How I parent: Treating children with respect

I’m now six years into this parenthood thing. Like most other parents I know, I’m pretty much making it all up as I go. A lot of my parenting choices, however, are based on my experiences as a child, and the philosophies and methods my own parents had. Many of those methods are solid, useful ones — after all, I turned out reasonably okay, all things considered. But there are also of things I’ve chosen specifically to do differently from my own parents.

I am the product of my childhood; of my parents’ beliefs and actions, and of my own experiences as an extremely sensitive child. There are a few specific incidents and situations in my life that shaped me into the kind of parent that I am today.

My mom and stepdad had a difficult relationship. They married when I was a toddler, so he was always a part of my life, and was always my dad, but as I got older their issues became more apparent to me. Between various mental health problems that went largely untreated and the problems they had communicating with each other, I learned a lot about how not to manage a relationship (although early on I made a few of the exact same mistakes, of course).

There were times, when I was a teenager, that they would fight. I can’t remember anymore what the fights were about. I don’t imagine it really matters. What I do remember was the effect that those fights had on me, and the atmosphere of the place I called home.

Sometimes… often, even… my parents’ tactic for resolving fights was to stop talking to each other. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not even for a week. Sometimes they would refuse to be in the same room as each other for a month or longer. The house would be tense and uncomfortable, full of subtle and unsubtle jabs and attempts to win kids over. Because I was my mother’s daughter by blood, and because my stepdad had suffered through issues with my older sister when she was a teenager, he would include me in his refusal to talk to my mom. So basically, if he was mad at her he was also mad at me. If he wasn’t talking to her, he wouldn’t talk to me.

It was devastating. He was my dad. He had been my dad for as long as I could remember. And I was punished for not being his real daughter. It hurt. So I promised myself that if I ever fought with my partner, the children would not become a target for my anger and frustrations.

Once there happened a month-long, epic, no-one-is-talking-to-each-other battle during my early teen years. I got frustrated, tired, and saddened by the situation, so I took a piece of paper and some pencil crayons and I drew a stop sign. I coloured it in, and I wrote the word ‘please’ underneath the sign, because I was hurting and I just wanted my parents to stop fighting and maybe talk to each other and try to work things out. I left it on the kitchen counter for my dad to find.

The next morning I was the first one up. I found the paper sitting on the counter where I’d left it, flipped upside-down. Written on the back in my dad’s handwriting was this: “Mind your own god-damned business.”

I picked up the paper, tossed it out, went back to the basement to my bedroom, and I cried for a while. I was not emotionally equipped to fix the problems my parents had with each other, and I hadn’t claimed that I could. I just wanted them to stop not fixing them. But I also felt that, after a month or more of people in the house refusing to even be in the same room, it had become my business. They weren’t even trying, and it was affecting my life directly. I felt like that made it my business.

At any rate, it didn’t help. They kept fighting a lot. Eventually, a few years after I moved away from home, they divorced, to no one’s surprise and much to my relief.

None of your business

But I thought often and deeply about my hamfisted attempt to break through and communicate with my dad, and about his response to it. I knew what was going on, and I knew that it was an unhealthy situation that was affecting everyone. But he believed that the fights he and my mom had were not my business — the dancing around subjects, not talking, pretending that none of it had an effect on me or my life since I was just a kid — so I couldn’t possibly understand it. I understood plenty. My teenage years were riddled with depression, although I didn’t have the right language to know that that’s what I was going through.

I thought about his belief for a long time. And I decided that he was wrong.

I still think he was wrong. And that decision became a core belief that I have as a parent myself.

Children are people. They understand what’s happening more than they get credit for. They are affected by the things that go on around them. And they deserve a level of communication about the things that go on around them, and the things that affect their lives. Not talking about serious or important issues does not go unnoticed. Hiding things or pretending everything is normal when it isn’t only creates distrust and frustration.

We explained my cancer to Lyra — we told her what cancer is and that it can kill people. We described what chemotherapy was going to do to me. She came to the hospital when I was getting my chemo treatment and got to see them administer the drugs. She was aware of why I had to go into the hospital for three days when I got sick before Christmas, and came to visit every day.

Her Great Grandmother passed away a few weeks ago, and we talked about it. She doesn’t remember meeting her — the last time she saw her Great Grandmother was when she was three. But we talked about dying, and about family, aging, and Alzheimers, and that her Dad was going to fly to Ontario to help his own Dad and support him in his grief. These things affect her family — they are as much her business as the decisions about whether she is going to take swimming or gymnastics classes.

So if her parents were to have a huge fight that lasted a month or more, yes, I think it would be her god-damned business.

My mother had a different approach. She talked to us about things. She treated me like a person, and was willing to discuss things with me as though I understood. Which, generally, I did, and the times that I didn’t our discussions helped me to. I wasn’t stupid, and youth does not equal disconnect from reality. I appreciate her honesty and willingness to treat me like another human being, and not like a baby that had to be protected and coddled.

