Mark vs Cancer

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Parenting Gems

I know why you came to this blog today.  You came here because, as a parent, you are seeking wisdom from a man who's got it all together.  You want a "How To" list that will help you master the exact science of parenting, boxes that you can check off as you bask in the satisfaction of quantifiable achievement.  You came here because you want to know the secrets of becoming a Super Dad.

Sorry to disappoint you.  I'm blessed with fantastic children, but as a parent, I'll admit it:  I don't know what the heck I'm doing.  But few things bug me more than hearing by-the-book advice of how to deal with kids, because whoever wrote that book doesn't know my children.  I'll always have these advantages over the book:  I love my kids, I know them personally, and even if its unorthodox, I trust my instincts to guide me in how to deal with them.

So, sit back and relax as I share with you some of my instinctual, experiential principles that represent the survival concept  we often call "winging it."  It may not be pretty, but it's the best I can do.  (By the way, after you read this list, please disregard it.  Just trust your instincts.)

1)  Non-interventionalism:  This is my hallmark principle.  It might also be termed laissez-faire:  let them do as they will.  This is not to suggest that you allow your kids to run wild and tear around the house unsupervised, at least not if Mom is home.  This means simply that your should avoid the temptation to solve their problems and micromanage their lives.  (This is especially true when you're doing something important, like reading the paper or watching the Rockies for the fifth night in a row.)  But seriously, let your kids fight sometimes, let them make mistakes and let them navigate their own way to a resolution.  Kids are resourceful, and truthfully, Daddy ain't always gonna be there to help them, so they might as well develop some independence.

2)  Be Consistent:  If you're like me, you sometimes will succumb to the temptation to make a threat or a promise to get you out of a bind, such as when you're in the store with your two-year old and you've only got three more things to get but you sense the unmistakable warning signs of a thermonuclear meltdown about to occur as clearly as a blaring siren and so you tell your son that if he's good for five more minutes you'll let him ride the penny horse by the check-out line or perhaps you tell him that if he screams one more time then he won't get to have any dessert tonight.  The point is, if you said you were going to do it, then do it. It takes a lot fewer times then you would think for kids to realize that you're going to do what you say you will.  Then they can learn to make rational decisions about the risks and benefits of their own behavior.  The more inconsistent you are with threats and promises, the more erratic their behavior will be.

3)  Mess With Their Minds:  This may be just my own quirkiness, but I joke with my kids all the time, often in bizarre ways.  In our house, the most important day of the year is always the next upcoming minor holiday, like Groundhog's Day or St. Patrick's Day.  There's always a squirrel-bear in the backyard or the cats are plotting to escape or some other nuttiness.  At nearly every breakfast, there is a shared epiphany that today is the first day of the rest of our lives, and that it's only minus one days until yesterday.  Is there any value in that weirdness?  Probably not, but I'd like to think my kids are growing up with the ability to find humor and excitement in their own imaginations, and also a healthy sense of skepticism about the information they receive, a discernment that they will need to intellectually survive in our age of infinite information.  If nothing else, it sharpens their wit, and I think (hope) they'll develop into interesting adults.  Or they might go insane, which I guess is interesting in its own way.

4)  Wrestle With Your Boys:  I remember going to the zoo and watching the daddy lions wrestle with their cubs and thinking, "Yeah, that's what I like to do with my boys." Seriously, I think there is an inborn need for Dad's to toughen up their boys, teach them how to fight and be tough and protect themselves and their families.  And the boys love it.  So do I.  If we had our way, we'd pound and pummel each other all night, every night.

5)  Don't Raise a Girly Girl:  I'm sure this is my bias because I grew up in a home of all boys, but my feeling is that our daughters will get enough messages about their innate girliness from society that they need some potent counter-messages from their Dads to keep them healthily balanced.  Teach them to camp, play sports, wrestle, do math, fix bikes, ski, mow the lawn, etc.  That way, when they have their first boy crisis or feel devalued because someone said they were fat, they will have a deep well of other, less image-centric experiences from which to draw their sense of self-esteem.  It seems to me too much of Barbie dolls and ballerinas could make a girl subliminally feel objectified, and that might transform into a poor self-image once she becomes a teenager.  (Plus, if she learns karate, she can K.O. any fool that tries any funny business with her.)  I don't know.  My daughter is only eight.  I let you know in eight more years how this strategy turns out.

