As parents we want to raise happy, successful people. While that might mean something different to everyone, I doubt that there are many of use who don’t want our children to have a ‘good’ life. Why else would we put ourselves through the sleepless nights and worry and all that poop? We are working hard, every day, to advance our little ones from helpless newborns to productive members of society. Members who can take over from us, have children of their own, and [cue Elton John] take their own place in the circle of life.
It’s fine to want good things for our kids, in fact there are probably few pursuits as worthwhile as raising the next generation. But where is the line between wanting good things, and projecting our own desires and personalities on to our kids? Most of us don’t want to give our kids with the impression that they must achieve certain things to earn our love or esteem. We want to help our kids become the adults they were meant to be, and we probably also want them to visit us at Christmas. We don’t want to leave them feeling inadequate and resentful.
I bring a whole lot of baggage to the table when I think about my children and encouraging them in their achievements. I am absolutely and completely addicted to praise. I did very well in school, and in university, too. On the whole I was always pretty well-behaved and compliant. My teachers loved me (probably because I was easy), and being the ‘good’ one became a part of my identity. Even as an adult I feel a certain thrill when I see a little red check mark beside my name, for any reason. I am good, good, good, and that’s all I want to be.
There are downsides to being eternally good, of course. I am hesitant to pursue activities that I am not naturally adept at. I have a phenomenal fear of failure. I don’t take criticism all that well. I have a false belief that if people aren’t falling all over themselves to tell me how great I am there must be something terribly wrong. What I’m saying is that I have a lot of anxiety, and I do a lot of things to prove to myself and others how good I really am.
So, when I take my 4-year-old to gymnastics class, or swim class, I have to try very hard to remove my own feelings from the situation. I sit on my hands, find something else to do like knit or read, whatever I can find to distract myself. Because my daughter does not seem to share my compulsion towards goodness. She’s not ill-behaved so much as a perfectly normal preschooler. Sometimes she wanders off, or fidgets, or doesn’t listen. If she’s at the end of a long line-up I guarantee you she will not stay in that line-up long enough to take her turn.
While I sit with the other parents some part of me is screaming, “Listen to your teacher! Be still! Don’t pick your nose! You have to be good!” And an even bigger part is screaming, “What will they think of ME?!?!” Because my need for approval apparently extends to the 16-year-old kid who isn’t able to convince my daughter to put her face in the water. I don’t want her, or the other parents, to think I’m anything less than the perfect mom with perfect children.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. I listen to the other moms as they talk about how their kids are the only ones who aren’t listening, that their child is such a handful and he gets it from his father, certainly not from me. They’re giving voice to my thoughts. And the funny thing is, I know that they’re looking at my child and thinking she’s better-behaved than their kid, even as I think the same thing about their little one. Because we’re not really paying attention to what the other kids are doing we don’t see every little squirm and fidget, it’s always our own offspring who stand out in our minds.
I don’t know what the answer is. For my part I will continue to try to butt out when my presence isn’t necessary or helpful. I will try very hard not to let on how desperately I am seeking praise for myself and my kids. And I will have faith that as my children grow they will naturally have longer attention spans and be better able to listen and follow instructions. They will be able to make their way in the world, regardless of a dodgy performance at parent and tot skate. After all, there aren’t many adults who leave the bank line-up because they’re distracted by a shiny poster. I guess what I’m saying is that I will do my level best to trust and nurture my kids and keep my own issues to myself. I think maybe that’s all I can do.
And if you have any brilliant suggestions for how to encourage children in a way that isn’t overbearing I’d love to hear it. Or maybe you just have a story about how your preschooler refuses to pay attention at library story time. I’ll take that, too.