In the years since they split up when I was 20, I’ve spoken to my stepdad three or four times, and seen him twice. Maybe I was too much like her. Maybe he never saw me as anything but a child who shouldn’t be involved in the decisions of her elders. I don’t think he forgave her for leaving, and I know he was angry about it for a very long time. The times that I did see him, he made it a point to tell me how much he hated her. I refused to deal with that kind of toxicity in my life, so I stopped trying to see him, and he never made any efforts to reach out to me.

Respect

For me, it’s about respect. I respect my children as people. I will protect them from the things that they should be protected from, but I will not shield them from the dirt and the badness that happens in our own lives. We have open discussions about the challenges we face, on a level that we consider appropriate. They deserve to know what’s happening in the family because they are part of the family and are affected by everything. Even if they’re children, I don’t talk to them like they’re stupid or need to be protected. They can, and should, hear truth from us their parents — because if we are willing to tell them the truth about our lives, then they will learn to feel comfortable telling us the truth about theirs.

And because they are human beings who deserve my respect.

Someday they will be adults, and I hope to have conversations with them about our separate lives. I hope that they will talk to me about their problems, and that they’ll want to hear about the things that happen in my life, good and bad.

At 38 years old, I am not a kid. My mom doesn’t treat me like one, either. If she did, I’d probably get frustrated with the situation and avoid talking to her, because no one, of any age, likes to be talked to as if they’re a dumb kid. We have respect for each other, and our relationship is stronger because of that. When I see people talking to Lyra in simple terms, skirting around issues, I can already see her mentally discounting them, as though she’s categorizing this particular adult as someone who sees her as a little kid, and not someone who respects her as a person. She hates being talked down to.

I don’t blame her. Doesn’t everyone?

Parental self esteem

Full disclosure: I am in full-on muddy-headed post-chemo haze, so some of this might be rambly.

None of the parents I know, if asked, will tell you that they’ve got this parenting thing figured out. Not one of them. They all seem confused by their children’s actions on a regular basis, busy, and trying their best to do what’s right for their families, and especially for their kids. Myself included. We all seem to think that, somehow, we’re doing something that will screw up our kid. And, in some way, we probably are. But I’m pretty sure that the fact that we’re even worried about it is a sign that we’re on the right track, and that the amount and type of screwed-up our kids end up with will somehow be lessened over what it might be if we didn’t worry, if we didn’t care about our actions and their impacts on our children.

Sometimes — often, even — I my fellow moms put themselves down for not being good enough at something, for not being able to follow through on something, or for wanting to be capable of doing things that just don’t fall within their field of knowledge, interest, or capacity. I’ve done it, but I’ve tried more recently not to. The ongoing cancer experience has really cemented that for me, although I started paying attention to it last year sometime. I see some of the other moms at Lyra’s school organizing things like group gifts for the teachers, and planning playdates, and going to PAC meetings, and I wonder if I should be doing that. I have friends that sew, and I

I see other moms choosing to stay at home and homeschool their kids, and I think that’s awesome, but it’s also something that I am really not interested in taking on myself, even if it were an option for our family (which it’s not right now). I would be a terrible stay-at-home-homeschooling mom. TERRIBLE. And I see other moms going super-eco crunchy momma, and I love the idea of so many things they do, but beyond that I know I would get irritated with the process of doing those things and ultimately hate it and be resentful of it. It’s not for me. Life is too short for me to take on extra work and activities that I’d be doing alone (because I would be, no matter how hard I tried to force the family to take part) when I could be having much more fun and interesting experiences that both me and my family will enjoy.

I want to have adventures with my family. Little ones, like bike rides and hiking in the woods and playing video games together on Saturday mornings and experiencing well-written cartoons and movies (and a few crappy ones, sigh). Big ones like traveling to new places when we can manage it, or visiting some of the tourist activities nearby that we haven’t gone out to yet, and plenty of things we just haven’t though of yet. Those are on hold until cancer is done with.

So there are a lot of parents out there, who do a lot of different things for their families. I admire many of them for doing those things. I am envious of their talents and abilities, and their drive to do things that I just can’t see myself learning or being any good at, and can’t find the energy or enough interest to learn how and follow through myself. Sometimes I feel bad about this, until I remember that I’m only one person, and I can’t expect to be and do everything that every other person combined is out there doing and being. My children are not going to be irreparably damaged by my inability to sew or can my own food. They won’t be disappointed in my preferring to take part in other people’s teacher gifts plans instead of coming up with something lovely, hand-made and personalized to give to their teacher each year. Not that I wouldn’t support THEM in doing that; but I’m not going to do it for them.

Instead there will be adventure days and Saturday mornings at home playing Ni No Kuni and spending time with each other doing things that we enjoy, and spending time not with each other doing things that only one of us enjoys. Because balance. And I won’t feel like I’m less of a mom than someone else is because they have different interests and priorities than I do. And I won’t feel bad about not doing things that the other parents are doing with their kids because it’s just something that’s done, especially when it’s not something we’re collectively interested in doing as a family.

