Friday, April 13, 2007

Horses, Babies and Slackers

I've mentioned before that I used to be big into horses. I went through times when I was very disciplined about it and rode every day in preparation for competitions, and times when I was less ambitious and got distracted by friends and boys (although, in the interest of full disclosure, no real boys were interested in distracting me until I was 17, and then he was passionate about horses too so I remained disciplined so it was more an obsession with boys when I was younger, trying to figure out how to meet some that would like me I guess).

When I was about 14, I got a new horse who was still somewhat green, and I set about training him with the help of my coach. Also at this time, I started babysitting. I discovered that many principles of training horses could be applied to dealing with children. Things like never doubting that you're the boss, never lose your cool, and never get angry. Always keep your eyes on the end goal. Getting angry at a horse, I learned the hard way when I was younger, would set you back weeks in your training. Horses are social animals and their herds have a strict hierarchy that gets renegotiated every time a new horse is introduced. So if a horse thinks they are the boss of you, you are seriously risking your life. Luckily, horses have small brains, and can be relatively easily convinced that you are the boss despite the 1000-pound advantage they have.

Anyways, I babysat people's kids and I applied the same principles that worked on horseback. If the kids screeched for something they couldn't have I remained calm and repeated the options that were available. I negotiated with them. Only once was discipline really called for when a three-year-old pinched her three-month-old baby brother's head so hard the skin wrinkled. Then I did like her parents and sent her to her time-out chair. That same baby brother was somehow already trained to fall asleep by himself. I could put him in his crib awake for his nap and he would coo himself to sleep (AT THREE MONTHS OLD!). I'd have to listen carefully at the end of his nap because he would just sing to himself until I went to get him. I didn't really know how his mother did it but I resolved to do that with my kids one day.

I started to watch other parents over the years and I saw all the mistakes they were making. I resolved not to make those mistakes with my kids.

Well here I am, a parent, and I am making those 'mistakes.' I don't even know how really, but here we are and despite my resolutions that MY child will go to bed, MY child will have a set bedtime, MY child will be put to bed by many different people, and MY child will be babysat by others from time to time, those things haven't really happened. Some things like the bedtime, are coming into place 14 months later, but the babysitting? Not so much. And I do get angry, I do lose my cool.

What I have discovered is that the emotional distance required to train children like horses is impossible when you're the parent. That approach may work fine for two or three-hour periods when you're babysitting someone else's kids and you know you'll be able to walk away when your time is up, but it doesn't work for parents. Or at least it doesn't for me. The high emotions tied up with MY child are further compounded by exhaustion and sleep deprivation, by being so engaged in this motherhood business, so covered in Mommy as Bailey put it on Grey's Anatomy once, that my resources are used up to the last little molecule, so there's nothing left and I STILL have to keep going.

More than anything, I have learned that judging other people's 'mistakes' in parenting are like diagnosing other people's marital problems -- stupid and pointless. We do what works, and at least half of the time, we're coasting on fumes.

Not to mention the fact that I don't think there is a neat and tidy, linear, cause and effect relationship between a child's behaviour and parenting choices. It's a complex interplay between nature and nurture, which in turn is a negotiation between the natures and nurtured experiences of two different parents (if they're both involved). For example, Andrea mentioned in a comment at B&P's that Frances hasn't had a temper tantrum - ever - and she's three. Does Andrea know the secret of parenting that none of the rest of us know? Or is she just lucky? With all due respect to Andrea, I have to believe she's lucky.

I just read confessions of a slacker mom by muffy mead-ferro, who's apparently such a slacker she can't even be bothered with capitalization. I thought it would be right up my alley, since I discovered that I am not a baby trainer. I expected, you know, confessions, from, you know, a slacker. But I got neither. I suppose the pointy-toed shiny black uber-shoes on the cover should have warned me that it wasn't written by a REAL slacker.

On the one hand, it's cool that she's attempting to counteract the plethora of contradictory advice and instructions for new parents, like we here in the blogosphere do from time to time. But on the other, the book mostly just offers yet another contradictory prescription for parents. There are personal anecdotes, which would put the book in a memoir (momoir?) category, but it's also filled with judgments of other parents, including diagnoses of their mistakes, and completely unfounded, unbacked-up conclusions. The prescriptive attitude swiftly removes it from the category of memoir. Alternative titles could have been, "The NEW Right Way to Parent," or "that's how I was raised and I turned out fine."

