November 14, 2007

Measurements in Parenting

I remember when I had my first child, I was apt to say, “I understand how child abuse happens. All it takes is someone the slightest bit unstable, and it can happen.”

Before I had children, I would never have understood that.

Caring for babies required a lot of energy, but in general was rather simple after they got past 12 weeks. (The first 12 weeks of a baby’s life is always tough.) Sleep, eat, feed, play, clean clothes, baths, controlled environments was what it was about. Throw in some colds, bad days, monotony and that was pretty much life until walking.

I had a parent whose children were older and grown say to me once, “As they grow, so do the problems.”

And for 12 years I’ve remembered that, witnessing it in my life.

As a parent we have outlined in our heads what makes a good parent. I have said often, I am not a great parent; I struggle to be a good parent.

I am active in their school, help them with their homework, have their friends over, cook meals, keep the clothes clean, make good lunches, monitor what they watch on TV and what video games they play, try to get them off to school with a happy heart, make sure they get the right amount of sleep, set structure in this unstructured world and try to listen… if they’ll talk.

I will confess that there are mornings when they do leave for school having pressed all my buttons in all of 15 minutes and I spend the morning yelling and trying to get everyone out of the house, nobody starting the day happy. On those days, I can only hope everyone’s day gets better. Luckily, those days are few and far between. But I am not the perfect parent and this is not the perfect family and it happens.

There are days that you just have to use a different yardstick on good parenting. In our heads we have the long range goals like I cited above.

Then there are short range goals for good parenting… days…

…like when they were babies and toddlers and the measure of my good parenting was “I didn’t hit them, beat them, or get even remotely close to violent”. It is what it is because babies and toddlers can push you over the edge with the incessant whining, crying, and neediness and there are days you are running on no sleep and are just DONE and you just have to put them somewhere where they are safe and walk away and take a deep breath until the bad moment passes.

Mentally stable parents do that.

Mentally un-stable parents shake babies and beat toddlers.

Even though mentally stable parents feel that urge… they walk away. They understand that out of control is bad and they step away.

And then you get a 12 year old and it is so much like having that toddler again. The push for independence… the push to get their own way. And you’re back to the constant frustrations of ‘why’, and the demands, and the disrespect.

Boundaries are set, rules are reaffirmed.

And there are days where the measurement of good parenting becomes, “I didn’t grab his hair from the back of his head and punch him in the face” instead you take a deep breath, bite your tongue and silently wait for the moment to pass.

Mentally stable parents do that.

Mentally un-stable parents punch their kid in the face.

Even though mentally stable parents feel that urge… they walk away. They understand that out of control is bad and they step away. And as a good friend of mine is apt to say, “Whose the adult here anyway?”

The humiliations change as well. With toddlers it may be a temper tantrum in public or their lifting up your skirt and showing the world your underwear.

With pre-teens and teenagers it’s having to face other parents or teachers or principals over misbehavior or bad deeds.

I find the pre-teen and teenager humiliation to be far more damaging… to me.

I remember a woman I know told me this story… and from her story I gained the utmost respect for her. I hope to see her in December because she needs to hear from me how her words and her actions and the how the story turned out, keeps me going at times. I use her story as a benchmark as to how bad things really can get... and still have a good ending.

Her son was a decent student, very smart, and never applied himself. He never got in trouble and was the typical teen boy. One day she got a call from the principal’s office. Her son went to the local Catholic high school here in town, where my children may end up. She drove down expecting just some sort of conference, or asking her about some volunteer work she’d done at the school… maybe if her son got in trouble, it was the typical juvenile prank crap. It would be something that would cause her stress, but they’d take care of it.

And what the principal called her for was… drugs. A note had been found from some girl at one of the public high schools, telling her friends there would be a party, with the inference of drugs, at this woman's house, when she and her husband were out of town, and the public school principal brought it to the Catholic schools principal’s attention and suddenly there was reason to search his car where they found some sort of ‘pacifier’ which was and still may be, big with the kids doing drugs.

She was floored. She had NO IDEA her son was doing any type of drug. She had no idea about this pacifier thing. She had no idea he’d be so bold as to have a party like this when she was out of town. She had no idea the kids he was hanging with were into the drug scene. She’d met his friends. They were respectful to her and they appeared to make decent grades.

And I believe her. I think she really was clueless and not because she wanted to be. I’m a parent. On any given day, just about any kid can be in the race for an Academy Award. They are tremendous actors and… liars. And getting them to talk when they don’t want to, trying to get them to cough up information, can seem to require a phone call to the CIA for their interrogation experts.

She said she wanted to die right then and there as she stared at the principal and realized her son would be expelled and that he was doing drugs. The vast humiliation as in her eyes, and the eyes of most of us, it becomes a reflection of our parenting.

