Thursday, August 12, 2010

Parenting as a form of refugee acclimatization: A lens for seeing your children through

This is another in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, my very own husband, Sam. Sam gives us an analogy for how we might graciously see our children: as refugees in a strange new land, needing our help and patience to adjust.

Guest post by Crackerdog Sam

There's a scene in the documentary God Grew Tired of Us where several Sudanese refugees get their first apartment in America, and we see these young men improvise daily life in their new, foreign setting. One of them opens a package of Ritz crackers, breaks them into a pot, and adds milk to make a thick porridge.

My initial reaction was "Eww!" But after pausing for a moment, I thought, "Well, why not?" Just because that's not the way I would have thought to combine ingredients from the store doesn't mean that it's wrong, or that it even tastes bad. It's just weird to me in the same way that America itself is weird to them.

As I watched the film, I found that the methods with which they approached simple things in daily life turned out to be an insightful door into how they thought and processed and perceived life. They were adapting, but they weren't losing themselves in the process. The places and ways in which they held onto their own heritage and culture were extremely revelatory.

Which leads me to another scene: I was recently out talking with a friend as Mikko tagged along behind us, at his own pace, inspecting shop windows and dog bowls and stalks of grass. My friend remarked at how unusual it was to see a parent not constantly instructing his child and telling him what to do ("stay with us," "don't touch that," "watch what you're doing," etc.). I remarked that this is Mikko's world to explore as much as it is mine.

I think I would miss out on all sorts of revelatory moments with Mikko if I were continually telling him what to do with himself, what was the proper use for things, and what should and shouldn't be done. He absorbs enough of these parameters, I've found, through observation and a desire to play along, and without too much explicit instruction. (Obviously there are exceptions, like with light sockets and crossing the street, where it is important to avoid certain things or to approach them in particular way.) For the most part, I want him to explore his world unhindered, and in doing so to reveal something about who he is and how his mind works.

I want to learn and grow from seeing Mikko's journey in the same way I learned a great deal watching the lives of the young immigrant men. I would have been saddened had these refugees succumbed to the pressure to become homogeneously and generically American. I want for Mikko what they had: an encouragement to hold fast to and carry with them their innate pride and spirit and fortitude in crafting a new life.

Parenting in this manner becomes a two-way street. Perhaps I as the parent hold more of the cards telling me how to act and behave in a socially acceptable manner, but then again I have lost other things now only dimly remembered: the abundant curiosity and gumption and affection that we're born with. Maybe as I steer Mikko toward concepts of, say, volume control and property rights, I am able to learn lessons from him in singing with enthusiasm, and drawing beyond the paper, if I am careful to notice.

Seeing life from a different vantage point, through someone else's mental processes, can renew and restore an appreciation for what's become overly familiar and rote. We are both learning from one another, finding spaces to intersect in our lessons in maturity and in childlikeness.

The other day at a pizza restaurant, Mikko was given a cup full of crayons, but rather than draw, he made a sculpture, emptying the cup, dropping in a shaker of red pepper flakes, putting the crayons back in so they stuck over the rim of the cup like spokes, and using them to hold up a credit card we'd gotten out to pay with. I have to admit that when he started monkeying around I had to physically restrain myself from putting everything back in its proper location for its proper purpose. But then it became a beauty to watch: so unexpected, so outside the norm. In this case he was literally arranging the world around him, just as he figuratively does it day in and day out, building and reconsidering and rebuilding his world. Social assimilation will come — I don't expect to see him making crayon sculptures in restaurants on first dates — but it's not something I need to or even want to force.

So often we are tempted to treat young children like anarchists, bent on disruption and upset, needing to be taught compliance. But most of the time young children are simply curious experimenters with no sense of time passing. Yes, they disrupt and bother and throw tantrums and refuse us and our demands, but every time that happens, I ask myself: Is Mikko in this situation just being curious, or focused, or lack an ability to read a watch? Beyond that, is he physically uncomfortable, having not eaten or slept enough? Nearly every time I can point to a failing on my part to provide him what he needs physically, or his being a diligent scientist who's always being interrupted by the clock people.