I am not a person who trusts science just because it's science, but if you're going to draw a conclusion like if your kid throws a tantrum in a store, you should march the child out explaining that not only will you not buy the kid the airplane he's freaking out over but you won't even let him be in the store, I'd like to see some kind of evidence that it'll work. Muffy says that the momentary inconvenience of not completing your errand will pay off later, but doesn't offer the slightest bit of proof that it actually works, whether anecdotal or study-based. That is not a slacker mom, in my opinion. A slacker mom would do what works in the moment, which probably means accomplishing the errand however you can.

PLUS, that whole little anecdote she used was about somebody ELSE's kid having a temper tantrum in a store. And she thought she knew what the right course of action was? For someone ELSE's kid? I don't buy it.

Some of what muffy says I happen to agree with. Like encouraging more unstructured time and not packing the calendar too full of structured activities. And as B&P once called it, a little benign neglect is not such a bad thing, in my opinion. And, I'm also not into buying a boatload of toys... I love watching Swee'pea's endless fascination for a yogurt container, putting the lid on and off, and putting items in the container then taking them out. I like that he plays with lots of stuff other than toys and if we're in a new place he gets new containers from the kitchener cupboard.

But muffy uses a lot of examples from her own childhood being raised on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. (I will come back to my suspicion of parents who don't examine their own parents' choices with a critical eye in another post.) She argues that it's a good thing to let children learn for themselves to avoid making stupid mistakes that hurt, to learn that they should be careful of cracks in the sidewalk because scraped knees hurt. Which doesn't sound so bad, but her illustration comes from the ranch. I grew up on a farm too, not a working farm but we still had to take the hay in on the hottest days of the year, and it was also just about to rain so we had to work as hard and as fast as we could. I drove the truck once when I was about 12 years old because we were shorthanded and I wasn't strong enough to throw the bales on the back of the truck.

Anyways, my point is that farms are unsafe for kids. Children die or suffer serious injuries on farms every year. Which is not to say that it's bad to raise kids on a farm or involve them in chores, but just that the fact that many children survive their childhoods without serious injury doesn't mean that it's a paragon of childrearing. It doesn't mean we should let our kids figure out how to avoid stupid mistakes that endanger their lives without our guidance. Yes, we can't protect our kids from every possible injury, but we may as well protect them from the ones we can.

(I remember once my first boyfriend and I went for a walk to a local swimming hole one night. There was heat lightning in the sky while we were swimming, and on the walk back it turned into a bonafide thunder storm. I freaked. I just knew we were going to fry. I was frozen in place and hyperventilating. My legs wouldn't work. But my boyfriend said that maybe we were going to get struck, but he was determined that he would be as close to home as he could damn well get before it happened. So I got my legs back and we ran the mile home holding hands and arrived safely. I think about his attitude a lot when faced with a difficult situation.)

Muffy even trots out the old horse-child analogy that made so much sense to me before I was a parent. The analogy grossly oversimplifies the tension of trying to sort out what limits to enforce when, trying to sort out when it's right to be the boss and when it's right to encourage a sense of agency in our children. And trying to sort out when it's right just to surrender for the sake of our own sanity and survival. Never mind that these limits are going to be different from family to family.

Muffy tries to end the book with a chapter about how we must follow our own instincts and never mind the parenting manuals, which is obviously an idea close to my own heart. But it falls flat after the previous 8 or whatever chapters prescribing the RIGHT way to parent.

So I guess I'm encouraged that there's room in the market for a book by a REAL slacker like me, with REAL confessions, not rationalizations and judgments. I think there is far more power in writing about our own experiences as parents without extrapolating them to other people. I think it's better to look at the kid throwing a temper tantrum in the store with some interest in what the parent does, not for judgment or to compare what the parents do with the RIGHT way to respond, but to learn how to suspend judgment and be more sympathetic. Our lessons and methods don't have to be used by other people to be right. I think it is far more subversive and supportive to embrace plurality and difference in our parenting choices than it is to add yet more voices and opinions and contradictions to the chorus of the ONE RIGHT WAY to parent.