If I think I’m a terrible mom for not doing what the other moms are doing, it’s bound to come through somehow to my girls. They’ll see me putting myself down for things that don’t make much sense. If it happens to much, they might start to model that behaviour, and I could start to see their self esteem drop because they think they need to do and be all things, as much as I think I need to do and be all things (and perfectly of course, because I like to be good at things I do). Right now they are young enough to be confident about most things, and I love that. I don’t want to be the reason they question themselves.

I just hope that the other parents I know that go through the same feelings of self-doubt and frustration at not being able to do all the things don’t wear themselves out with worry that they’re just not enough. Maybe having cancer and really connecting with life and time has given me some extra focus on my values and priorities. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things I want to do when I’m not utterly exhausted from the chemotherapy, and none of them are the things that I sometimes think I should be doing to be more mom-like according to other people’s Facebook update standards. I’m okay with that.

I’m owning my so-called failures as a parent, because they’re not failures. They’re just priorities and levels of interest. And we’ve all got different ones.

Silver family
Because these people I’m with are awesome

Boredom, decisions and the four year old

Lyra has been going through a phase where she isn’t interested in making her own decisions. Every morning I offer her breakfast and she refuses everything I offer, so I follow up with asking her what she wants. She replies, “I don’t know, what should I have?” The same happens at lunch. Dinner is whatever I make, so she doesn’t have the same options… but she’ll happily go without eating much for breakfast or lunch, and subsisting on snacks instead.

I’ve figured out that she’s waiting for me to offer her the ‘treat’ option for food — berries or crackers or something that we don’t have every day. But there are reasons we don’t have those things every day, and I’m not giving in to that. So she just doesn’t eat as much as she could. I’m confident that she’s still healthy, since her energy is still as high as it’s ever been.

Lyra loves her berriesThe other thing she’s been doing lately is demanding that Adam or I entertain her. She walks up to us and half-whines, “What should we dooooo?” to which we respond with a couple of suggestions (usually ones she rejects). Sometimes it’s because she’s looking for us to offer a specific thing (a computer game, Netflix, going swimming, going to the playground), and sometimes I think it’s just that she’s bored and stuck in that bored loop where you’re so bored you can’t actually motivate yourself to do anything. I admit it, I know that loop well.

For the first week or so after she started this, we tried to provide her with options, or play with her ourselves as much as we could. It didn’t seem to help the core issue, though… in fact it made her worse, and she started asking “What should I doooooo??” every few minutes. It was driving us completely mad.

So we stopped helping and told her to figure something out for herself. That led to more whining and crying, which we ignored. And eventually she walked away, went to her room, and picked up her animal toys or her cars and started playing with them. It worked!

She keeps asking the question, thought not as often, and she’s accepting it when we tell her to go do something on her own. I’m pretty sure these are skills she’s going to need for the rest of her life — I still have trouble with being bored and wanting someone else to tell me how to fix it. If she can learn to entertain herself now, she’ll be a step ahead of me.

It’s the tiny victories that make it all worthwhile.

Reaching out

Lyra has started reaching for people in the past week. It is incredibly cute, and incredibly satisfying all at once. She reaches out both arms when she’s sitting on the floor and wants to be picked up, or when she’s in Adam’s arms and wants to be with me, or vice versa.

We’re also starting to find more success when it comes to bedtime. For six months we’ve had a baby who would only sleep on a person – most preferably, her mom. This made my days and evenings somewhat limiting, although I didn’t particularly mind, I must admit. Other folks talk about putting the baby down for a nap, or putting the baby down to sleep at night – this was not part of our world for Lyra’s first six months.

Now the evenings include hour-long sleeping sessions for the little girl, on her own. She wakes up frequently (around once every half hour to hour) and needs to be settled in again, but she has started falling asleep quicker and staying asleep for a bit longer each night. If she needs us to be there for her when she wakes up, then we will be there. I don’t subscribe to the concept that a baby needs to learn how to be alone by crying hysterically for its parents – after all, unlike a lot of other animals out there, human babies are actually helpless for a very long time. It only makes sense that being alone is not part of the natural instinct for our little girl. We haven’t been civilized as a species for all that long – instinct is a tough nut to crack. I’d rather make her feel that she can trust her parents will be there when she cries. I know, as an adult, I want someone to be there for me when I cry too. She can learn independence in her own time. She’s already starting to – she sits on the floor quite happily on her own now that she’s able to.

This time goes by quickly, everyone tells me so, and six months has already gone by in a flash. It’s not so very long that she’ll need to depend on us for everything, and it’s certainly no sacrifice for us to be there for her. We’re not trying to reclaim our independence from her or anything like that – she is here, and we are her parents, and that doesn’t go away when the sun goes down.

At least that’s how I feel about things, and really, that’s the only thing that matters.