Thursday, September 13, 2007

As A Parent I Sometimes Struggle.....

As a parent I sometimes struggle to be firm without being punitive, fair when doling out expectations and consequences, and able to find teachable moments in the daily interactions and dramas of family life without coming across too preachy or pedantic. An example presented itself to me yesterday involving my son, my daughter and a book of Roz Chast cartoons.

My 8 year old daughter wanted to look at the book, and I allowed her to do so with the caveat that some of the words and concepts are both obscure and mature and that she must be prepared to deal accordingly with those realities, which was okey-dokey by her. I also cautioned her that this book is new, pricey and special to me and so I wanted her to treat it gingerly and not subject it to any creases or dog-ears. She agreed to both conditions and I took her at her word, as she is by nature both a dutiful and precocious little human and her daddy's generally a pushover around her.

She curled up in an over-stuffed chair and lost herself in the cartoons. If we had a bar across a doorway allowing her to hang upside-down by her knees she would be in heaven, as she reports that is her favorite position to read, but around here she has to make do with more mundane environments.

Into this peaceful tableaux entered her 12 year old brother who happened to be in a particularly festive and loving mood between cycles of pre-teen sibling surliness. He descended on her with tickles and attention, an irresistible combination, and as she convulsed into the delirious laughter of the loved the book went sailing onto the floor with several pages creasing under the full brunt of the fall.

I walked immediately over, picked up the book and placed it on a high shelf while saying to her "This book was your responsibility and you did exactly what I warned you not to do, so you've lost the right to read it." I tried to say it in a matter-of-fact tone, without excess recrimination or force.

My son immediately took responsibility for the accident, admitting (rightly) that his behavior was the direct cause of the damage to the book. He even offered to buy me a new copy. I thanked him for his willingness to be accountable for his behavior and emphasized that it was not the cost but the principle at stake. I commiserated with them both but emphasized that she had agreed to take responsibility for the book and while it was in her care I had to hold her to the bargain.

Nobody was happy, nobody felt at peace, nobody felt that true justice had occurred. I truly didn't expect an 8 year old about to be tickled by the brother she adores to have the presence of mind to put my book away before the fun started.

I cogitated on the event for a lot longer than it took to occur. I discussed it with a friend, my wife and later with both kids individually. What I grappled with was that nothing I could think to do felt right. "That's OK, don't worry about it" seemed too lax a response that avoids teaching the often hard lesson of responsibility. Holding my son fully responsible for stirring up the pot when he should have recognized she was engrossed in a book could cause him even further reluctance to be nice to his sister in the future.

It was in sharing my thoughts and feelings with everyone that I realized that the immediate decision was not as important as my willingness to debrief about it both inside my own head and in my family. By bedtime everybody was fine, we were just that much closer to each other, the kids got a chance to watch a parent negotiate through a little ethical maze and the value of talking through feelings was reinforced.

I continually find new ways to learn the same essential message, that I don't always have to know what to do, that there is in fact many possible answers to any particular problem. The value comes not merely in the decision du jour but in the process of how we stumble through to the other side with some sense of personal values intact.

It's not news, but it never ceases to be meaningful to me when I see it in action: raising kids forces me to grow. Being a parent, like being a spouse, is a process of raising myself more than anyone else.


mertz said...

I really appreciate that post.

It should be required reading for every parent on the planet.

The depth, the willingness, the openness... the process of self-examination is a beautiful thing to behold.

As a man that did not benefit from particularly effective, or even useful fathering in my formative years... I love great fathering.

And thoughtfulness.

Bill Herring said...

Wow, thank you very much for this heartfelt sentiment. If I can touch one heart even once in a blue moon then I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and accomplishment.