Monday, April 30, 2012

This Kind of Mother

Cutting the pasture today gave me a lot of time to think. I thought about the kind of parent I am. And the kind of parent I want to be. Then I thought about the kind of parent I should be or that parenting experts think I should be. Which led to thinking about the kind of parent my own parents were. Having a lot of time to think can tie my mind and heart in knots.

Here’s what I thought.

My own parents were much tougher than me, but also much more lenient than me. No, that’s not a contradiction. They were tougher in that I didn’t have much say about things like what’s on the menu and if I had to eat it, whether I’m taking tennis lessons, the clothes they bought for me, or whether we went to church. My own children actually have voting rights about all those things (although the votes are weighted when it comes to what’s on the menu). 

But they were much more lenient in that they never restricted our “screen time” (granted the only screen available to me was a TV that carried only the major networks), and they gave us a lot of independence – letting me go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted with whomever I wanted. I never really abused that trust, so maybe that’s why it worked.

This morning my daughter called about 30 minutes after she got on the bus to say she needed her homework folder by second period. And I drove it over to her because A) she asked nicely and B) she hasn’t forgotten anything in a while and C) she’s overloaded with responsibility right now between school work, extracurricular activities, and sports. But as I drove to the school I thought about what Love and Logic parenting would say about what I was doing – I’m teaching her that she isn’t responsible for her own mistakes. Maybe. Or maybe I’m teaching her that her mother loves her and will help her out when she’s in a bind and she’s doing the best she can.

This afternoon I’m rescuing my son from school at 2pm. I wrote a note that says he has an “appointment.” I didn’t specify what that appointment was – to him or to the school. This afternoon the school is having a school-wide “reward” for all the kids who earned enough “punches” this month. Punches are earned for good behavior. Ian didn’t get enough punches. 

No, he’s not a behavior problem. In fact, in the five years he’s attended the school, I’ve never once gotten a call home about his behavior. Most teachers write “is a pleasure to have in class” on his report card. And no, his grades are not suffering and he doesn’t neglect to do homework. He’s made the “Academic Excellence” report each marking period and has had only one homework slip all year.

He didn’t get enough punches for the second time this year because he forgot to take his punch card with him everywhere he went and missed out on punches he earned because he couldn’t produce his card. So today at 2:15 he’s scheduled to spend an hour in the principal’s office with all the kids whose behavior (or inability to take a silly little card everywhere they go) landed them in the same predicament. They have to sit with the administrators and come up with a plan for how they will be successful next month. Ridiculous (with a capitol ridiculous R). 

So I’m springing him. He has an appointment to do something better with his time – like get a reward for being a good student and a well-behaved child. We’re going to try the new ice cream place in town.

As I turned circles on the mower in the field, I wondered, am I spoiling him? Should I make him stay at school and face the consequences of his actions? I would if the consequences of his “actions” made sense. Making him sit for an hour with kids who are truly behavior problems because he forgot his card a few times seems like the worst kind of overkill.

Maybe I’m spoiling him, or maybe I’m teaching him that his mother’s got his back. Maybe I’m teaching him to question authority when that authority doesn’t make any sense. Maybe I’m teaching him that he is a good student and a good kid, and I won’t let the school tell him otherwise.

Time will tell what kind of mother I’ve been. My goal is to raise conscientious, kind-hearted, decent kids who can think for themselves. They’ll figure out soon enough that they have to remember to take the things they need with them to work every day. They’ll have a boss to teach them that, although I have great faith that they already know it. But for now, when they are only 12 and 9, the bigger lesson is that when someone needs your help, you give it. When you are treated unfairly, you stand up for yourself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Driving Around the World

As I was driving my son home from one of his many after-school activities, he asked if the car had yet gone a million miles. He was curious what the odometer would do when the car reached that milestone. I had to smile because this week it does feel like I’ve driven a million miles in that car. I think there have been several days when I’ve spent more of my waking hours behind the wheel than not.

I told my son that our car has driven 121,000 miles but even though it is a reliable Honda, it is unlikely to go a million miles. 121,000 miles still impressed him. He said, “That means if you hadn’t turned the wheel you would have circled the globe 7 times!” We didn’t talk about the difficulty of driving over oceans, we just marveled at the distance covered. I thought about this more and taking in to account the fact that my husband does most of the driving on long trips, I still have probably personally circled the globe 4 times, more or less, in the past 8 years of owning this car. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

As a mom, hours and hours are spent behind the wheel. For me, most of those hours are whiled away within the 8 mile radius of our town. Most days I just wander in circles from school to studio to field to store to office to houses. What if I didn’t turn the wheel? Something to think about.

When the kids were young, the hours behind the wheel were pretty tortuous. The fighting, the screaming, the crying, the incessant kid music. Back then I didn’t have a GPS and we were new to the area, so it was stressful just finding my way around the winding roads of PA where the state must consider it a weakness to post road signs.

My kids begged for a car with a TV like so many of their friends. Being an anti-TV parent, it was never a consideration, but I did find myself distracted at time watching The Incredibles playing on the monitor in the van in front of us. For long trips we “borrowed” a small DVD player and my husband built a stand for it between the two front seats. We were rewarded with several hours of peace until it was time to negotiate the next movie and then the screaming began. The “borrowed” DVD player actually belongs to us and stays hidden in a closet until the next big trip. After being forced to listen to A Bug’s Life repeatedly (we have 3 kids, but the DVD player has only 2 headphone jacks, so we play the DVD through the car’s stereo system), I’m not the least bit tempted to install it permanently.

