* * *
Tag line: Dispatches of parenting wisdom from a hyper connected mom in an over wired society.
I recently went to a book signing event by Dr. Madeline Levine, a mother of 3 boys and the author of the book, Teach Your Children Well, as she spoke about preparing children for success in the 21st Century.
In her presentation, there is a visual aid of a boy sitting in front of a video game, with the caption, “What are parents most afraid of?” and the entire hall bursts into laughter. I wondered if that was the only thing that somehow was stunting a child’s progress. Aren’t our children all products of homes where distracted and hyper connected parents are swimming against tides of half-baked goals, have moving targets for ambitions, constantly nursing bruised egos while indulging in familial discord with partners amidst new competing technological challenges??
Let’s talk about expectations in detail. Society expects me to succeed in my work life, to deliver results and to be an effective and productive member of the team. To know everything and to never admit failure. At the same time in the back drop of my personal life, I should be able to juggle everything with a smile, participate in family sports and games, fix healthy meals for my children, read books to them every night, be there for a friend who is breaking down at a local bar or 8000 miles away on the phone, have a hobby, go to bookclubs after finishing the book, and be the best at everything all the time.
Out of all these expectations, if you are a parent, the issue of parental culpability in raising children who indulge in anti-social behavior and who are not productive members of the society is at the fore front. The heart wrenching memoir of Sue Klebold, “A mother’s reckoning” talks about this parental guilt. A lot. Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold who walked into his Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado one morning in 1999 and left behind a devastating legacy of one of the worst school shootings in America’s recent memory. Sue constantly finds herself asking, even after so many years, “How could anyone who has been raised in this house be so violent?”
Bad things can happen with our children even with the best of our intentions. And that shatters me. And Dylan was not even raised in an age when distracted parents toted smart phones. Behold that.
PARENTING STANDARDS, WHAAAAT?
Take for instance my own life. I have written bits of this essay as my 12 year old and his hero-worshiping 8 year old brother are playing hide and seek with a couple of their friends in our home, which I have eagerly recorded running behind them as they play in utter delight. I think to myself, I will gather all these shrieks and then diffuse them to sustain through the years when I will walk in these empty and quiet rooms.
Just as quickly, they have become children of my neglect as they settle down to watch silly videos on YouTube. This is because I am now equipped with my laptop frantically penning down my essay before I lose a grip on my words and memory. And that’s just how easily the relationship with my children becomes transactional in these moments and is the least bit positively transformational for them. And I can guarantee you, no hugs or eye contacts are being exchanged. But, tell me, has a little TV really killed anyone?
This cry for help, however, is not about a few minutes of time on any screen. What is being done to parents like me who don’t follow the rules of engagement in the house and put their phones / laptops down on the home turf? Aren’t we constantly demanding our children to reach our expectations while failing our own battles with distraction and procrastination? So while we might be living on Mars shortly, here on earth, we are leaving behind a trail of stressed out, mediocre children with unsustainable attention spans.
THE THRILLS OF PARENTING:
Life has not been completely devoid of tiger mom moments and passive aggressive parenting methods for me. Like the time when, I was ready to sit outside the door of the toilet as my 5th grader went about his “business” to ask him some Geography Bee questions as his State championship competition was the next day. My son’s violent protests from the other side of the door were good enough for me to come to my senses quickly.
I have tried out many strategies to help them shine. Enrolling them in season after season of basketball to make sure they turn out to be tall. Not giving up on my urges to spoon feed them everything while killing their spirit of inquiry. Contemplated the idea of making them part of the Illuminati, so that things will just start happening to them. I also take pride that I know what all goes into their bodies 99% of the time, at-least at this stage of their lives.
I have even tried putting myself in their shoes. In their defense, when is it really enough for us as parents? When they become a source of parental pride or when they stop making us look like bad parents. And you know, they are already at the mercy of us lifting our heads off our most intimate partners. Our phones. Although, I recommend to my children that they always display delightful behavior in public (so that will make me look like a well put together mom).
I am also bugged by worries. I will not be able to hold my kids to their self-exploration impulses during their hormonal teen years. It’s not even fair for them. I make sure I knock before I enter on my 12 year old’s bedroom door to ensure him privacy. But how did I miss all those signs of those candy wrappers behind his bed?? Persistent worries include but are not limited to:
* What if he goes to college and he has a boil on his anus and he is too ashamed to tell anyone and get it checked.
* What will he be thinking when he is taking out leftovers from his work refrigerator, will he appreciate his mom’s cooking then?
* It’s a very cold night and he has a flat tire in the middle of nowhere?
* He is just plain-old lonely and wants some company and warm food.
LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS:
Hint: They didn’t occur when I am on my phone.
I interviewed my 12 year old for the purpose of this post and asked him how he feels when I grab my phone in the middle of our conversations. He tells me that he tries to let it go even though he feels disappointed in my “disconnectedness”. I have been putting away my phone more often and working on intentionally centering my attention on our personal moments and to my delight, it has brought some pretty amazing insights into parenting.
One Monday morning recently, I tell my older one that his friend had texted me the previous night asking what the Science homework was. “Did you tell him mom? Good, thanks”, was his response. Absolutely no judgement against his friend who was not done with homework on a Sunday night at such a late hour.
Two nights ago, while coming out of a Super Target parking lot, I see a middle aged white (please let me mention this) gentleman, asking for money holding a hand written sign that said, “Family needs home and money”. I roll down my window and hand him some cash. I did not say a word to him, but he blessed and thanked us. There was silence as I drove on. “Mom he is doing the right thing, trying to get a home for his children, right mom?” My younger son asked. Empathy. Check.
This is the memory that sticks the most.
