If you’ve read this blog at all, you probably already know I have three boys. In this post, I wanted to share a huge parenting learning experience for me.
Basically, it all stemmed from me being dictated by fear/worry/shoulds instead of being present and intentional…
When my first kid was a baby, I was fresh out of grad school, and only working one day a week. I was obsessively preoccupied with pondering the well-being and future success of this child. (Well that and Project Runway.)
Anyway, that obsessiveness continued throughout his early childhood. I started “potty training” at 18 months, and teaching him to sound out words at 3, the same age I enrolled him in T-ball.
Looking back, I can see that in these little ways (and others), I pushed my son to achieve my own agendas (trying to get him out of diapers before his brother was born, quelling my anxiety that he would struggle with reading, making him able to focus on the ball instead of the mud so I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of the other parents) as opposed to considering what was best for him.
In being motivated by my fears and “shoulds,” I failed to meet my son where he was. I barely stopped to notice him in my endeavors to parent him. I didn’t allow him to listen to his own body, notice his own developmental abilities, or rest assured that he was developing his own interests and aptitudes through unstructured play, silly story-telling, dress-up, etc. That was a mistake.
He didn’t stop stealthily pooping his pants until he was four. He was probably ready at three, but I had created so much confusion and need for protective resistance in him by neglecting to consider his personal readiness. He is better now, but it took years before his instinct to restrict his bowel movements dissipated.
He still associates reading with drudgery. My eagerness inadvertently instilled in him an association of “struggle” and “inadequacy” with reading. There were years of me holding him hostage in my lap, full of nonverbal messages of frustration when he would wiggle and get distracted and need to be reminded 80 times in a row how to pronounce “was.” It is hard to undo that.
T-ball (or any activity with a lot of down-time) is simply not for him, and I am so grateful that my pressure didn’t squelch his enjoyment for all sports. He currently loves martial arts, something that he chose himself. All my telling him to, “Look at the ball! Stop playing in the dirt! Come on, Ronnie! Focus! What are you DOING?! Over THERE! No, THERE!” when he was niether interested nor ready could have easily squelched his personal sense of coordination/adequacy and his love for organized physical activity.
But this post isn’t only about potty training or reading or sports. This is about striking that delicate balance of knowing when to push a kid and when to hold back because applying pressure is doing more harm than good.
With my next two kids, I learned my lesson. My kindergartener got out his sight words the other day and announced, “I love reading!” I never got in any power struggles or betrayed any frustration with him about reading. Yes, I make him practice, but he is ready and in no way discouraged. He never learned one letter sound until he was almost five.
I waited until my youngest was three to potty train him. He was so proud of himyself, and never experienced the discouragement and confusion of being pushed when he wasn’t ready. By three, he was both physically able to feel when he needed to go and cognitively aware of his goal.
What I learned is that the following is true: When we are guided by our “shoulds” and our anxieties, we as parents do our kids a disservice. When we apply accountability when a kid is ready (and hopefully even a little eager), it’s better for everyone.
Finding that balance of “applying pressure that is good for the child” is based on a gut feeling and keen observation of the child. It is also based on self-awareness. I recently bribed the hell out of my middle son when he was practicing for his Tae-Kwon-Do belt test, and I sternly encouraged him to practice beyond his comfort level. But this was because I knew he was ready developmentally and he WANTED to accomplish the goal. I had to check myself and ask, “Am I pushing him to practice for an hour straight because I don’t want to be embarrassed that my kid is the only one who doesn’t get the steps? Or is this in the best interest of my kid?”
My parental learning experience can be applied to kids of all ages. I have seen countless middle-schoolers in therapy who are not cognitively ready to grasp the abstract concepts in Algebra II, but yet they remain enrolled, struggling and forming a hatred for math and an expectation that they are flawed. I have seen countless highschoolers whose parents, fueled by fears and “shoulds,” assume they are college-bound, when in-reality, they would be both happy and successful with a technical career. I see parents who fail to ask themselves of their child is developmentally ready for the responsibility of dating or driving, and instead, choose an arbitrary age for these milestones based on societal influences. Or, often times, we as parents will act as though the child is not ready when (s)he is (again out of fear).
Yes, observing our child’s readiness and unique personalities, as opposed to our own “shoulds” and fears, seems like a simple concept. But take it from someone who learned the hard way, we as parents sometimes miss the child altogether in our agendas. And, whether it’s underwear full of poop when the kid is four, a resentment for academics at age 11, or a car that is crashed at 17, missing the child in the equation can backfire.
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