In other words, I am forcing him to live in my world on my terms when he has his own priorities as a sculptor, sticker applier, truck driver, musician, and gravity tester. Problems arise mostly when we don't understand each other as two separate beings, and respect one another in those roles. When Mikko feels respected and not run-roughshod over, he is actually quite eager to engage in and play along with what I need to be doing and make space for me. (Yes, this approach takes a lot of patience, and listening, and attention. But I've not yet heard of a method of parenting that does not try one's patience.)

It is helpful every so often to reverse roles. Since I speak more English than Mikko, we end up with a lot of conversations with me repeating again and again what I'm trying to communicate, and he'll confirm back to me the phrases he understands or at the very least repeat what he can mimic. It's very one-way. Then one day he just started spouting a line of gibberish at me enthusiastically and, to make a joke, I imitated his gibberish back to him.

He loved this game! It was the same one he'd been playing for months but finally it was his turn to spew the nonsense and for me to repeat back words I didn't understand. I think I enjoyed being in Mikko's shoes for awhile almost as much as he liked being in mine. (Except for the one time he started playing the game when we were out at a restaurant, and halfway into the game I noticed that the two men at the next table over actually were speaking in a foreign language, and that the two of us repeating gibberish to one another and laughing loudly might have seemed like cruel disdain for them. Whoops.)

This parenting philosophy basically comes down to my belief that Mikko is a person: a whole person, not a wisp of a person, not a "less than" person, not a lost and confused puppy, not a pet that needs to be broken. Yes, he has fewer resources, emotional and otherwise, than an adult peer. He needs my support and strength. But he should be allowed to participate in the creation of his world as much as any other new arrival to a new land.

  • I try to give him space and time to work things through emotionally as he is encountering the new and unknown, or grieving the loss of what's now ended, even though it might mean — and often does mean — grumpiness or wailing or anger. (Heck, I'm in my thirties and not beyond bouts of moodiness and despondency and frustration when going through transitions and losses.) For any adult friends going through rough times I would acknowledge and respect their feelings and not hold an outburst against them. I'd give them space, and grace, and compassion. So why not with him?

  • I try to respect his body's needs and cues, allowing him to eat or not eat what he feels hungry for when I have presented a good variety of options to him. It's sometimes hard for me, as someone who still can't break free from being a member of the clean-plate club, to wrap my mind around not finishing things, but I give him that freedom to snack on a bit of this and a bit of that and not eat beyond being full, just as I never tell guests in my home to finish everything I've served them.

  • I try not to stunt his process of learning by telling him the end result I'm hoping for. I would never tell an adult person "Good job!" when he's working on something, as if he were doing the task for my approval. Nor would I jump in all the time with a "No, not like that, like that!" while she tried to figure things out. Discovery is a process of exploring options and permutations, and part of the exploration is not working toward someone else's end.

    The other day we were at the zoo and Mikko looked at the giant letters and said "Z—O—O—that spell 'animals'!" That is of course, incorrect, but we didn't tell him he was wrong. He was right to a particular degree, and the rest will come in time. The sense of value that a person gains from having mastered something should be the mastery itself and not having garnered praise.

  • I try not to assume the worst about Mikko's intentions. When children want their own way, they are called obstinate, willful, difficult, cranky, and rambunctious. When adults want their own way (which we get a whole lot more than kids), they're called ... adults.

    When Mikko wants to do his own thing, it's most often not because he wants to frustrate me but because he's in love with what he's doing or what he wants to do, just like I want to see my plans followed through and not constantly interrupted. I attempt to see his "stubbornness" from that point of view, and as often as I can I switch roles so that he gets to call the shots. We recently had a beautiful evening of sitting on the car trunk in a parking lot watching airplanes fly low overhead, under his direction, which was far superior to my plan to put in him his car seat, go home, and dither about before bedtime.