6)  Do Stuff That's Fun For Both of You:  I remember when my daughter was a toddler, perhaps from some sense of guilt about the above Principal 5, I tried and tried to engage myself in her play with dolls.  I just couldn't get into it.  In fact, I hated it, so our play, of necessity, evolved.  We developed games called Flying Frog (that involved trying to catch Beanie Babies) and Smackdown (that involved lots of tackling and wrestling) and both became big successes.  Because we both looked forward to play time, it was a much more powerful bonding experience.  This translates to boys, too.  I've found that if we're building with blocks, it's much better to invent a game that engages all of us rather than just watching someone else build.  This usually involves building something and then destroying it together.  What fun.

7)  Forgive Easily and Give Lots of Hugs:  Kids will make mistakes and will need to be disciplined, sometimes sternly, but they should never doubt they are loved.  I've never been a fan of exaggerated punishments, like "You're grounded for a month!".  Make punishments immediate, logical, and brief, and then let everybody move on with life.  A good hug and hair tossle can communicate a lot of love, so do it often.

8)  Cast a Wide Net With Activities:  Who knows if my kids have the capacity to be the next Mozart or Lindsey Vonn or John Lennon or Madame Curie?  We'll never know unless we expose them to the possibilities.  However, I also believe we should resist strongly over-extending our kids, and that the majority of their childhood should be spent in unstructured play, like we had in Missouri, playing in the creek and woods behind our house every night after school until dinner.  I think there is a balance there.   What we've settled on is having them play one sport at a time or season, and then have them try one other activity like karate or piano or horseback riding.  If they show an interest or special talent, then we stick with it.  If not, then we may decide to move on to the next thing.  Sometimes, for activities like skiing, or supremely important activities like basketball, kids may need some extended motivation.  But don't be afraid to spread the experiences around and see what sticks.

9)  Know When to Get the Heck Out of Dodge:  as in the above-mentioned two-year old in the grocery store experience, one of the true secrets of parenting is knowing when to hit the eject button.  The meltdown is coming, everyone knows it, so head for the parking lot and deal with the aftermath in the relative private of your own vehicle or home.  Don't try to display good parenting techniques in a public place when you're dealing with the mother-of-all-tantrums.  There is no good solution there, so pack it in--quickly--and minimize the humiliation.

10)  Don't Spank:  I've done this once or twice, and there may be times when its necessary, but don't do it regularly.  You'll feel horrible, your kid gets some very mixed signals, and everybody loses.  There's got to be a better way to handle the situation than violence.

There you have it, my ten Parenting Gems.  Spend about ten more seconds reading this, and then forget about it.  Nobody loves your kids like you do, so don't trust anybody else--especially me--to tell you how to raise them.  Trust your instincts.  Find your own style.  Now, go give them a big hug, and find some Legos to play with.  Childhood is magical, and they'll never be this young again.


Em said...

I'm glad to be reading this before I become a parent! It's great advice! I like the humor in No. 3, and couldn't agree more on Nos. 9 and 10. Nothing got us pulled out of a store (or the chapel) faster than throwing a tantrum or misbehaving in public.

And regarding spanking, it's easy to say "I was spanked and I turned out okay" but we should really be saying "I turned out okay in SPITE of being spanked." Don't ask me yet what other disciplinary alternatives there are, but I know spanking isn't the answer...

Thanks for the tips!

Seth Jenson said...

Mark, I loved your advice! I'm not going to forget it. I'll remember it and try to use what works for me.

Gin said...

I think Lonestar sums up probably the best way to raise your little kids in their song "Let Them Be Little". Go find it and listen to it.