11:22am this past Friday morning. I arrive at my 8 year old’s school cafeteria and he picks a friend that can go along to eat with us. He picks Hudson (not his real name for obvious reasons) and we walk over to the corner of the big hall and sit. I begin judging the food this child is holding in his tray and wonder what his mom does if she is too busy to pack lunch. My son is eating his veggie burger his dad packed him this morning with dismay at the “cardboard” like taste it has. And he keeps repeating that observation for the rest of my 25 minute stay, while I make small talk with Hudson.
“Are you an only child? Do you have a sister or brother, Hudson?”
“No, I don’t.” He replies.
My son immediately proceeds to whisper something in his ears.
“Well, no, I am not an only child.” Hudson concludes out loud.
“Wow, do you know what you are having? A sister or brother?” I ask.
“My brother is in my same class”, He says after some not-so-gentle prodding from my son once again in his ears. “My dad and my brother’s mom are dating.”
“Isn’t that exciting? Good for you.” I try to sound delighted.
He pauses and says, “They are not getting along and they were talking about breaking up this Friday…. I think….”
I am mute.
The shame of vulnerability sweeps over his face. “When are you coming to teach yoga?” He swiftly changes the topic. I can sense his heart hardening that instant, pulling a cover over his gasps for attention.
“I am here every Thursday Hudson. Hudson, once in a while tell your father what makes you happy. He will be really happy to hear what you want.” I tell him after struggling to release a squeezing grip on my chest.
KIDS AS TEACHERS:
It’s moments like these that hit home for me what my hero Brené Brown says. That our most rewarding journeys as a parent happen in those imperfect parenting moments. It’s foolish to think that the kids don’t notice, it’s just that they have accepted us with our imperfections. They remind me of my own lessons of empathy and gratitude for what we have, that I try so hard to instill in them. It also makes me realize that when it comes down my kids, their expectations with me and everyone around them are pretty basic. I don’t even have to go as far as George Carlin to put my kids on a street corner and come back to see if they are still there a week later. They won’t run away because sadly they don’t know any better.
Being present with them has thought me to be childlike with my thinking.
- That way we don’t rule anything out.
- Think really small, take baby steps, never answering anything big and don’t have to leave midway when things get overwhelming.
- We would go for the obvious rather than over-complicate every situation.
- Take into consideration things that other people might not think are reasonable.
- Have no preconceptions or biases.
- We would all engage in brainstorming, while no idea is a stupid one.
And when you create such an environment at work or home, all the best ideas rise to the top.
And wait! Who needs comedians like Seth Meyers when kids are around? When my younger one recently wanted a bowl “that I didn’t need anymore” for his water colors project, I began looking for one in the cupboards. He inquired, “How about calling Talitha (not her real name for obvious reasons) to ask her to give back at-least one bowl that you had given off to her?” I LOLed at his ingenuity and had the presence of mind of not following through with his idea of asking my cleaning lady to return the old bowls I had given away recently.
PARENTS AS TEACHERS:
I want to try each day to carve a life for myself where I can lead my children by example. Whether they turn out like me or run from my influences, time only will tell. But, I want us both to be aware that we are each other’s sources of kindness and compromise, love and forgiveness. I want to raise them with the hope that our world is filled with a wonderful ocean of hope and humanity. I want to emphasize on the virtues of empathy and the need to present their authentic self everywhere.
To not take life too seriously and to laugh as often as they could. A little self-deprecating humor hasn’t hurt anyone, right? “Don’t hate to look foolish. Don’t let your need for being a free spirit and independent belie the need for help.” Let’s spread the wealth of attention and kindness to everyone in our wake especially the ones who are younger than us. There is also that other frightening possibility in life of them not staying this little for long.
A CASE FOR BETTER PARENTING:
My mother recently told me that she thinks I am a phenomenal woman. That’s the kind of mother I am as well. The one that knows that my own children are rock stars. Because, let’s face it, we have such low standards when it comes to our own kids that we are mostly proud of them just for being born! And you know why we like our mothers? Because they recognize our greatness much before the world finds out about it. And, Hudson’s mom? Where is she? Who is gathering all his “art work” and sticking it on their refrigerator?
Isn’t a mother’s absence felt more than her presence?
Every child needs the comforts that are associated with familiar settings and those that come with predictability of knowing what to expect. And sometimes friends disappear. When I ask questions at school, I learn about medical reasons, divorces, work transfers, and the curriculum and cultural differences that kids and parents are unable to keep up with and want to move out. And I don’t Hudson to be the next friend to leave my son.
That day I walked away screaming in my head that it’s not fair for kids like Hudson that his parents go through our mid-life crises. In the same context, I am not completely oblivious of how difficult it is to keep a marriage or a partnership going. My husband and I are acutely aware that we need each other’s kindness to survive this collaboration. Keeping communication open and meeting each other midway is the only sustainable solution in any scenario. And something that will make these transition times for children and their feuding parents a little less painful? Putting away phones to be there for one another, to hug and make eye contact might make a world of difference.
Children are the only ones that love us without judgement, celebrate our smallest victories and have their antennas up for our distress. Their uncanny attunement to their surroundings makes their emotional wealth seems prodigal. Their definition of daily success is already simplistic and filled with bursts of creativity. Let’s consider ourselves successful as parents if we are able to teach them to take time to imagine and become what they want to be. And to think of the possibility that what we do now with our children will make them a somebody, someday – and that it is up us, now, this minute, is a powerful thought.
I hope you are still with me on this one.
Tonight, I want to be alert to listen to my kids humming, “Sunshine in my pocket” in the back seat. I want to be alert enough for my ears to burn in love.