  • I try to model for Mikko how I hope he would live. A significant insight I've learned from Lauren's research and writing is the idea that we as humans are very social creatures, and we tend to gravitate toward the norms of our families and peers and neighbors so that we'll fit in well enough to find camaraderie and acceptance. We tend not to adhere to abstract principles but concrete actions, even though we often believe it to be otherwise.

    Therefore telling our children to, for instance, apologize to another kid is not going to stick as a general principle unless they also witness us as parents apologizing to one another, and to them, when we're in the wrong. When Mikko gets older, I want to be as open and up front about our financial lives, love life, emotional lives, and our friendship circles as we are able, particularly to explain why we do what we do, so that he can see firsthand what choices we've made with what resources we've had. Taught principles, without rubber-meets-the-road firsthand witnessing, have less chance of sticking.

  • I try not to instill in Mikko a sense of shame. Failure is failure — it's hard enough to deal with on its own terms. But failure that is accompanied by a sense of unworthiness, of unlovableness, of shame — that's the kind of failure that keeps you from trying again. Shame is, unfortunately, an easy go-to tool in parenting. We somehow imagine that by making the stakes even higher for success ("You wouldn't want to let us down," or "No one will respect you if you're wearing that") that a child will have extra impetus to do well in whatever area.

    But everyone needs the grace to look like a fool in high school as you're trying out different identities. Everyone needs the bedrock of unconditional love at home so that when you fail and stumble you haven't lost everything. And, despite the argument that it's a harsh world out there and you must prepare children with a degree of harshness oneself, I would rather hope that by maturing in an environment of grace and compassion and understanding, Mikko would seek out friends and mentors and lovers who are mature enough to give the same.

Now, obviously at some point the analogy between cultural outsider and growing child begins to break down. If I were helping an immigrant acclimate to our country I would probably not be the one to brush his teeth or lift him onto the toilet. Nor would I expect Mikko to be able to ride the bus by himself after showing him a few times. It is just for me a helpful shorthand to think about in times of impatience and eyerolling and obsessing with completing the day's checklist tasks.

It helps me to think about the long run, about my goal to bring up a child who is not simply compliant to expectations but a full human being who has known dignity and respect. What's important is that I'm there offering up my measure of grace, my attention, my understanding, my love, my expertise, my help, and my listening ear in the process of our interrelating, all without stepping in to solve everything for him.

I am privileged to be his co-explorer in the journey of learning the world.

Crackerdog Sam (that's his hobo name) is a full-time work-from-home parent. He shares both the working and the parenting of three-year-old Mikko with Lauren of Hobo Mama.

This is his first guest post, but he's working on many more.


Cassie said...

Oh my gosh, thanks for this. I need to be reminded of this every so often. I think you've read 'the continuum concept'. I read it when my son was a baby... now that he's 14 months, I have to remind myself that he does things because he's curious and wants to explore, not to drive me up the wall. The crayons in the restaurant is such a good example... my son dumps them out too. It's really really hard not to say, do it like this.
Anyway, I love this post. Probably came at just the right time :)

p.s. bohemian said...

Great first post - heck, great post period. The world needs more Dads willing to truly 'see' their children like you are working to 'see' Mikko :)

BTW, i saw that documentary - i was thoroughly engaged and felt like a wider Spirit for witnessing it.

Momma Jorje said...

I try to keep these ideals in mind and I think the hardest for me is to not praise her. I feel like if I ask her too pee and she does, she deserves appreciation. Your post really helped me better understand why *not* to praise. Perhaps I should simply thank her!

Its just... she loves to clap with "Yay Sasha" (or anyone)!

Thank YOU!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the encouragement on my post! It was going to be my only post, since it says most of the important things I believe about parenting, but after writing it I think I might have more to say...

Cassie: I didn't have room to put in the article of how I was raised, but I was definitely taught to color within the lines with my crayons as a kid and I was all proud of myself for following directions but I didn't really learn anything about creating my own colors and real artwork, so -- yeah, that one's very personal to me, letting Mikko figure out how to use his crayons how he wishes.

Deb: Wasn't that a wonderful film? I really liked seeing the American culture from an outsider's/newcomer's perspective.

