The default

Warning: this is going to be a bit of a rant. I have something to get off my chest, and I wonder if perhaps like-minded parents feel the same way as I do. And barring that, it feels good to have a little spew every once in awhile, doesn’t it? I have a point, I promise! 🙂

I had a spat with my husband this weekend (no I’m not going to be airing marital dirty laundry, this is merely to provide some context) and an issue came up that we have discussed on very few occasions, seemingly always following a heated argument. He very pointedly hissed that he wasn’t going to let our daughter walk all over him the way that I let her walk all over me. This statement has only been made a couple of times, and always in the heat of the moment. Typically when we have feedback regarding each others’ parenting, we bring it up in a healthy and respectful manner. But his comment, as off-the-cuff as it was, really pissed me off.

Because it sounds a lot like something that my mother has said to me a number of times. She laughingly tells me about her friend whose grandchild also “runs” her mother, just like Nina runs me.  Of course it was not said with malicious intent, but the message is clear to me. My mother is firmly planted in the old school, and she believes that there is a clear and absolute expectation that parents have “power” and children do not. She believes, based on her observations, that I don’t have power.

I’m not critiquing my own upbringing, or the way she treats my daughter. As a Nana, she doles out treats and kisses and applauds Nina’s milestones with gusto. When I was growing up, Mum worked very hard as a nurse to provide for us, through night shifts, nursing dying kids and adults, and she was competent and compassionate. When she was home, she provided good food and took care of the household. I don’t remember much yelling or spanking, although I do know that it was clear to me from my first memories that parents were the bosses, period.

The few times that I remember being yelled at or spanked, it was for doing really dumb shit like flooding the upstairs hallway to make a lake for our animal figurines (I know..) or smashing my Nana’s onions to hell with a croquet mallet (I KNOW!).

My method of parenting is what I would describe as gentle. I think that parents get back what they give to their kids. I don’t want to be yelled at, so I try to avoid yelling as often as possible. I try to model the behaviour that I want to see, by cleaning up after myself and being polite. I didn’t come to this parenting style through deep study or discussion with other parents. It is just what my gut tells me to do and I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing.

Of course I have read plenty of parenting blogs and books and talked to other parents, and I like to read about other people’s experiences with gentle (sometimes called attachment, among other names) parenting. There are many people who are more strict than I am, and many people who are far less strict.

The biggest surprise for me since Nina was born is that I never imagined that I could feel like this about another person. I spend my days at work, and each evening when I pick up Nina it is like seeing her for the first time, every single time. I feel like I have almost forgotten what her voice sounds like, the smell of her hair, the feeling of her arms around my neck and the sweet trill of her laughter. The “newness” that I feel every evening softens me. No matter how frustating the rest of the day was, she is a soft place to land and I can’t be sour and angry anymore. I just can’t. The warm bath of unconditional, unquestioning love, studded with big wet kisses and tiny hands reaching for mine pulls me right under.

I dislike the assumption that being gentle is simply the absence of doing SOMETHING, that I parent the way that I do because I was unable to decide whether I would be a yeller or a spanker or a time-out-chair-sender, or because I don’t know how to “win” the cosmic war against my child. When discussing this with more strict or old-fashioned style parents, they often ask how I will get my kid to stop misbehaving  if there isn’t a consequence to deter them? Many people, myself included, remember what a “consequence” consisted of as children –  a smack in the head, spanking, being hit with a belt or a wooden spoon, a very loud and scary lecture. I also know that personally, I was deterred from misbehaving further because I didn’t want another spanking, not because I understood why my actions were wrong.

Sometimes I wonder if the current generation of children is turning out to be so “bratty and unruly” because they are being raised by  generations of people who were spanked and shouted at, who were told in no uncertain terms that their parents were the “bosses.” Remembering how badly the spanking and shouting made us feel, we don’t want to continue the cycle with our own children. But without a model for effective communication, we are left trying to map out uncharted territory. The unfortunate consequence (because there always is one, right?) is that many kids are left with too little parenting. Not out of malice or neglect, but because we don’t want to do things the old way, but we haven’t figured out what the new way entails yet. I’m not attempting to relieve people of the responsibility to parent their children. But no one will ever convince me that a “good old spanking” is the solution to all of the world’s ills.

I try to make very mindful and deliberate choices about the way I parent as often as humanly possible. Being gentle doesn’t mean that Nina isn’t expected to pick up her toys, to share, to say please and thank you, or to do what is asked of her. Being gentle doesn’t mean that she eats cookies for dinner and draws on the walls and stays up all night. Please don’t confuse gentle with stupid.

Lest I make our evenings sound idyllic and filled with puppies and rainbows and balloons…Nina is quite  comfortable with expressing her anger and frustration, which as a two year old with limited autonomy, crops up regularly. She doesn’t want to wear what has been chosen for her, she doesn’t want to eat what everyone else is having for dinner, she isn’t finished playing or she really, really, really wants to paint instead of reading books. These are the typical disappointments of life, but at the age of two she doesn’t have the tools to cope with disappointment through calm introspection. That is something she will learn by watching the adults in her life handle disappointment in a healthy way.

One thing that I know that I want for Nina, absolutely, is that she knows she can trust me to be fair and not use my anger as a weapon against her. My dad passed away while I was pregnant with Nina, and before his passing he endured a sudden health crisis, a long period of hospitalization and then life in a nursing home. He did not have any concept of time or place, and he could not engage in a coherent conversation. I loved my dad, but there were some things that were said between us in anger that I desperately wish we could have healed before it was too late.

I won’t pretend that I don’t want to completely lose my shit sometimes. I have a hideous temper, but I have learned a few things about the consequences of uncontrolled anger over the years.  It usually ends with broken things – screen doors, plates, and even worse, people’s hearts. Cruel things cannot be unsaid. I’m not talking about having productive arguments that end with discussion. I’m talking about the white-hot, spewing bile, when you say and do things that can scar and frighten. And I’m working hard to live mindfully, learning to process frustration, fear and anger into something more productive and useful. It is challenging, and sometimes I miss the mark. But I am trying hard, and that has to be enough.

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