Sometimes I wish parenting were this easy. Plug into your child’s interests and run with them. Set up a few mini-figs, make a few lego creations and pretend you’re having a picnic with Stormtroopers after an eventful journey through space.
I can do this. This has never been a problem for me. Many times, our house is like an episode from Toopy and Binoo where we are all pretending our way through a day. Dickson is Donatello, I’m Leonardo, Eliza is Raphael and Franklin is always Michelangelo. Bedtime is run like a scene from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Things get done, but it’s fun.
Other times, this is not the case. Other times… many times, I feel like a crappy Mom. I say things that make sense in my head but once they’re said out loud, it is crazy. Things that make Dickson and I laugh later in the evening but which stick with me and remind me that I’m not doing this parenting thing all that well.
For instance, I know – from experience and from research – that praising your child for the result is not teaching them how to believe in themselves. Rather, praising them for their effort is what makes them understand how to navigate life successfully – to be able to trust in yourself enough to try, to try harder, to be comfortable with failure, to get up and try it again.
But can I trust myself enough to do this?
And this is where I break my rules for blogging. This is where I become vulnerable and think about my own happy but nervous childhood and I start trying to type through watery eyes. Blech.
I don’t think I was taught about effort – more likely, I was too caught up in my own self pity to hear anything about effort. I certainly remember being taught about success and I certainly remember my brother being incredibly smart. I also remember being told that I was expected to rise higher than my parents. My father was a doctor – a surgeon. My mother was a politician, ran an office, a nurse, a Mom to 5 kids… I was to do what?!? How?!? I felt crushed under the weight of that expectation. All I could see was my older and incredibly intelligent brother so I figured, “This just isn’t going to happen, parents. You guys are going to have to depend on the other kids in the family” and subsequently bowed out of the success game. One assessment of my brother by…. pretty much everyone around, was all that was needed to ensure that someone was going to do my parents proud. Of course, my parents are going to be shocked to read this. It’s gotta be a little crappy to find out goes on in your kid’s head years after the fact.
I don’t blame my parents for any of my failures. I know they love me very much and parented me the best way they knew how. I know this. But have I learned anything? Even though I recognize much of Franklin in that New York Magazine article, can I change my behaviors and outlook to benefit my son? Am I just doing the same thing over again? Incredibly, I have even told Franklin the same line about rising above his parents. WTF?!?! Where did that get me? With a perfectionist that is horrified to get less than perfect on his spelling, that’s where.
I always tell Franklin how much I love him and what a wonderful human being he is – smart, caring, kind, funny… I mean, I’m his mother! My parents love me too and would have naturally believed that all of their children could do anything they wanted – that we had the entire world in the palm of our hands. Sadly though, I don’t think I ever knew how to grasp this world. The result is that even though something they tried to teach me got through my thick head and I find myself living a wonderful life, I’m lost as to how to teach my own children. How do you close your fingers around your goals and squeeze? How do you calmly step through life without fear? I truly have no idea.
How do I teach my child that he’s not perfect? It’s not as easy as it seems. As widely read as that article is about the problems with superficial praise, the world doesn’t work this way. Franklin is told he is smart all the time by well meaning, loving people. Effort is not a valued commodity. In fact, if someone were to tell me that it looked like I had put a lot of effort into my painting instead of praising its final product I would take it as thinly veiled criticism and ask them why they didn’t like it. Obviously, I still feel the need to be perfect and frustration is too bland of a word for how I feel about this.
A solution? I really don’t have one. I’m learning as I go that all is not really lost. Franklin is only 7 years old. He’s only just started to navigate the world of timed math exams and weekly spelling tests. I need to listen to him and understand that he is not me. Even though I see so much of him in me as he grows older, I need to realize that my memories are not his and he is not seeing the world through my eyes. I wish I had something more as a conclusion. Something better. Something that made sense.
Instead, I have the following: Franklin and I are laying in bed this evening. He has just finished telling me a few stories that they are listening to in class, one about a Mexican boy and his grandfather needing to lie to get work and another about a boy named Elmer Elephant who wants to free a dragon. Franklin has an amazing memory. He can recall the tiniest details of a story just by listening. I am in awe – like always. When he’s done I make the effort not to tell him how amazing his memory is but remark on how much I enjoyed hearing the stories and I thank him. Then I mention that today I read an article that the brain is a muscle that will make you smarter when you give it a work-out, just like your arm muscle or your leg muscle. He asks if solving his rubix cube will make him smarter at math and I say, excited because he is easily discouraged by this particular puzzle, “Yes! Exactly!”
And then he’s sad.
Because he wants to take the stickers off the cube to solve it “just like you did when you wanted to show Uncle Sami (my older brother) how you solved the puzzle”.