The interior of my car is a wasteland. There’s no other word for it. There is trash, food remnants, dirty soccer cleats, smelly basketball socks, dried out silly putty (just so you know – silly putty does not come out of carpets, no matter what they say on the internet), plus the crumbs of a million snacks and the tops to half the water bottles ever consumed. Yes, I do clean it out. I clean it out every time I stop to put in gas, but one woman with only 2 minutes a week cannot keep up with three kids who like their sty the way it is.

I have friends whose cars are immaculate. I can only imagine that they pay someone to clean it or they don’t sleep more than 3 hours a night. It’s that or they don’t have kids. My husband shakes his head at the mess in my car. His car is spotless. But then again, he is only driving his neat, tidy self to work and back everyday. He is not racing helter-skelter all over town trying to get three kids to three different places at the same time while feeding them a healthy dinner.

I’d like to try the experiment they did back in high school where you had to carry an egg around with you for a week and not break it or leave it alone. The purpose was to simulate what it’s like to be a parent (ha!). I could put my husband in charge of transporting our kids everywhere they needed to go for a week. I’d like to see what his car looked like after that!

These days the kids are bigger and it’s not so painful to transport them, although there’s a lot more transporting. They still fight, but it’s over who gets to ride up front, and whose music is turned up too loud on their headphones. I really like it when I get to drive just one of them somewhere. Now that they are all big enough to ride up front, it’s allowed for some excellent conversations. My kids are really interesting people. It’s not that they weren’t interesting when they had to be strapped in to special seats in the back; it’s just that when they ride up front, they talk to me. It’s less of a chauffeur/chauffee relationship. We talk about what’s on the radio, but we also talk about the things we pass, the way others are driving, and sometimes big issues like religion, dating, and what apps you can get on the i-phone.

In only a year, I will hand over the keys to my faithful car to my eldest son with his newly minted driver’s license. I will trust this car to take care of him and him to respect the privilege and danger inherent in driving it. I will sit home and watch the taillights leave the driveway and I will enter a whole new realm of parent worry. Riding in the passenger seat with him at the wheel I have no doubt I will wear out the floor mat on the brake pedal that is not there, just as my own parents did. I will be sure not to distract him with too much chatter and hold my tongue right up until the moment our lives are endangered.

The “leather” on the driver’s seat is cracking now, and the metal covering on the door latch has flaked off. The button for switching between channels on the radio is blank, the little music insignia long gone. We are wearing out this car. I think it can traverse the globe at least 5 or 6 more times, but when it is gone I will miss it. I’ve passed a good portion of my children’s lives watching them in the rear-view mirror and now I’m trying to capitalize on the captive audience in the front seat. But I know about the time this car spins its last mile, is about the time these kids will move beyond our little 8 mile radius town.

Maybe I’ll get a convertible, like I’ve always wanted. I won’t need that back seat. Or maybe I’ll get a VW bug and no one will punch me in the arm every time they see me because they spotted a “punch-buggy” (is it only my kids who play this game?). And my car will be spotless, maybe. But no matter what I drive, it won’t be the same without the chatter in the backseat or the company in the front. Makes me want to capitalize on the captive audience I’ve got strapped in right now before they head out on their own long and winding road.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Forcing Bulbs and Children

Every Christmas my mom gives me an Amaryllis bulb. I love growing that freakishly tall flower with the brilliant red blooms. It brightens my kitchen and helps to tied me over until spring.

A few years back I tried to force some other bulbs – narcissus, crocus, tulips. It was a grand failure because I’m not so good with following directions. I’m more of a free-form gardener and there were many important details concerning how long to chill the bulbs, how much to water them, etc. A few bloomed, but most poked their little green heads out of the bulbs and changed their minds. Never one to let anything go to waste, I simply dug the bulbs out of their fancy dwellings and planted them in my garden outside. Sadly, they were never the same. The formerly forced bulbs could only send up a few green leaves, but no flowers. They haven’t been much better in the years since their fateful beginning.

I think there is a corollary to be drawn between forcing bulbs and forcing children. In much the same way as my failed bulb attempt, I have entered in to an exercise in forcing my daughter to play her saxophone. Just like the bulbs, in the beginning the instrument held great promise of beautiful, effortless sounds to come. She struggled to learn the fingering and squeaked out note after note until she could string together We Wish You a Merry Christmas. In much the same way I planted my bulbs on rocks in pretty pottery dishes, fantasized about the blooms to come, and waited. There is more work than you would imagine to forcing bulbs, just like there is more work than my daughter anticipated in playing the saxophone.

But spring has arrived, and the saxophone is not so much fun anymore. Practicing is no longer novel, it is hard work. Progress has slowed to a trickle. I have threatened to remove the instrument, taken away computer time and play dates, withheld dessert, and layered on the guilt, but my daughter, just like those crocuses, will not be forced. So I am letting go. I’m leaving this one to her.

She may yet be a concert saxophonist playing in Carnegie Hall or she may be happy to squeak along in the marching band or she may lay down her instrument and walk away. Whatever she decides she will not be forced in to this decision. I can not force her to bloom when I want her to, she’ll have to do that on her own time.

Once again my children are teaching me how to parent. Just like those bulbs, I can’t force my children to do anything. Well, technically perhaps I can, but it won’t be a real bloom. Like a forced bulb it will last for a short while in the wrong season and then be gone. And like a forced bulb, it might never bloom again. Better to provide my children with sunlight and rain and good nutrients and let them bloom on their own in their own season.