I Want You In My Village, But Not Too Much

The other day, my tween daughters came home from the park because an older woman informed them they shouldn’t be there unsupervised.

“Did you tell her you could practically see our house from the park?” I asked. “Were you roughhousing by the little kids? I told you to watch out for the little kids!”

“Mom, it was only one other family and us. We were on the bars, and no one was even near. The woman said if our mom wasn’t here to supervise then we shouldn’t be there, so we left,” my youngest daughter told me.

I had mixed emotions about the interaction. I wanted to believe this woman — whoever she is — had good intentions. Perhaps she was worried about abductions or that they could get hurt. Maybe she just didn’t think it was safe.

But, I trusted my kids to behave responsibly and as far as I know there are no signs that parents need to be present to supervise their children, especially since the park is adjacent to my neighborhood and roughly two football fields from my home.

On one hand, if my daughter fell and hurt herself, I would hope this woman would step in to help, lending her phone or waiting with her until I could get there. I would even be okay if she felt the need to reprimand them if they were behaving badly or doing something dangerous.

On the other hand, however, I don’t think I want her — or any other person — to parent my kids, informing them of where they can or can’t be based on their perspectives.

Basically, I want you to be a part of my village — but not too much.

It’s a confusing world we live in nowadays. If you are too hands-on with your kids — or anyone else’s — then you’re a helicopter mom; if you let your son or daughter roam without monitoring them, you’re a free-range parent, reckless and negligent.

There is no middle ground.

Make sure your kids get outside to play, but not unless it’s in your fenced-in backyard, so no one calls the police on you for letting them run near the street unsupervised.

See a kid who is dangling over the railing at a zoo? Don’t say anything because you don’t want to interfere and be “one of those parents.”

I like to think I’m a middle-of-the-road mom. I’m hyper-vigilant about some things — like cell phones and social media — because I have first-hand experience in the perils these can have on a family.

I’m a little lax in other areas, like when my kids tied their old ride-on toys to the back of their bicycles with jump ropes and took turns zipping around our cul-de-sac. I mean, they had helmets on…

But what’s right for my kids, terrifies other parents and vice versa.

So, here we are at an impasse. To village or not to village, that is the question.

I want the village in my kids’ lives. In fact, I need the village, and not just for car pools. I wish for female role models who work outside the home to interact with my girls on a regular basis, so they can know their potential is limitless; I want my kids to play with families where the dad stays home so they can see there are no pre-determined roles; I hope if my kids are doing something bad, someone will stand up to them to course correct if I’m not there; and I need people to be brave enough to tell me if my daughters get themselves in a dangerous situation.

And if I desire all these things, then I have to be open enough to accept the village, even those in it who I don’t agree with about everything. Even those whose perspectives are different. Even those who send my kids home from the park when I’m trying to make dinner.

Because the point of the village isn’t for it to be homogenous. It isn’t so kids can interact only with adults that are exactly like their own parents.

The point of the village is to help parents raise good kids. Sometimes that involves grandparents watching children while mom goes to work, sometimes that means a neighborhood babysitting co-op, and sometimes it even is a random stranger questioning your judgment.

Because while most of the time these villagers are well-intentioned, there are other times it gives me an opportunity to have a frank discussion with my girls, like respecting their elders while also stating they have permission — from their mother — to play at the park.

It seems like we are in a time where we want to reject the village. If anyone questions our parenting, it is reeked in judgment. If someone chooses to raise their kids in a different, more progressive way, it is resented. If someone makes a mistake, they are cast-aside with a scarlet letter emblazoned on their social media profile forever.

But, I feel like we need to come together in the village more now than ever. As parents, we need to recognize we all want the same things for our kids — for them to be safe, happy and grow up to have families of their own to screw up the way they deem fit.

This means that sometimes I have to accept your helicopter parenting, and sometimes you have to accept the risks I let my kids take. And when we think it’s important, we need to speak up and respect that, too.

