There are very few absolutes in parenting. Many of us have similar goals but employ different methods of getting there. The one element of parenting I had never considered in more than very basic terms until I became a parent myself was how vulnerable that role makes you feel. It is the one job that we want to do better than any other, the one by which we are most closely judged, and the one where we are guaranteed to be seen as failures along the way by someone. Some of us parent more successfully than others, but I have never met a parent who was satisfied that he or she was doing it as best they could. I’m proud of myself if I get through a day without having raised my voice at my kids, but before I had children I would have thought that bar to be set pitifully low. I love being a parent, and my children are wonderful, but it’s hard. And part of the reason it’s hard is that many of us grapple with feeling inadequate as we do it.
The real problem with that sense of inadequacy hovering over what we do as parents is that it creates a vulnerability that makes us more likely to be defensive. I think that’s the root of where most of the snarkiness (often called ‘the mommy wars’) between different parents comes from. If you’ve spent a long time researching an issue (breast feeding, daycare, co-sleeping, organic food, homeschooling, vaccinations, television….) and have reached a conclusion that you think is the best choice for your family, it is very difficult to accept that the opposite choice can also be fine. It throws everything into question at a time when we’d like to feel certain. To see other parents making very different choices can make us feel like they are undermining our own. Accusing someone else of bad parenting is often just a means of making ourselves feel more secure in an attempt to prove our choices are superior. The reality is, as painful as it is to admit, the opposite choice made with loving intentions can be equally valid.
One of the trickiest areas where I see a lot of judgement tossed around but haven’t seen it discussed anywhere to my memory, is the line between accommodating a child’s needs or whims, and overindulging him or her. This is an area where I know I feel particularly vulnerable and try not to take other people’s opinions too personally.
Every day when my kids ask for something or just start behaving a particular way, I have to balance in my mind not just whether it’s good or bad, salubrious or unhealthy, but if it’s something I should care about at all. Unfortunately that’s where most of parenting lies. Most of the things our kids do minute to minute don’t matter, and the degree to which we feel the need to control those things as if they do varies wildly from parent to parent. If a child wants to use a red crayon instead of a yellow one, most of us don’t offer an opinion, but what if a girl only wants to wear pink? Some parents actively fight against that and others would encourage it. Now imagine a boy who wants to wear pink. Suddenly there are people who see meaning in that and either feel a need to defend or condemn it, even though to a kid it’s probably just a shirt and not a statement about anything.
How much do we let our kids make certain choices on their own? It comes down to how much meaning you personally think that choice is imbued with. Most of the time when I find myself going head to head with one of my kids about something, I ask myself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” and most of the time the answer is no.
When Mona taught herself to escape her car seat at age two, that was a battle I had to win. We had a painful month of not being able to drive on freeways, and a five minute trip could take me an hour with having to stop and re-buckle her every few feet, but I was willing to go to the mat on that one. But most situations aren’t like that. That was a clear safety issue where my opinion was the only one that mattered and the two year old shouldn’t have a say. But what about getting dressed? All my kids went through a naked phase. (Actually, I just watched a naked little Quinn go by carrying the bingo set to ask his sister if she wants to play, so he’s still in it.) I know this is not something my mom is comfortable with, and I can feel her biting her tongue when she visits and watches a naked little person walking around the house. This one doesn’t bug me so I’m not inspired to fight it. Am I being accommodating or overindulgent? Depends on your own arbitrary stance.
I know there are many people who feel I overindulge my kids. I don’t make them do chores but they help me when I ask. I don’t put any significant limits on the TV but there are days I announce we’re leaving it off and they don’t mind. They have too many toys but most of them aren’t from me (and frankly, I like toys too), and they are very good about sharing them. I figure as long as they are respectful and kind they are entitled to make choices that appeal to them and get on with enjoying being kids. They are good people and seeing them look delighted is what I live for most days. I don’t want to get hung up on too many irrelevant details. But I’m constantly amazed by ways other parents feel they are simply accommodating their kids. The main example that comes to mind is when people let boys act out on the playground simply because they are boys. My definition of what is acceptable behavior is not gender based. I once had a problem with a little boy who kept shoving Mona out of his way on a play structure, and after telling him firmly a few times to not touch my daughter I asked him where his mom or dad was. He pointed to the woman sitting behind me on the grass a few feet away who had watched the whole thing. I told her I thought her son was being too rough and she just shrugged and said, “He’s a boy.” I make a point now when I see boys on a playground who are polite to my kids of telling their parents that I’m impressed.
I show my kids how to set the table, but remind myself it’s not a law, and that whatever way they do it makes just as much sense. I would rather my kids stand when they practice violin the way I make my students do, but if sitting means less fuss to get them to play then I let it go. It’s pointless to get anxious about play dough colors getting mixed together, or Mona wearing her shoes on the wrong feet, or Aden not being ready to put her face underwater at the pool yet. There are just days I’m better at reminding myself of that than others. I’m sure there are other parents who feel there are underlying issues of control that need to be enforced in order to teach children respect or to just be able to make things run in a more orderly fashion, but that’s not me. It makes me uncomfortable to watch other parents enforce some standard on their children that I would find unnecessary, but most of the time I trust that they are doing the best they can with what they believe is right. Just like I expect them to let it go if I bring Mona to choir dressed as a kangaroo.
So my biggest challenge when I’m out in the world and confronted with other parents and the choices they juggle minute to minute is to remember to ask myself if whatever seems overindulgent to me really matters. On rare occasions it does, but most of the time it doesn’t. I think it’s important to give other people the benefit of the doubt because we don’t have all the information. I hope other parents do the same for me. It’s hard, but I think if we can recognize our own feelings of vulnerability we may go a long way toward extending compassion toward the people around us and stop being so defensive. (In the meantime my kids have gotten eerily quiet, so this post is done.)