My favorite part about Mother's Day in the social media era is learning that everyone's mom is "The Best Mom in the World!" That moniker has become the equivalent of the ubiquitous participation award in youth sports. Everyone gets a trophy, hooray!
Sorry, folks, I'm here to deliver a little slice of harsh reality this Mother's Day: All your moms are scrambling for the runner-up trophy, because my mom has a strangle hold on the top prize.
Becoming a parent myself has afforded me the opportunity to see my mom in action firsthand. I have certainly gained a new appreciation for how effortless she makes "parenting" look when she is with my boys and how amateurish I am by comparison. While I might be a solid parent, maybe not all-star level, but at least somewhere in the mediocre category, my mom is basically Lebron James.
And just to be clear, I'm not kidding around here; I'm ready to support this bold claim and I'm ready to do it in the form of a numbered list. Because my mom's greatness isn't merely etched in the history books; her style and tactics are by far the biggest influences on me as a parent and they continue to inform and mold my parenting every day. Here is a little parenting wisdom I have gleaned from my All-Star Mom.
1. Use Distractions
My 3-year-old won't stop crying and complaining about, well, who knows what: he really needs to leave the refrigerator door open so he can swing zip line-style from the door handle, his baby brother needs to stop existing, his food needs to be three degrees cooler, whatever.
My default reaction?
Step 1: Confront the matter head-on.
Step 2: Cry in the corner when that just makes things ten times worse.
Step 1: Deep breath. What would Mom do?
Step 2: Change the subject and introduce an appealing distraction.
Of course, even when I follow the better plan, things rarely go perfectly. In the midst of a meltdown, my mom will say something like, "Oh my goodness, would you look at this cardboard box! Have you ever seen something so amazing?" Boom, crying stops, meltdown over, kid fascinated. I really don't get it. This goes to show you, I guess, that while you can practice really hard and try to copy Lebron's drive to the hoop, it probably won't look the same when you do it.
2. Value Your Children's' Feelings
Obvious, right? Not so fast. Too often, I find myself thinking (or even worse, saying out loud), "Don't cry. It's nothing to cry about." Every time I do, though, I think back to one of my very earliest memories. When I was 3 or 4, I lost my favorite blanket at a high school football game. I remember it dropping through the bleachers and falling to the ground below. Somehow it disappeared by the time we got down to look for it (note to blanket thief circa 1985: I know you're still out there). I was devastated and couldn't sleep that night. I remember my mom sitting up with me, comforting me and going so far as to cut the trim off another blanket to replicate as closely as possible my lost treasure. Sure, thinking about it now I realize part of her motivation had to be to do whatever it took to get me to sleep, but she didn't allow me to feel her frustration, nor did she attempt to minimize my sense of loss. All I felt was validation that my feelings were real and important. By validating and attempting to understand our children's feelings, rather than dismissing them as childish, we teach them to understand better their emotions, and ultimately, become more empathetic individuals.
3. Pick Your Battles
Trying to impose order and regimen on 2- and 3-year-olds is like trying to herd cats. The only behaviors that have to be stopped swiftly in children that young are ones that could cause physical harm to themselves or others. Otherwise, there is no need to dig your heels in and draw red lines for behaviors and arguments that are relatively unimportant in the grander scheme. For example, when our 3-year-old refused to wear anything but shorts and t-shirts when it was cold outside, my wife and I fought it for a couple days, which led to general unhappiness for everyone. Finally, we asked ourselves, does this really matter? After all, we live in Florida. And thinking longer term, you don't see a lot of adults that refuse to wear long pants or stand up in their chair when they eat dinner or do any of the host of annoying little things 3-year-olds routinely do. Bottom line: don't discipline just for the sake of disciplining.
4. Use Your Imagination
This one is really hard for me, and sadly, I think being able to engage children consistently on their level is more a natural talent than a learned skill. I'll confess, just talking to other humans for very long makes me tired, my kids included. And in case you haven't noticed, 3-year-olds basically never stop talking. It's not like ordinary adult talk, either, which often requires relatively little effort and attention; you have to be constantly engaged when the conversation revolves around scary dragons and spooky forests. A moment's lapse in concentration and you could end up imbibing some horrid potion that will turn you into who knows what. In addition, you have to read the room properly with zero room for error. For example, there's one dialog my 3-year-old likes us to run while we're in the car that starts out something like this:
3yo: "Daddy, daddy! Where is this train going?
Me: "To the store (or wherever)."
3yo: "Is it going fast or slow?"
And this is where I always blow it. There is a correct answer and I always get it wrong. I'd like to assume it's because he changes the answer each time, but I'm not so sure. Anyway, the point here, which I've taken a very meandering path to reach, is the more you can engage with your kids in their imaginary worlds the better. Interacting effectively with kids is itself a very meandering path; but ultimately, it is one that is worth taking because nothing makes them happier.
5. Do Not Compete With Other Parents
I'm not sure if this is a universal feeling or a product of my particular personality quirks, but I am constantly on edge when I'm with my children in situations where we have to interact with other parents and their children: at a playground or even at a friend or relative's house, for example. For me, this anxiety stems from a fear of being watched and judged and from my own nagging self-doubts. For many parents, I think, these anxieties manifest in what I would label as 'over-parenting' when in public. Making sure your child doesn't step out of line for even one second so you won't be judged by others as being a sub-par parent, too lax, inattentive, etc. However, if you are truly confident in your parenting methods and beliefs, it is somewhat easier to carve out your own space even when the public eye is on you. You don't have to put up a front of being the strictest parent or the most creative parent or the parent with the best-behaved children. For example, when I'm at the park with my kids, if my 3-year-old really wants to climb up the slide, as long as he's not bothering anyone else, I'm not going to stop him just because I overhead another mother explaining to her child that, "No, no, we don't do that." If slide climbing is something I don't normally take a strong stance on, pro or con, should I change my behavior just because other parents I don't even know have positioned it as a central plank in their parenting platform? I don't think so. Trying to out-parent others is a contest you can never win.
Thank you Mom for being my role model! Now, it's time to collect your trophy, you deserve it.