Because we’re in the same village, whether we like each other or not.

The Day I Let My Daughter Quit

The big blue eyes of my daughter filled with tears when I walked into her room to kiss her goodnight. She quickly looked down at her teal comforter to avoid my worried face.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” rolled quickly off my tongue, but I already knew the answer.

Her little fourth grade fingers held the page of a book, and she looked exhausted.

I sighed as I found a spot on the side of her bed that was not already occupied by a stuffed animal. I placed my hand on her leg and watched her fight off the tears, her pursed lips like a dam holding back the mighty Mississippi.

She was trying to finish The Penderwicks, a classic novel she started reading a few weeks back. She and her two older sisters were participating in a school program that required reading 25-plus books in about six months and then compete in a trivia-like contest against other schools on their factual knowledge about the material. The local children’s librarian selected the list, which was a mix of literary classics, non-fiction material, and contemporary novels. I happened to be one of the “coaches” for the program.

My daughter eagerly devoured books over the summer, but when reading something she didn’t enjoy, it took weeks for her to complete it. Once her Fall activities started up, it became even more difficult to get her to finish and do the required work to be a member of the “team.” It was starting to become a fight we had every day.

A few days before, she broke down in hysterics over something ridiculous, like asking her to take a shower after soccer practice. Thirty minutes later when I told her it was time to head upstairs to bed so she could read, she out-and-out lost it.

I did not recognize this girl sitting in front of me. This girl is moody, combative and harsh, not the happy-go-lucky kid that usually is a joy to parent.

Originally, I chalked it up to a pre-pubescent outbreak, but the pattern of behavior didn’t seem to match up to raging hormones. Her outbursts were linked to one thing that I did not want to admit.

A few days before her epic meltdown, in a moment of haste when reminding her that she needed to finish a book to stay on track with the program, I yelled: “Listen, if you’re not going to finish the books, you can’t participate. I’m not going to fight with you, so maybe you should just quit.”

My daughter shouted back through waves of tears: “I don’t want to quit, I just don’t want to read right now!”

It was not my finest parenting moment, and I wanted to take my words back as soon as they shot out of my mouth. In our house, you finished what you started. It was a rule. I mean, every parenting article you read nowadays talks about how we are raising a generation who does not understand responsibility, is coddled by parents and cannot handle rejection. How could I let my daughter quit something she loved to do?

I made a deal with myself. She didn’t have to do it next year, but she had to finish what she started.  I did not want to raise a quitter.

I feel that children who persevere through challenging tasks, those who push through set backs, knuckle down and power through, learn a valuable life skill.  It is a very competitive world, and figuring out how to hang in there is an important lesson. “Just Keep Swimming” is a family motto.

I spent the better part of the next several days trying to create blocks of time to read that were earlier in the day or reading aloud with her to make it more of a fun, bonding activity. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. The Penderwicks for her turned into what the Kardashians are to me: a family in your face that just won’t go away. There were more tears and the tension between us grew.

When I walked into her bedroom that night and saw her tired, dejected face, I knew what I needed to do.

“Honey,” I said, taking the book out of her hands. “You don’t have to finish this book, or any others on the list. You are officially released from the team.”

“But, Mom,” she mumbled, finally meeting my gaze. “I don’t want to be a quitter. I don’t want to be the only one in our house who quit.”

Hearing her say the words I was thinking felt like a bee sting to my heart. She obviously was carrying this burden around for quite some time. In her face I recognized what I already knew: she was doing this for me, and it was beating her down. Her fear of disappointing me was the only thing keeping her tied to this thing she was growing to hate, and that’s when I knew I was the problem, not her.

“You are not a quitter,” I said defiantly. “You have stuck with soccer for five years, sometimes playing entire games for your team. You finish every craft you ever start, no matter how long it takes. And you hate to turn off MineCraft before you finish exploding the house you just built,” I joked as I pushed a soft brown hair off her face.