A toddler throws a tantrum and people shake their heads and think, “I handled that differently” and everyone moves on.

A teenager gets caught doing something really BAD and everyone looks sideways at the parents and thinks, “tsk tsk, what crappy parents”.

But it is what she did next that impressed me. I cannot remember now whether he was truly expelled, and I know it was his Junior year, but she got him in some sort of counseling, got them into family counseling and then on Saturdays, she signed him and her up for a cooking class taught at our local culinary institute. He’d always loved cooking and she decided, “Then fine, he will explore this and he will do it WITH ME.”

Mother-Son bonding.

And so every Saturday for weeks and months, they cooked and talked, and the family stayed in counseling…

… and her son? He went to college and joined the Marines. He’s a health nut now, not even taking in caffeine and he told his Mom, “Mom, I was my own person by then. There was nothing you could do from keeping me from making those bad choices. You raised me right, but *I* made those choices.”

She still shakes her head. He may be right; there may have been nothing she could have done to prevent it, but her actions after pulled it back on track. I firmly believe that.

She was the mentally stable parent. She resisted that urge to grab him by the back of the hair and punch him in the face.

Trust me. I’m sure that urge was there and overwhelming. When she tells the story, there is still vast emotion in her voice and that was probably six years ago. She was proactive, not completely reactive. When she tells the story, you can still feel and see the humiliation in her face of when she sat across from that principal and realized what her son was really up to.

Some days the measuring of good parenting is by what we did NOT do. The short term parenting. The long term is what we did do… but the short term… on the bad days… is by what we did NOT.

Today… I’m working on short term. We’re not anywhere close to the level of high school bad, but buttons have been pushed that should not have been… and so we’re looking at the short term yardstick for good parenting this evening.

It happens.

And I want a crystal ball. I want to know how it all works out. I want to know they’ll all turn out…

Posted by Boudicca at November 14, 2007 09:54 PM | TrackBack

Why you always badmouth your parenting skills is a mystery to me. You are freaking supermom! I've seen you with your boys. They are amazingly well behaved.

For the life of me I cannot picture you yelling.

Posted by: Denny at November 14, 2007 11:23 PM

That was so well put! I know a guy who is going through the same thing your friend went through. I think I'll pass this story along to him.

Posted by: Peggy U at November 14, 2007 11:28 PM

Just last night Tater looked at me and screamed NO at me. Not a good sign. All over jelly beans. Yaa. I was not happy and the thought of spanking him went through the mind. But I walked away. Because I don't think it would have been one whack but multiple. It was a tough night. Some days it is easier than others. I dealt with the problem AFTER I took a break... and he went to bed happy. No jelly beans. And no spanking. I wonder what it is going to be like when he gets older. I hope I can handle as well as your friend.

Posted by: vw bug at November 15, 2007 06:32 AM

Who hasn't felt the urge to cross the line? I watched Arthur throw a glass of ice water in youngest daughter's face and he didn't even realize he'd done it. He used to just walk away lest his temper be sparked, but that time he waited an instant too long.

You have given the boys a good, solid base. The reason why they can and will act like stupid teenagers is because they are confident enough to do so... they know you are there to rein them in. It's their job to test and they rely on you to set the boundaries and keep them within those limits. You and your husband do a great job!

I've known kids who weren't sure of anything; their parents were not there in spirit and did not set and enforce limits. Those were the kids who were closed down, the ones who really went off the reservation.

Like your friend's son, they will get into trouble and they will embarrass you. But like her boy, they'll come out fine on the other side because of their parent[s].

Posted by: pam at November 15, 2007 07:08 AM

Denny- Oh. Oh. Oh. My folks and sister are reading your comment and laughing. I have a serious set of lungs and can go toe toe with any Drill Instructor. I'm NOT kidding. I yell less now than I did. Before... there was just SO MUCH chaos and noise I stayed on the brink of sensory overload and really really struggled.

Peggy- I think there were a lot of things that went into play. She forced him to be with her on a level he'd be interested in, but there was family counseling involved too. Her husband thinks the cooking didn't help at all. He thinks it was all the counseling. She told me he is full of crap and she spent those hours and weeks and months with her son on Saturdays where they really talked and cooked and she said she knows it helped. It may not have been the entire answer, but it was a part of the puzzle.

I do believe he is in Iraq right now.

VW and Pam- Yeah, some days you just hit a point, where you instinctively lash out. You're on the edge and the kid says something or does something that is so wrong on an order of magnitude incomprehensible and you've found you've grabbed them, slapped them or thrown water in their face. Absolutely. And I'm fine with spanking. It is not something I've had to use frequently here, but I have had to use it on Bones and most know that story... Good Lord did he deserve it. I made my point... he still talks about it and he has NEVER made that same mistake again.