Momma Jorje: I have to admit that I don't always remember not to praise, especially when he's doing something exciting or surprising. Being a little praise-lapdog growing up for my teachers and parents growing up, though, I know how difficult it is to work past that and learn to see one's work for its own intrinsic value, which took me until junior year of college (at which point I'd missed out on a lot of _learning_ but just aiming for the good grades and the positive feedback). A lot of times thanks is far more appropriate, like you said, and in other cases it may be just an acknowledgment of what's been done, or follow-up questions so that the child can describe what's been done. (This is my favorite, because you get to hear what your kids are thinking and perceiving as they're working at something.) I'm actually going to be writing up a post on this topic soon as I review "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn for the site, so there's lots more ideas on alternatives to praise.

erdmami said...

Great post, and very inspiring! You pretty much describe my own parenting approach. I believe we can learn so much from our children if we let go of seeing them as inferior just because they are smaller and dependent on adults. This kind of parenting is not always easy, especially if you're a rather impatient person like me, but seeing things from the kid's perspective helps a lot.
I wish more dads (and moms) would follow your example!

lauren. said...

wow, sam. thank you for this. that's all i can say. what a wonderful way to view parenting.

Jessica said...

Fantastic post! It serves as a necessary reminder to all parents of the importance of allowing children free reins to be, well, human.

What a wonderful example you are setting for Mikko!


GeekGirlWife said...

Amazing, insightful and poignant post a true letter of love to your son -- and a letter of sharing gentle parenting with all.

Wonderfully done.

Lindsay said...

Very cool way of looking at things. One of my best friends in college was a Sudanese immigrant, and we always had a blast introducing him to new things, like ice skating (SO funny!) and enjoying his joyful attitude and great sense of humor as he encountered new stuff. Good reminder to me to be similarly joyful with my son as we introduce him to new things!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Wow - there is so much to comment on I'm not even sure where to start!
First - you are welcome to guest post on my site any day :)
Second - I have always thought that comparing the way we treat our children to the way we would treat another adult, a partner, a friend - is very insightful and telling. Yes, I understand treating children differently, in that you can't explain things using the same language or expecting them to have the same frame of reference - but we can use the same respect. We can treat them with the same dignity. The same consideration. Giving them anything less is a slight against their very personhood.
Third - thank you for the reminder to sit back and let our kids do their own thing. That was VERY hard for me to do before Kieran was walking. (That baby stage was harder for me - I considered him more "helpless," and I shouldn't have.) I do a better job of being more hands off now, but it's hard when both me and Tom are a little OCD about keeping things clean, orderly, etc. For example, tonight after dinner Kieran was sweeping his crumbs away from his spot. HE thought he was helping clean. TOM only saw that Kieran was getting crumbs on the floor. It's sometimes difficult to make sure everyone's needs are getting met.

Jen said...

What a thoughtful post. Thank you for your examples, especially the adult/child treatment comparison!

Anonymous said...

erdmami & Jessica: It really boils down to just that, doesn't it — seeing children as human beings. Of course (and this is something I considered mentioning in the article but cut) one's success at this depends to some degree how well we do at allowing other _adults_ to be fully human as well. I know a great many people who consider adults who disagree with them — and therefore must be immature or not-yet-enlightened — to be like children who need to be educated and therefore subject to easy dismissal, condescension, and a one-way flow of information. But that in some ways seemed like other article, and distracting. I kept thinking when writing it that there are people out there who _wouldn't_ allow for an immigrant to do anything except completely assimilate and comply, and don't even see their value to society, but, yeah, it opens up a whole other can of worms.

Maman A Droit: That's amazing that you were able to experience firsthand what I was only able to glimpse in a movie. I was hoping that my limited exposure to the subject wouldn't come across as naive to someone who'd had more direct relationship with refugees. I'm glad the movie gave a close enough approximation to reality!

