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Friday, July 26, 2013

Unsolicited Advice to Fellow Parents

Unsolicited Advice to Fellow Parents

As some of you know, I am a parent. My children are 3 years old and 6 months old, so I am just starting out. I do, however, have more than a decade of experience dealing with special needs kids, students, disabled adults, and management, so that helps round out my expertise and makes room from growth as my own kids move through life’s stages.
In short, I am not an expert.
That being said, a friend of mine recently initiated a conversation about his own life path and it seems he is on the way to fatherhood, once he finishes his stint overseas. I think that is awesome. I love being a Dad. Of course, once that came up I did what all parents do: offer unsolicited advice. In my defense, everyone does it because it is a way to share wisdom, reassure ourselves that we are doing things right, and compare notes with people who have differing opinions.
So the topic drifted to ‘things to know before you procreate’ and it got me thinking. I have made a lot of mistakes, I think it’s part of the process. Telling people to make sure they cover the little’s boy’s cannon when changing him is mostly just funny when people learn for the first time.  Mentioning that Mom will poop in the delivery room might be a good heads up, but really, if you fail, it happens and the moment will pass and everyone moves on.
What I think about are the things with long term effects. Things that impact my attitude positively and I see impact other negatively. Things about perspectives, interpretation, and reactions to the various situations kids bring. Some things, like the fact that you children WILL destroy something valuable to you at some point can be mitigated by not loving ‘stuff’ so much. Good luck with that, Consumer America. Other ‘truths’, like the fact that a daughter will always break your heart, aren’t really helpful and kind of put a damper on things if you dwell on it. I am not sure that’s what a new Dad needs to hear.
So it got me thinking: What does a new Dad ‘need’ to hear? What advice could I offer that helps in the long run, that keeps the weight of being a Dad from eating away at your patience and will to live? What do I think will help me five, ten, twenty, or twenty-five years from now when I am dealing with the progressively stupider problems kids bring? What virtues do I hope to maintain so I can pass them on and maybe my kids will emulate?
And that is really what it boils down to, for me. Virtues. So, in talking to my friend, it occurs to me that the three things parents always need but often let slip away are Patience, Humor, and Willpower. These are things I hope Eve and Van develop, and I know I lack them in many ways, so I have to consciously develop them alongside my children.
So the first piece of advice I gave my friend is that he and his wife should embrace gross before they have a kid. Kids are gross. And I don’t just mean the good chance they will have a Baby Vomit Volcano or find themselves talking about poop for at least a good hour each day, often to anyone who will listen I mean kids are gross quintessentially. They will lick the grime off of gymnastics mats to make cool handprints (Hi Emily!). They will hide frogs in their pockets and then forget when they sit down. They will get infected, sick, broken, and scarred. They will try to cook you breakfast and end up exploding eggs in the microwave and smearing bacon grease all over the kitchen, themselves, every door between the stove and your bedroom door, the sheets, and any pet unlucky enough to get too close (which they will - bacon is good).
So I suggested to him to get used to gross. If there is something that particularly pops their gag reflex, overexpose to it now. Explore gross. Play with tapioca without a bowl. Eat head cheese. Huff their gym bag. Clean a high school toilet. Whatever it takes. Someday they will be thankful when the doctor tells them to bring in a sample of their delightful child’s stool because they fear there may be a worm infection. Just saying.