Erica, whose comment is in the other post, heh,-I know many people who feel that way... as adults they view their teen years in a different light. But you know, I think the fact you realize it, is a balm on the bad burn years of being a teenager. I think your folks appreciate it. I know my mother in law, whose daughter was a hellion, had the best relationship with her daughter as an adult. Its like the bad teenage years had to be gone through for her to be the GREAT adult she is today... and there was nobody who loved her Mom more than she did.

Posted by: Bou at November 15, 2007 07:29 AM

I didn't find out until years later, but my Mom did something like your friend did, with my brother.

He was into drugs in high school, even grew pot plants in the back yard and told my parents they were sunflowers.

When Mom got clued in to the problem, she pushed just the right button: My brother planned a career as a pilot. Mom got his attention and pointed out that NObody hires druggie pilota and that he'd better get off the drugs and onto good grades in school. And she helped pay for his lesssons to get his private pilots license.

He spent years in the Navy flying P3-Orions and later flew for two airlines, is now a mortgage broker and is one of the biggest ANTI-drug folks you've ever met.

Posted by: George at November 15, 2007 07:30 AM

I believe the only reason I turned out as good as I have was because of my father, he was just like you in parenting.

My mother was the opposite and I struggle daily to not turn out like her by using my father's life's lessons.

Positive influences do go a long way in life.

Posted by: Quality Weenie at November 15, 2007 09:17 AM


i'm one of those readers that rarely comment...but this time i thought you could use this. This is from a really good friend of mine that wrote about a similar time in her life...from the other perspective, the kid's side. BTW i'm a stay-at-home Dad (for this season in our lives at least) so i identified. Hopefully, this will encourage you as it did me.

Divine Rescue

Most of you know my mom and dad and you can probably tell that they're dedicated to our family and to God's will for us as a family. They've been that way as long as I can remember. They got married with the understanding that Christ was going to be central in their marriage relationship, and eventually in their family. Their commitment to that was obvious to me when I was a little kid, but I didn't have a problem with it till I was older. By the time I was 14, I had a pretty clear idea of what I thought my life as a teenager should look like (basically, that I should be in control, Mom and Dad should follow along, and all would be bliss). That's where the conflict began. Mom and Dad didn't exactly have the same dreams of independence for me, and I began to discover that more and more as I presented my plans to them for what I wore, who I hung out with, where I went, what I listened to, what I watched…you know the issues. Their ideas were always so different from mine. Of course, at that point I recognized my foolishness in thinking I knew the best plans for me and gave up all my meaningless desires for fun and allowed my wisdom-equipped mom and dad to speak into my confused life…or not. Unfortunately, at that point, I was sure that Mom and Dad were pretty much wrecking any chance I had for a normal, exciting, and happy life as a teenager, and I wasn't going to give into their malicious destruction of my life without a fight. Mealtimes soon became battlegrounds that quickly turned to sullen and stubborn silence - miserable for the whole family. I became more and more resistent toward my parents consistent desire to please God…THEY could submit THEIR lives to Him, but I didn't want them submitting mine to what I saw as a boring and restrictive lifestyle. My disrespect and even hatred of them became more vocal the year I turned 15 and the tension between us only grew. My break from the struggle with Mom and Dad came every Sunday when I would be with my friends at church, and for a few brief hours I could relax with them and pretend my battles at home didn't exist. That's why I got mad one Sunday morning when Dad announced that our family would be skipping church that day so we could have a family meeting. I saw family meetings as a shoot-off in which I was the only one without a gun. They were sessions of Dad bringing areas we needed to grow in, sometimes instigating new guidelines and, in my mind, making me even more of a prisoner of my family than I already was. I sat in the corner of our blue couch fuming while Dad read through an entire chapter of Acts and then addressed the current issues, all the while feeling like everyone was pointing at me with a glare and blaming the problems of the world on me and my bad attitude. By the time Dad finished up, I was pretty sure an angry explosion was about to happen in me. But he closed with prayer and opened it up to anyone that might want to pray out loud. Praying was about the last thing on my list of things to do at that point, but considering in my mind that Dad would think that I had officially "gone off the deep end" if I didn't pray, after a few minutes I began spouting off a few godly prayer lines to appease him. Something happened about 30 seconds into my prayer recitation that, to this day, I still have a hard time explaining. My heart was so angry and hard, totally resistant to anything God might desire to do in my life, and yet in that moment it was almost like God physically reached down His hand, took my heart and turned it 180 degrees and said, "Oh no, you ARE going to do this." In that moment I had a crushing awareness of the selfishness my life had been saturated with and my blindness in believing the lie that there was life to be found outside of Christ. I saw the grief that my tireless rebellion had brought not only my parents, but to the Lord. I was broken by the knowledge of my filth and utter unworthiness before God and I started to cry and cry as my prayer of meaningless words changed to a desperate cry for mercy. Confession after confession of deceit, hate, disrespect, self-centeredness, idolatry and fear of man followed…I can only imagine how stunned my sisters must have been, sitting there watching their stubborn and calloused older sister reduced to humility and overcome by tears. After the unveiling of that ugly, ugly sin came the transferal of my trust. Finally I could see how I had been staking my life on unstable ground that was already beginning to crumble around me. I had chosen a cheap and fading glory over the eternal, outshining glory that Christ wanted to have in and through my little life. I gave up on the emptiness I had been so hard pursuing and crawled before the Lord. He received me so lovingly. I knew full forgiveness that day and I could almost feel my cleanness as Christ's blood became my own and I was accepted as a daughter of God. I can still remember feeling the relief and complete joy of a traitor rescued and restored by the very One I had betrayed. I had intimate fellowship with God that day. It was like it was just Him and me, walking around in our own bright world. Everything changed that day. There were still struggles after that, but there was amazing grace to stop focusing on myself, to honor Mom and Dad and find my joy and fulfillment in Christ. I'll never understand the Love that ran after me, overtook me and changed my heart. Psalm 18 says, "He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes that were too strong for me…Therefore I will praise You among the nations, O LORD; I will sing praises to Your Name."

