Day: March 20, 2016

What are we teaching the children?

A large part of a parent’s job is to teach the children. Humans don’t arrive on this planet socialized, they have to learn it from others. Many studies and articles reiterate the idea that parents are the largest influences on how their children turn out. The pressure of that is huge. I feel it every time I have to make a decision involving my kids. The trouble is that any action I take could teach multiple different lessons. If I buy them a treat after they’ve been pleasant at a store, am I teaching them good behavior is rewarded, or am I teaching them Mom can be manipulated? When we choose to stay home from a church event because going is too stressful, am I teaching them to opt out when things are difficult or am I teaching them valuable mental health coping skills? Even when I am very clear in my own head about what I want them to learn, they don’t always receive the message the way that I intended. In more than one high-emotion interaction I’ve looked at my child’s face and worried about what story they are telling themselves about the events we experienced.

There is a space between intention and reception. What happens in that space is influenced not just by the words and actions of this moment, it is also colored by my past relationship and history of interactions with my child. It is affected by the thing their friend said yesterday and the amount of sleep they got and that video they saw on the internet two weeks ago. That space can be terrifying to a parent who wants to do well, but isn’t a hundred percent sure of the path they should take. To increase the worry, there is also an awareness that as children grow, they will re-evaluate their childhood experiences and come to new conclusions about them. So even if the intended lesson is received in the moment, further along in time the child may decide that the lesson is wrong because they now see us differently or have a different framework for life than they had before.

One thing I’ve learned with writing is that I have very little control over the reception of my words. I try to be clear, but people respond in ways that I do not expect. Any attempt on my part to control their reaction only leads to hard words and hard feelings. I think this is also true of parenting. Ultimately I have so little control over the adults my children will become. I have influence, not control. It is not that the studies about parental influence are a lie. Parental influence is critical to child development. The lie is the one the parents tell themselves based on the studies. We tell ourselves that because we’re the biggest influencers in our children’s lives, it is crucially important to do parenting right. Then we run around frantically trying to figure out what “doing parenting right” means. This is where we end up judgemental of other parenting choices. Each of us spends so much time and energy developing our methods of parenting that when we encounter someone doing the opposite of what we chose, the fear creeps in. “What if I am wrong?” One way to squelch that fear is to double down and loudly proclaim how wrong the other parent is. Any time I’ve found myself judgmentally angry at another parent, some introspection shows me that my emotion is rooted in fear.

Parenting is actually a mutual language created between the caretakers and the child. The parents are changed by it as much as the children are. The relationship is influenced by their surroundings, their community, their support structures, or the lack thereof. I felt this as I raised my children through their youngest years. My responses to my children had to change as the children did. What worked to help one child was ineffective with another. Any time I figured things out, a kid would turn some developmental corner and I’d feel lost again. I was making it all up as I went. We are all making it up as we go. The process only gets harder if we believe that we have to make up elaborate lesson plans and instructional moments. If we try to control what gets learned. Instead of making sure we teach the right lessons, we should be the sort of people we hope our children will grow up to be. Who parents are matters far more than what parents do.

I’m not certain if that makes the parental pressure any easier, but it does shift it. It does mean that instead of being a dispenser of lessons and discipline, I can bring my children inside my indecision. I can say “I’m not certain how to answer that, here are all the thoughts rolling around in my head about it. Perhaps we can sort it out together.” Sometimes I do have to give a firm no, and sometimes I regret that response later. Other times I give in and regret that. It makes me feel like a wishy-washy failure, until I remember that having a perfect parent who does everything correctly all the time, means a child will never get to witness failure and recovery. They will never see how to be humble and apologize unless adults make mistakes where they can see, and then apologize for those mistakes.

We’re all muddling through together, parents, children, teachers, friends, young, and old. None of us has all the answers. We don’t need to. Instead we need to share the knowledge we have and be willing to admit when others know more that we do. I’ve learned some amazing things from my children, probably just as often as I’ve taught things to them.