That got me thinking about how kids think. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking kids are either entirely faultless because they are precious and cute and really just pets with opinions that will someday magically manifest only the good parts of their parents. Others make the exact opposite mistake. They see a tiny human and assume they are like any other adult. Breaking a camera makes them quintessentially stupid. Putting together a Lego set means they are smart. Most of all, they do things because, like adults, they think things through and should be responsible for their actions (I am still looking for an adult like this - let me know if you find one).
Children are neither.  
Imagine a scale, where at one end you have these faultless primates and the other you have The Good Son. Children absolutely start at the former end. They might get close to the latter end when they are forty, but I wouldn’t bet on it. As children grow, the amount of agency (ability to make decisions and act on them) increases slowly. Most children don’t think very far ahead. They want to eat all their Halloween candy now, and don’t even consider that they will be heaving jujubes in an hour or that doing so may create a permanent candy aversion that will ruin every Halloween forever. An adult who puts a grilled cheese sandwich into your Xbox is a jerk. There is a reasonable expectation that they knew the consequences, did so for social reasons, and probably could have figured out what would happen with actually going through with it. Your five year old, however, doesn’t have the experiences or mental acuity to work through all the complexities of what they are doing. They are, for all intents and purposes, about 10% agency and 90% impulse/curiosity/confusion at that point.
People run into the problem a lot with teenagers. At fifteen, a person should know a bit more about what they are doing and take some damn responsibility for themselves, right? Well, yes. Definitely push for that. But understand that to a child, each year is like a whole new life time. It is a major segment of their existence and they see things through new eyes, process things with a new brain, and move things with a new body that changes daily. Add on top of that hormones, newfound social pressures, and about six years of constantly being uncomfortable physically, and you tell me how well you can think straight.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about rolling over, or being a paragon of forgiveness, or not putting out structure, discipline, or consequences. You HAVE to do those things. I am talking about what is going inside your head as a parent. Cut the kids some slack, and when you have to get tough, remember that you were once there too. Provide boundaries, help them balance risk and reward, and be the bad guy a lot. But in your heart, where you store all of these emotions, remember to be compassionate to them and you. 
This brings us to the third piece of advice I gave (which by the way weren’t nearly this long winded). Have a sense of humor with your kids. I don’t mean make jokes, or play, or have fun. You should do those too. What I mean is that it helps to realize that parenthood is a game. We provide structure, discipline and guidance; our kids try to work around them. That’s their job. It isn’t about being in control, or being the most powerful one, or being obeyed. You look at it that way, and you will end up with kids who either integrate those values and become jerks as adults or they will succumb to your behavior and become obedient little drones (or somewhere on that scale).
A successful adult is compassionate, clever, flexible, and disciplined. They can solve problems, work around obstacles without hurting themselves or others. And guess what, you, the parent, are an obstacle. They can be respectful. That is important. But when you tell your kid that they can’t have candy before dinner so they wake up early and eat it all before breakfast, maybe you should have been a bit clearer with your instructions.
It’s a game. A game where you have more power, but using that power is dangerous. If you make it a power struggle, you will lose. They will grow up, they will take that frustration of being powerless out on someone else, and most of all they will not learn how to make the right choices until after they have screwed up tremendously.
So I recommended to my buddy to keep a sense of humor about it. When your kid outsmarts you, have there be consequences but in your heart remember that a smart kid who learned to respect their adversaries will go far. Be an adversary worth respecting (and not fearing).
We often feel like we have less power in our lives than we would like;don’t take that out on your kids, or they will feel exactly the same way. Over the course of the thirty years it takes a kid to be independent-ish (on average), you will play the “rules/weasel” game a lot. If you are a sore loser, you will have a long road ahead

So, that was the thought process that came up during my conversation with my friend. I reiterate: I am no expert. I am wrong more than I am right, and I am not very good at practicing what I preach. These are ideals to be striven towards, not pass/fail absolutes. In case you were wondering, or having trouble following my meandering thought process, here is what I told him:

                Get used to gross. Fall in love with gross. Inure yourself to gross. Gross can be funny or it can be upsetting. You choose.
                Encourage responsibility but remember kids are not adults. They are not responsible for everything they do in the same way adults are. Give them boundaries and consequences, but in your mind remember that you were once there too.
                Structure and Power is a game between you and your child. Like above, provide discipline, but in the end you want a kid who can think around problems, and you, as a parent, are their first consistent problem.

                It all boils down to having a good attitude, letting go of the authority a little in your own mind, and remembering that kids will love you unless trained to do otherwise. It’s all about the long game, and how you process and store your experiences as a parent will count more than any individual problem. You may not ever explain how you feel to you children, but they will see how you react emotionally to the inevitable issues that will arise between them and you and will do the same when they grow up.
                There are a lot of virtues out there, but today I was thinking about Patience, Humor, and Willpower. Wish me luck.

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