I recently read a piece in the Huffington Post in which the author, Kara Gebhart Uhl, apologizes to all the parents she’d judged before she had children.
“Pre-children: No TV until age of 2 and then only 30 minutes a day.
Pre-children: Only organic, healthy, homemade food.
Post-children: My kids love Wendy’s.
Pre-children: Public tantrums are unacceptable.
Post-children: Removal of the child is only sometimes doable; predicting when a tantrum is going to strike is often impossible.”
I get that she’s being funny, cute, down-to-earth. I read it and at first thought, well, I have kids and I don’t take them to Wendy’s, bribe them with candy, or give them my iPhone to get them to calm down. You can still parent naturally, gently, and make it until bedtime without becoming insane.
Or can you?
I have visions of instilling this beautiful self-regulation in my children so that they flow effortlessly through their days, knowing when they’ve had too much play and retreat to their beds, knowing when they’re hungry and reaching for the fresh fruit I have available, knowing when they have to use the bathroom so they don’t have accidents, understanding their limits and boundaries so they can push back gently in the face of negative peer pressure.
Oh, wait. Here’s another fantasy I have. I am so in tune to my children’s needs and desires and emotions that there is incredible harmony in our home. And when I take them out in public there are no temper tantrums, no pulling away and running like an escaped convict down the aisles of the health food store, no asking for a “treat” five hundred times. My children would be curious, polite, engaged, and mellow. Their needs and mine being continuously met by each other in a blissful system of harmonious mutual giving, appreciation, and forethought.
A recent trip to the dentist for my 5 year old reminded me what an imperfect system my parenting is. Poor girl was scared. Didn’t want them to get near her mouth with the drill and no amount of cajoling would convince her to open her mouth and stay still. We have to try again. I told her, in all my naive belief that the inherent goodness of children wins out, that sometimes we have to do scary things. And once we’re through the scary thing the feeling we get for being so brave is incredible. That it’s a reward in itself. I validated her fears, tried to bolster her self-confidence and tried to gently let her know the procedure is necessary.
The only way I’m getting her to even consider going back is pure and unadulterated bribery. I told her we had to do it but we could make a “plan” for afterwards. Cushion it to myself however I want, I’m bribing my kid to get her teeth fixed. We’re going out to lunch and to a toy store afterwards. That’s the “plan.” Not just “the feeling of conquering your fears is the reward.”
It’s made me realize that we do need “tricks” to “get through” some days as parents. I firmly believe that the tricks (or maybe tools is a better word) don’t have to be candy or excessive television, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we don’t need some coaxing, calming, validating, transition easing, and even once in a while, some bribery. We accumulate these techniques and save them up in our mama “tool bags.” Singing is great for easing transitions — (“Now it’s time to come to eat, welcome, welcome!”) Finding a way to say no without saying the word “no” — (“Oh, man, it would be really fun if we stayed in our pajamas until lunchtime, I agree. Let’s make a plan to do that on the weekend, okay? We need to get on clothes so we can go to the store this morning.”) And lots and lots of redirection — (“Oh, I loved when we played that whisper game yesterday when your sister was napping, let’s do that!”) I understand I’m trying to get my kid to do what I want or don’t want her to. I’m still, in essence, coaxing her into (more) socially acceptable behavior.
It would be nice not to have to do this, but it’s okay. In a way, this is “bird in the hand” parenting. Our realities don’t live up to our fantasies far more often than than they do, as Uhl makes very clear, and we need to adapt and adapt quickly. And having these “tricks” in our hands gives our parenting tangibility and functionality. We can take them out at a moment’s notice and feel their comforting heft and usefulness. Because so much of our parenting happens (forgive my murdering this metaphor) on the fly, I’d rather have a bird (or yes, even an iPhone occasionally) in the hand than two in the bush. Or an empty hand.