Benign Neglect

I would never characterize Don or me as lazy or disinterested parents, but a recent trip to the Boston Museum of Science left me wondering where you draw the line between being active or interested and overbearing or superfluous.  Kids have a visceral and very natural curiosity about their world, and it has always been our belief that if our children were engaged in something that was piquing their interest, we would step back and let them take the lead.  As the adults, we might see (or think we see) a different, even better way to approach a task, but we have always been content to reside in the shadows and let them be.  In a museum setting, we are not the parents who pull our children from one exhibit just so we can move on to the next.  And though we may show our children something they can do in an exhibit if they seem unaware of its potential, we don’t ever ask them to stop what they’re engaged in doing to listen to our tutelage. 

On Saturday, while Edgar went with Don to see the space exhibits, Oscar opted to come with August and me to the Discovery Center, an area geared toward younger children.  At the water table, there are various toys–including a dozen or so small plastic fish.  Oscar had gathered about five or six of them–as is many children’s wont and goal.  An older woman came over to Oscar’s temporary collection and took a fish.  She said to him, “I’m giving this to my granddaughter.”  Oscar looked at her, then at me, and brought over one more fish to the little girl–who, for the record, seemed unfazed and not at all interested in the toy.  A few minutes went by and Oscar had replenished his stock.  The woman came over while he was taking off his jacket and took two fish then seemed aghast when he went back to get them.  She sneered at him and said, “What, do you think this is your own private collection?”  To his credit, Oscar ignored her. 

On the way home, I thought a lot about this episode–about a grandmother who was working far too hard to ensure her granddaughter was entertained non-stop by little plastic fish, about a little girl who was perfectly content just to splash the water and watch the bubbles, who seemed befuddled by her grandmother’s attempt at rapid-fire stimulation, and about a six-year-old boy who showed kindness to a young child and the ability to let someone’s negativity disappear into the ether.    

If I had been busy trying to script what Oscar should have been doing with his time at the water table, putting object after object in front of him just to keep it lively, I might not have observed this, and that would have been my loss.  This grandmother missed seeing her sweet, gentle granddaughter at play and denied her the opportunity to work out her own issue should she have wanted a fish.  Her loss. 

This world we live in creates and simultaneously caters to the rapidly shrinking attention span, instant gratification is expected, and blame is quickly deflected from ourselves and tossed to someone else.   The Boston Museum of Science may have something else in mind when it seeks to educate the public, but I might suggest that there are even more important lessons for our children to learn there if they are allowed–how to follow your inspiration, how to wander through and get lost in a thought, how to take your time and to follow through with an idea, and how to accept responsibility when it is yours.  And for parents, perhaps the most important lesson is a simple reminder to observe–not just the scientific world, but ourselves and our children and allow them to be the self-directed learners they were born to be.


Fullest Expression of Themselves

You know, kids, I wish every mom
and dad would make a speech to their

teenagers and say kids, be free,
be whatever you are, do whatever you
want to do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.
“My Conviction,” Soundtrack from Hair

I couldn’t sleep last night–and, for me, that’s saying something.  Sleep is one of my favorite hobbies, and I’m quite good at it, if I do say so myself.  But for an hour-and-a-half before bed last night I had what amounted to an unsettling conversation with someone who is currently experiencing the challenges associated with parenting teenagers.  I will not pretend that 21 years as a classroom teacher has in any way prepared me or anointed me as an expert in this arena–teaching teenagers is vastly different from parenting them.  I accede that fact.  But this post is not a “how-to” tract by any means.  It is a promise I need to make to my sons today and one I will need to pull out ten years from now when we are facing the challenges that can only be brought to the table by an adolescent (times three).

The gist of the conversation I had last night involved the parent expressing deep frustration that the values he and his wife had “inculcated” in their children were suddenly and mysteriously gone–that the children they raised were not the children who currently resided in their home.  I expressed understanding; and because this individual was willing to let me play the proverbial devil’s advocate (to his credit) I was also able to challenge him on a number of notions.  And while some of the rebellion his children are presenting would not be issues for Don or for me, I understand inherently that Oscar, Edgar, and August will without a doubt be able to mix up their own concoction seasoned just right for THEIR parents. 

So, here is my promise here on 19 March 2011–as you are six, five, and twenty-one months old today:  Your father and I love you unconditionally.  There is not a single manifestation of teenage rebellion that you can present that will alter our love for you.  We will continue to raise you to be critical assessors of the world you live in, to feel pride in your original thought, to stand up with dignity for your convictions–to be the fullest expression of yourselves.  We ask not that you mirror our lives but to forge your own while maintaining the highest standards for yourself–physically, emotionally, and however you define spiritually.  If we believe you are in danger of hurting yourself or others, we will tell you; other than that, live your lives, find your joy, and love and be yourselves.  We are here and are eager to watch you decide how you will grow.   

Oh, and one more thing . . . please remind your parents of this note in about seven or eight years.  Something tells me we may need a refresher . . .

Love, Mom



When August went to his first appointment with his very wry pediatrician, she examined him–our third boy–then looked at me and said with all the prognosticating abilities of one who has been there: “Do you have any idea what your house is going to smell like in ten years?”  I laughed–because it was funny, if not slightly olfactorily terrifying; but, to tell the truth, it’s not the smell of three teenage boys that terrifies me–it’s the entire concept of having three teenagers.

From the moment you know you are about to be a parent, your ability to worry ratchets up in a way you could only previously imagine.  Things that never concerned you before children suddenly take on profound significance, and very little but your child’s safety and well-being matters.  However, I suspect when you’re parenting teenagers, the extent to which you worry about them–day (and now night)–is beyond . . . well, I don’t even think there’s an apt metaphor. 

It has always been our contention that if rather than trying to control our children’s every move we instead arm them with good decision-making abilities (not to mention a healthy dose of positive self-esteem), we are giving them the tools they need to negotiate the various snares of the teenage years; and the ability to self-regulate is one of those skills. 

Though we obviously (and I hope logically) don’t espouse one hundred percent free reign for our young children, giving them the opportunity to make some decisions for themselves, we hope, will teach them this concept of self-regulation.  For example, at the dinner table we encourage them to stop eating when they’re full–to listen to and respect their bodies’ signals and not mechanically “clean their plates.”  We ask them to try extra-curricular activities for a certain amount of time, allowing them the power to say no if the activity is no longer working for them.  And we give them choice regarding clothing, personal space, and social activites.  None of this will keep them from making mistakes as they grow; but it is our fervent hope that they will learn their bodies and minds are valuable and worthy of care and that they grow to be confident enough in who they are that they can say “no” when it’s necessary. 

And though there are no guarantees–absolutely none–there are occasional signs that this approach may be working.  In the last year, Oscar and Edgar have discovered Cartoon Network (mostly becasue of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”); however, as there are several shows on that network that we do allow them to watch, there are many that we do not.  And they have been told which ones are not allowed–and why.  The other day, while I was in the kitchen contemplating dinner, one of the shows they are not supposed to watch came on.  I heard the television turn off, then Oscar’s announcement to Edgar: “We’re not allowed to watch that show”–and then Edgar’s acquiescence: “Okay, Oscar.” 

And that was it . . . self-regulation.  Could they have tried to “sneak a peek” at the show?  Sure.  Would I have noticed?  Possibly not.  But they didn’t, and that’s what I did notice.  And for that moment I exhaled.  Today it’s a silly cartoon, but tomorrow it’s going to be something else entirely.  And when I’m holding my breath in ten years, it’s not going to be because of any smells–but rather all the rest.