Posted by: Jay- the friendly neighborhood piper at November 15, 2007 11:30 AM

Bou, your post and Jay's comments made me cry. It reminded me of when my children were growing up. I always said that when one problem or phase is finished, it is replaced by another. I worried a lot about our son because he didn't like school and didn't make good grades. I worried about how he would do as an adult. He was a follower. My husband said that at least he wasn't in jail; things could be worse. My kids are in their 30s, but once in a great while, I wonder what I could have done differently. Our son has not found a job that he likes, sometimes has money problems, and doesn't go to church. I guess most of all I wanted and want my children to be Christians, but I'm not sure that they are. Oh, I think they believe in Christ, but He is in the background. I tell myself that my husband and I did the best we could at the time. Instead of dwelling on the past, which I cannot change, I pray for them (and our son-in-law and grandchildren) as much as I can. So hang in there, Bou.

Posted by: PrimoDonna at November 15, 2007 12:28 PM

My dad had the strangest cure for sibling bickering. He used it on my two oldest brothers who were always about the same height. If he heard them fighting with each other, he would grab each one by the scruff of the neck, bonk their heads together, and then make them shake hands and apologize before sending them to chill at opposite ends of the house. I don't know how the hell he came up with that. Mom doesn't know either.

Posted by: Peggy U at November 15, 2007 02:23 PM

"A teenager gets caught doing something really BAD and everyone looks sideways at the parents and thinks, “tsk tsk, what crappy parents”."

Um... NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!!!!! Any parent with more than half a brain looks and says...

"There but for the grace of God go I."

If one doesn't look too closely, it's because with an iron hand, that has a vice grip around our heart, we're hoping like hell to get through this parenting thing without any major issues.

I consider it sheer and unmitigated luck that I managed to get my kids through their teens and into adulthood without the police showing up at my door. I KNOW I don't want to know what they did back then that might have resulted in such a scenario. (sometimes it's better to just not know)

Your friend sounds like a wonderful woman who has her act together far more than I ever did. I'm very glad you have her example to help you when you need it! I hope that whatever the problem is - you can find as good a solution for your family.

Posted by: Teresa at November 15, 2007 08:50 PM

I KNOW I don't want to know what they did back then that might have resulted in such a scenario. (sometimes it's better to just not know)

True! For my dad's 45th birthday, my brothers and I thought about giving him a list of all the crap we had done that he never found out about. But since the youngest brothers were still just 10 and 14, we decided against it. They would have earned an extra helping of paranoid supervision had we confessed. Still, it would have been fun to see the reaction.

Posted by: Peggy U at November 16, 2007 01:43 AM

Oh wow, Bou. Fantastic post. And how we all hope to parent...

Hang in there...

Posted by: Richmond at November 16, 2007 06:41 PM

I reckon that all a parent can hope for is that they have instilled the moral rights and wrongs of society into the kid when they are pre-teens. By the time they are teenagers they think for themselves and there is not much we can do except hold on and hope they turn out okay..most do but some do not and some fail but pull out of it with help from loving parents. And then there are those who do not no matter how good the parents are nor how much the parents loved just happens..I reckon for the same reason there are just happens

Posted by: GUYK at November 16, 2007 08:11 PM

Mentally un-stable parents punch their kid in the face.

I came really close the other day when mine punched me in the head.

Posted by: Lukie at November 16, 2007 08:39 PM

What a great lesson. I would say more but I have a toddler clinging to me...

Posted by: Jody at November 20, 2007 09:54 AM