One of the things travel does is expose you to ideas and perspectives beyond your own. In the case of our recent trip, it reminded us of attitudes we'd left behind in recent years, which was eye-opening in itself. There's nothing like hearing someone else embrace the old perspective to bring home to you how much your own has changed.
I don't know how to write this post without sounding self-righteous, but I'm just going to write it as the encounters happened and our reactions to them and let it stand as it is. This isn't a post about how we're awesome parents and our friends and family don't know what they're doing — it's just a post to illustrate how much we've changed, in our own mindsets, which perhaps will encourage you as you evaluate how much you, too, have grown. I find it inspiring every once in awhile to have a yardstick to measure my own progress as a parent, because day to day, it's easy to lose sight that anything's changing. I think we're all on a parenting path of some sort, and those of us who think this hard about parenting are probably moving forward toward better, yes?
We were at one gathering when Sam broke away with some of the other dads and talk turned to parenting. One of the fathers pointed out how his son, a little younger than Mikko, never listened to anything they said, and how all their scolding and bribing and punishing was doing nothing. He asked Sam his opinion of spanking: "Would a little swat on the butt work, do you think?"
Sam felt a little bit lost, because the question he felt he needed to answer wasn't, "Is spanking effective?" (it isn't) but "What's your whole philosophy of parenting and discipline, and what can you tell me in the next two minutes to change mine?" It's a tall order.
Sam said, in an effort to put forth his point of view in a nutshell, "Well, we try to talk things over with Mikko, let the little things go, and offer him options."
"Oh, we offer our son options, too," said the other dad. "We say, 'You can do what we say and be a good boy, or you can disobey and be naughty.'"
Somehow, those weren't the options Sam had in mind.
I was talking with another mother on our trip, and she was swapping discipline stories about her son, who's also about the same age as Mikko.
Now, the stories she told actually were quite funny, but the premise behind them kind of floored me. She prefaced the stories by saying her son has become quite the picky eater, refusing to eat dinner some nights.
"Well, that's not allowed," she said to me, as if of course I would just agree. I kind of blinked back at her, because my theory about eating and food is that children should eat when they're hungry and what they want to eat from a selection of healthful choices. It's not, for me at least, necessary to guard against the old objection of "becoming a short-order cook" for your children, because usually the things Mikko chooses that are alternatives to what Sam and I have chosen are fairly quick to whip up, and we could put off more complicated requests for the next mealtime if it didn't work out for us at that moment. Since Sam and I get to choose what we eat, and don't always eat the same things as each other, why shouldn't Mikko have the same privilege?
So I was just kind of staring at her, wondering whether to nod along as courtesy called for or speak up. She had just pointed out that he sometimes had large lunches, so he was definitely eating, just perhaps not on her schedule. She continued with the backstory. "So, whenever he won't eat what we've made for dinner, he has to go straight to bed. I'm not going to have him up playing for two more hours if he's refused dinner."
At this point, I was struck by how familiar this trope is — "Eat your supper or go to bed" — while at the same time being struck by how very far far far I've diverged from it.
Why on earth would you want to make eating a battleground, and sleep a punishment? How does that set up healthy eating habits, when you're forced to eat what you're not hungry for? How does that establish healthy sleep habits, when going to bed is seen as an exclusion from fun?
But how do I counter such an assumption, when it's being told to me not in an advice-seeking way but just as a matter of course? How do I respond with my own whole philosophy of feeding children and respecting their needs and desires? Do I have more of a responsibility toward the parent to be tactful or more of a responsibility toward the child being treated that way to speak up?
In the end, I didn't say anything and just stored it up — for a blog post, apparently. I had the sense that nothing would change if I said something, beyond making all of us uncomfortable.
And it's not like I have "the answer." I don't know how to make her son eat his meals, for instance, no more than Sam had an idea for getting the first child to do whatever his parents ask.
What we have goes beyond those questions to ask what we think now are more fundamental ones: Why should my child do what I want? What makes my desires more important than Mikko's? Why do I want my child to do a particular thing, and is it really that important? If it is important, what's a respectful way I can approach it with him? How do I respond gracefully when I "lose" and he chooses a different way? How can I stop thinking of it as a win-lose situation? What do I ultimately desire of my child as he grows: compliance to authority, or an thoughtful, emotionally mature interdependence, and what sort of parenting will help facilitate the latter?
It's not like I always have the answers to those questions, either, but I like seeing that Sam and I are asking these new questions now. In fact, even though I am asking these questions, I very often fail, but that's part of the learning as well. In fact, that's why I find it so encouraging to compare my mindset to other parents' on occasion — to the type of parenting I grew up with and was most inclined to embrace — so that I can see proof that there is some change in me, even if I don't always grasp it in the nitty-gritty of parenting challenges. But it's hard to pass on this whole new mindset to other people on the spur of the moment. All I can do is hope we set some sort of example by the peace in our family, and our joy in the outcome.
Make me not feel unbearably alone in my pretension to parenting greatness. Share with me a moment of your competence and confidence as a parent.