Saturday, August 28, 2004

minding (why my kids are sorta spoiled)

Something trivial happened today that triggered the realization that, for the most part, my kids do what they're told, and without serious amounts of supervision, either. Yeah, they leave toys and shoes and socks all over the floor as all kids do, but they don't do things like flush random things down the toilet, or terrorize the cat, or try to pour their own milk from a full gallon. You know, they don't do the stuff that's expensive to fix, makes a huge mess, or endangers anyone.

Which is not say that these things don't happen from time to time, because of course they do. This morning we found a tiny incursion of sugar ants by the sliding glass door, which was just disgusting but made worse because the ants were in and among DD's Ello pieces, which had been sitting in a heap on the floor there for days, despite reminders to put them away. Brushing infinitesmal ants off tiny plastic beads, balls, cubes, and squiggles is not my idea of a good time, but I clearly couldn't let it all just stay there. So I put it away, and the Truly Nolan guy came about 20 minutes later and nuked the ants into oblivion. (BTW, I highly recommend both Ello and Truly Nolan, although obviously for different purposes and reasons.)

The Ello-everywhere situation is an example of how my kids are spoiled. They know they're not supposed to leave stuff lying around like that, but they also know that if it's really bothering me, I'll lean on them until they clean up. This week they got a pass on pretty much everything... there was no pressing need to have the place impeccably tidy, and I've been putting my energies elsewhere. Nagging is an exhausting undertaking.

I think somewhere along the line my parenting philosophy evolved into something that can be roughly described as "Stay out of the way as much as possible." Of course my kids are quite small and I have a huge amount of control over their lives (bed times, where they go, what they eat, how they dress...), but I have permanently squelched my instinct to react negatively when they do something that never would've occurred to me, and that my own mother would surely have yelled at me for. Case in point: DD embarked on a craft project today, she wanted to "make a house." This involved drawing the outlines of the various house parts: house, roof, door, windows, etc, then coloring them in, cutting them out, and taping them together. It's really quite cool. The girl can be quite ambitious when she wants to be. The only part I had in the entire project was getting the tape dispenser down for her.

When she asked me for the tape, my first instinct was to give her the third degree: what do you want it for? how much are you going to use? blah blah blah. Then I realized, It's just tape! Tape is cheap. Let her have the tape! I let her have the tape with nothing more than a "Here you go."

So she assembled her house to her liking, and then the tape, which is usually tucked away on a high shelf, became the toy of the day. She put about six pieces over her mouth and came over to show me, in some kind of kindergarden performance art piece. Of course she was cracking up at her own silliness, but she couldn't laugh or else the tape would come off her mouth (this was "magic" tape after all). My reptile brain immediately sounded the alarm: She's wasting tape! Aaaauggghhh! Fortunately I was able to keep the lizard under control and laugh with her at how silly she was. *whew*

We have rules for three reasons in our house: first, for personal safety. This covers stuff like not running into the street and no playing with knives or matches. These are always enforced, no questions brooked. Second, for saving work or time. These rules are things like, put your shoes away and clear your place at the table. Not only do these minimize work for other people, but they make life easier for you because, for example, you always know where your shoes are. We are much more lax about these rules because, let's face it, they're kids and it's hard for them to think about anyone other than themselves. We figure with constant repetition, we stand a pretty good chance of overcoming that innate tendency. So the third type of rule, and the one that's least important in our fortunate household, includes rules that save money: turn off lights when you leave the room, close the refrigerator door, don't waste food... let me tell you, with kids aged 3, 5, and 7, it's darn near impossible to enforce these rules consistently, and that's the kind of thing that can make you crazy, if you let it.

It took me a while to figure out that Class 3 rules just aren't that important. We have them because the kids need to learn that nothing is free (except air), and they don't get every single thing they want. It's tough, but we'll keep working on it.

So, getting back to DD and tape: she has hundreds of things to play with in this house, and she really did use up an extraordinary amount of tape. But tape really is cheap, and she had so much fun. Whatever that amount of tape cost, it was money well spent for the enjoyment we got out of it.

Now, when I was growing up, there was no heirarchy of rule enforcement. All types of rules were enforced equally: doing something stupid-dangerous was just as bad as making work for my mother, which was just as bad as making my parents spend money on something they didn't want to spend money on. I understand why it was like that, but in retrospect I'm thinking that's pretty warped. I don't blame my parents for it, I believe (truly) that it was my own interpretation of things going on in the house. At any rate, I did my best to follow all the rules when I was my kids' ages, and was devastated if I disappointed my parents by breaking any sort of rule.

My kids, on the other hand, are hardly aware of breaking Class 3 rules because we are just starting to work with them on those, hopefully over time they'll become habits -- they're old enough to start dealing with that type of thing. Class 2 rule infractions are pretty much limited to small things, like socks left on the coffee table, not major disasters -- but there are still a lot of Class 2 infractions. So a lot of people (one dear friend in particular rags on me for this) will look at that and say, Your kids are totally spoiled!

But they're not, because for the big things -- Class 1 rules, and about 85% of Class 2 rules -- my kids mind what they're told. I like this word, mind, in its sense of being mindful, paying attention to what's required, because it conveys so much more than "do what you're told". Anyone can "do what he's told," it doesn't require any thinking. Minding the rules requires brain work, and I see that constantly in all 3 of my kids...sometimes more in the younger ones than the older, but all of them are actively engaged in the process of navigating their lives.

So, as I said, I try to stay out of the way. We have defined a structure for them to operate within, and we'll remind them of the rules and teach them new ones as they grow. Within that framework, though, we have ceded control over to them entirely, and this idea has been directly conveyed to them: You are the only person you can control. There are two meanings there: first, you can't make anyone else do anything they don't want to do. Sure, you can influence them, or persuade them, but you can't make anyone do something. The second point derives from the first, obviously: no one else can make you do something, either.

I think actively teaching these concepts at such a young age is a gift. I didn't figure these things out until I was in my 30s, much to my detriment. But I also realize that minding is just another way of exercising self-control, and my children, bless them, have that in abundance.

So I have the luxury to read and study, and to write, without that creeping anxiety I see in many of my girlfriends when their little ones are out of earshot for more than a moment or two: What has he gotten into now? I cherish this sense of calm we have cultivated, even though we endure our share of sibling battles. When DS1 visited his preschool last week, his teacher remarked how calm he was, how relaxing it was to be around him. I think that's extraordinary for a 3-year-old, but all of my kids have that same quality. There's no anxiety, just self-possession and an active interest in the world, and a willingness to engage in it.

Every time I remark to myself on these qualities, I remind myself to just stay out of the way. It's working fine so far.

1 comment:

Naftali said...

What about rules dealing with character?

Very interesting post.