Dionna: I have to admit that this style of parenting fits rather well with my own personality, which is ... um ... laziness. Sitting back and observing is half philosophical and half innate. I imagine that having more of a penchant for orderliness would mean it would take more effort. That's probably what makes you a good instructor of how to live it day to day, because you know all what goes into it!

Traveler of the World said...

It is so nice to hear the view of a father. Not because I believe there is an overweight of the mother's perspective, but I believe it is healthy to have both views, and I also believe that there are fathers out there, who could be inspired too.
Not assuming the worst intention is a great topic too. How can you assume a bad intention from a child/baby who barely understands concepts as 'yes/no'? Or who barely comprehends the social norms of behaviour (and that is another topic, because it indeed is influenced of the parents personal view, affected by the cultural norms in their specific country and family background).
I often get to hear 'well, he HAS to learn boundaries and limits, so you HAVE to start to say no to him, and he HAS to learn it the hard way' - or 'he has to learn how it is in the real life'.
My babyboy is 11 months old - and he doesn't speak yet. I can't teach him by saying, and barely by showing him. I do however, consider very carefully how and what I model, through my behaviour and I do not expect him to understand.
So I found your topics very relevant and truly inspiring for parenthood.
Your son is endearing and more relevantly, able to show or say what he likes/wants or not and that is due to your doing the best for him and he feels it :) I truly believe, that babies/children who are capable of asking for help, are babies/children who are cared for and whose needs are met respectfully.

Becky said...

You are indeed a very good writer! I'm frequently amazed by my 1-year old daughter's creativity when playing with toys or otherwise. Her knowledge of the world isn't limited to how something should work (e.g. you need to play with the blocks like this...), and the many ways that she thinks of to play with her toys are innumerable. I love that she (and other children) naturally thinks outside the box. I have a lot to learn from her creativity!

Just a short anecdote... Friday night my daughter and I were sleeping over at my grandma's house (her first sleep over). I thought of this article as I put her to sleep. I suspected she was scared of the dark after I turned off the light (the guest bedroom is much darker than at home). She was comforted instantly and soon fell asleep after I picked her up and brought her to my bed with me. Thinking of her as a person with emotions of her own shouldn't be such a novel idea, but it's easy to forget her perspective.

Please write more posts! I'd love to read more of your ideas.

Kate Wicker said...

Wow. This is an incredible post not only how to be a better person but a better human being. Hobo Mama, thanks for sharing your space with Mikko's wonderful father.

Discovering the Me in Mommy said...

I worked for 8 years with high schoolers, and relating with my 1 year old is obviously different! But I try to integrate what I know about communicating with teenagers with my little one, and I think it gives us a unique approach, hopefully one that'll end up being more helpful to all!

Anonymous said...

Travelver: I hear that "he has to learn how it is in real life" thing, too. And it drives me crazy.

I was working on a metaphor for the article highlighting its absurdity, but I didn't quite get there. The best I had was "It's really tough to find love in the real world, so I have to withhold my love from him early so he knows how to deal with that." (As if you help a child deal with misfortune by heaping it on early!)

Becky: I'm excited to hear that someone actually tried a new approach in response to the article. That means so much.

Kate: I have to admit I was worried when I first started wrapping my mind around being a father about how to act and interact -- and what I ended up deciding was that I could do no better than to be a full and whole human being first and foremost, rather than segregating parenthood to a separate mental space. I'm glad that comes across.

Melodie said...

What an awesome first guest post from Sam. I'm very impressed, although not surprised by his very like-minded values to yours and how insightful and thoughtful he is watching Mikko explore his world. You are a lucky woman to co-parent with such a great guy.

Rambling Rachel said...

excellent post! I view parenting as teaching and you've pointed out that it is teaching and more (learner-centered, teacher-facilitated exploration).

I shared with the Professional People Watching group on facebook. My friend Erin facilitates it and thought the other members would enjoy this post.

Amanda said...

I'm 2 months pregnant and trying to figure out the specifics in the gentle/intuitive style of parenting I plan on enacting with my child. It can be quite difficult to move beyond the parenting norms I grew up with and see every day. This post was so enlightening - thank you.

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