Taking the Train to the Writing for Charity conference

I got up before dawn to catch a train. This was not a thing I have ever done before, despite the fact that the commuter train has been here for years. Somehow I’d always defaulted to driving as more convenient. But today we only had one car, the other is still being repaired, and I had a conference 90 minutes away. When I realized that it was convenient to the commuter line, I decided to experiment with taking Front Runner.

It was quiet and chilly on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. I’d come twenty minutes early, so I had a while to sit and watch the sky lighten behind the mountains. A pair of ducks flew quacking through the sky. I breathed and felt peaceful. Driving was not peaceful like this. Driving is full of paying attention and making judgement calls. For this trip my only job was to wait. The train arrived and I boarded. I found a seat with a table and an outlet. My first thought as the train pulled away was how easy it had all been. Then I pulled out my laptop and began to work as landscape passed beside me.

Writing is a process of alternating typing and staring off into space to figure out what to type next. On the train there was something new to see every time I looked up. I got peeks into backyards and industrial compounds. The train follows a different route than the freeway, which meant seeing landmarks from a different perspective. We even traveled through a small canyon that I’d had no idea existed at the base of Point of the Mountain. The freeway is up on the benches while passing through there. The scenery outside my window alternated between beauty and junkyards, each interesting in its own way.

A person from the conference was shuttling people from the train stop, so in-town transport was simple. Then I was at the conference. Writing for Charity is a smaller event than many I attend, but I like it for that. All of the proceeds go to charity, which is also a lovely thing. Utah has an abundant supply of authors, so my schedule was not too busy. This left me with many pleasant hours to visit with people I knew and to become better acquainted with people who were only somewhat familiar. I even spent some time working.

It was nice to be at a conference where I was neither promoting nor selling anything. I had no table to run, no money to manage. I didn’t even bring copies of my books with me, which I probably should have done. There was a moment on my self publishing panel where being able to hold up one of my book covers would have been a useful example of how to get covers wrong and then hire a designer to get it right. But it was okay that I didn’t have it. Instead I had a dozen conversations, some short, some long. My mind pulls them out and considers them as I write this. They are each like a little treasure to be appreciated, a moment when I connected with someone else and they helped me or I helped them. Or sometimes we just laughed together, and that was good too.

The sun had begun to set when I sat on the platform to catch a train home. I wasn’t alone this time. A fellow conference attendee was also riding southward, though her exit was before mine. We talked together as we waited. I learned of her projects and, since she was an experienced commuter-by-train, I was able to ask her questions. I sat on the opposite side of the train for the trip home. There were more people out and about, and my mind began to wonder about the stories of the people I saw. What brought that disheveled man walking under and overpass? Why was there young man standing in the courtyard of an obviously abandoned building? Why were the buildings abandoned anyway? When had they been built? How long had they been slowly falling apart? The world is full of stories I’ll never be able to know. I didn’t need to know them, but it was pleasant to let my thoughts wander across them as the train carried me home.

My train friend and I had both lived in Utah for a very long time, so we talked about the quirks of what we saw. We speculated on the history of things and how they are shaped by local culture. She had written several historical non-fiction books and it was fascinating to hear about them. One thing did make me sad. Along the tracks where many lots which had obviously become dumping grounds for things that were no longer of use. It forced me to think how wasteful humans are, and how we need to do a better job of cleaning up after ourselves even when it takes extra effort and expense. Surely we can thing of something more useful to do with old cars than leave them parked in a field to rust.

It was dark when I exited the train. Howard was waiting for me, which might have been the best part of the day. On the short drive to our house, he told me about his day and I told him about mine. It was so good for me to get out of my house and see new things, think new thoughts, meet new people. I spend so much time contained by my usual locations and habits. Next week is Salt Lake Comic Con, where Howard and I will both participate. I may take the train to get there for at least some of the days.