Suz said...

I have trouble with the sort of judgemental thinking that assumes it must be the parent's fault if children are misbehaving. Granted, sometimes it is, but the parent is often doing everything that he or she can think of to do. I think that it's probably the reason why I just don't read a lot of momoirs.

bubandpie said...

Not your main point, I know, but on the protecting our children thing - have you noticed the recent rash of posts out there this week on the theme of "remembering the time I/my friend/my brother nearly drowned in the ocean and our parents never knew about it because we never told them"?

So yeah. Better for children to learn their lessons in situations where they can't die.

Mad Hatter said...

You know what I think? I think that blog reading has spoiled me. I don't think I ever want to read a single authored parenting tome whether it be a manual or a momoir ever again. I would feel as if someone had silenced all the other voices. That's the great thing about blogging. Even if we catch whiffs of sentiments we don't agree with here and there, we can cruise elsewhere to satisfy our palates. Somehow, a single-authoured parenting book just seems dull to me now.

slouching mom said...

What Mad said.

The only parenting book I ever read that didn't offend my sensibilities was Brazelton's Touchpoints.

I much prefer reading parenting blogs.

kgirl said...

I've never read a parenting book, and I doubt I'll be starting with that one.

And no freakin way did that mother 'train' her 3 month old to put himself to sleep. That's the nature of that baby, baby.

Beck said...

The parenting book that has been my touchstone is Bill Sears' Discipline Book - even when I disagree with him (quite frequently) his advice is never the sort that gets me fuming, just calm, gentle, sensible stuff.
Having said that, I DO judge other parents - not for stuff like a toddler throwing a tantrum (that just happens) but for allowing their kids to do behaviour that is just a pain in the ass for everyone around them - letting a toddler run around a crowded coffee shop, for example, the sort of behaviour that screams "my child getting what they want is more important than your safety and your comfort."

jen said...

i agree w/ Mad, too. i find the wisdom i need here lately. from the real and diverse words floating around.

Sandra said...

I was so overwhelmed with all the judgemental "one right way" parenting books out there. I even had a ritual book burning one day out of exasperation.

I am with Mad. Since blogging, I haven't opened the spine of a single parenting book for all the reasons you write about.

Aliki2006 said...

So much does have to do with the personality of a kid, rather than some terrible neglectful (or not as the case may be) act on the parents' part.

Good, thoughtful post. By the way, I was "into" horses too and rode for seven years and competed. Then I had a riding accident...I've lately been entertaining the idea of getting backup on that proverbial horse and trying again.

Mimi said...

ahhhhh, very interesting.

I wonder if the horse-training, child-rearing parallel might still hold if mothers weren't so overwhelmed and exhausted all the time? If we got a little more support? I am much more principled and effective as a mom when I know I'm on a three- or a six-hour shift and then Pynchon is taking a turn.

Very interesting.

And I'm with Mad -- books on this stuff have really lost their hold on me.

And Beck, too. Sometimes, enough is enough. But I'm trying to be empathetic, most of the time.

crazymumma said...

oh man. I wanted to do it all right, and in the end I have just come out being human.

And humbled.

Denguy said...

"suspend judgment and be more sympathetic"

Well said, honestly, well said.

Karen said...

Yep, just this morning I read two posts one about how sometimes it's frustrating when your baby won't sleep and you get mad and your not wearing matching socks...been there! The other (GNM post) was a prescriptive my kids are better than yours cause we've never raised our voices to them. I applaud him and his wife, sorta, cause I always have to think, like mimi said, we're not all getting the kind of support or living the kind of life that easily enables no yelling ever. I don't want to yell, but sometimes I don't realized I've crossed over from frustrated to angry until I've already done it. Isn't it good enough to turn around and cross back over to the kind of parenting I want to practice? I could assure the GNM guy that my kids are delightful as well. I'd like to assure him that the full range of human emotions can't be inherently dangerous for children cause one day kids will have those feelings themselves. His post felt judging and superior; Who is he talking to? He doesn't even know.