. If he feels strongly enough about something to speak up, I respect him enough to listen.
Knowing whether to act swiftly or take the long view is more of an art than a science. But it has served me well. And it has served my kids their vegetables.
While I was writing this a little bell kept ringing in my head. Am I repeating myself? Sure enough, I wrote a Parent Hacks post about the wait vs. act dance on New Year’s Day, 2011. Ironically, that post talked about a time we waited when we should have acted sooner. Like I said, an art, not a science, and only clear in retrospect. With another year of parenting under my belt and another year of growth for my son, we’re getting better at it. These days, we laugh and rib each other and have real heart-to-heart conversations. There’s an ease and a trust between us. Head-butts are few and far between.