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.