Relief poured through my body as I finally saw the smile that lights up an entire room.  “But most importantly, you usually finish books, and I know how much you love to read. You do not have to do this program, but I still want you to read 25 books by December, and I know you are already half way there.  And, you’ll have to come and support your sisters when they compete. Deal?”

“Deal!” she responded happily.

I hugged and kissed her goodnight as usual, and the tears in the room were now mine. I watched as she reached for the tattered bunny she slept with and settle into her pillow with a smile on her face.

I always find it difficult to walk the parenting tightrope. I do not want to be a helicopter parent, yet I want to push my children to reach their potential. I want to avoid acting like Tiger Wood’s dad, but I do not want my daughters’ biggest fear to be disappointing me.  I want to see my kids for who they are in this moment, now what I want them to become or achieve.

It seems so silly and trivial to even be contemplating. It is a simple school program, for Pete’s sake; but I do believe these moments, these small intersections of choice, can shape little minds. The difficulty comes in choosing when to be firm, and when to let things go.

So much of my daughter is beautiful, kind and right. And I know she is neither a coward nor a quitter. She loves to try new things and has an abundance of courage.

What it boiled down to, however, was I did not want to take the joy out of something she loved. I did not want to add any more stress to her busy little life. And I think she gave it her best shot. This was just not a match.

I still believe perseverance often makes the critical difference between whether kids succeed or fail.  But I also believe kindness, empathy and compassion for what you child is going through can go a long way too. I forgot that we all could use a little more of that.

The next day after school my daughter excitedly showed me two books she checked out of the library.

“All my friends said this book is hilarious, so I couldn’t wait to get it,” she told me. “And guess what? I finished The Penderwicks today in read-to-self time.”

“Really?” I questioned, surprised that she even brought it to school with her.

“Yeah, I already read most of it anyway, so I figured I might as well finish it,” she shouted over her shoulder as she happily raced out the sliding glass door to play with her friends.

I guess quitting can even turn out okay sometimes.

To Interfere or Not Interfere — That is the Question

I once wrote an article about Five BS Excuses Parents Give for Mean Girls. While most of the feedback was extremely positive, there was a very vocal group that basically called my article, well, BS.

Normally negative feedback gives me anxiety. It rips my heart to shreds and grows the pocket of insecurity that steeps deep in my veins. But these comments — some polite and articulate and some calling me a fool — well, it just made me think. And I can’t shake it off.

There seems to be a major divide when it comes to interfering on your child’s behalf when it comes to their relationships. Some people look at it in a positive way — tweens and young teens do not have the emotional intelligence to deal with some of these issues, so when possible, it can be effective for all involved to sit down together and hash things out. And even when the issue is a misunderstanding — and especially if there was an established friendship between families — you let the other person know that their feelings matter and you exemplify how two people can resolve conflict in a peaceful and mature way. If your child was the one doing something wrong, you also could make them accountable for their behavior.

Other people think I am smoking the crack pipe. Kids need to work things out on their own. Calling another mom is a ridiculous notion and borderlines on helicopter parenting. We can only control our own responses to abhorrent behavior, and we cannot get involved in the way other people raise their kids. Meanness is a part of life, and we need to prepare our kids for it early and often.

I am having a real internal struggle with this one. On one hand, I agree that as parents we have to resist the urge to “fix” all our kids’ problems. We have to prepare them for the big, ugly world out there. It’s my job to both toughen my kid up while also teaching them how to address problems and resolve conflict — two very important life skills.

On the other hand, I think of the tweens and young teens I know and the emotional range of these kids is vast. Some are full of empathy and maturity and kindness, and others are completely egocentric or obtuse or just plain clueless.

The kids under my roof have all the aforementioned characteristics. Even with my guidance, I am not sure how well they could get a relationship they care about back on track — whether it was their fault or not.

To interfere or not to interfere, that is the question.

I loved this recent article on Scary Mommy entitled: “I Want to Know if My Kid is Being an Asshole.” Most parents chimed in that they, too, would want to know, but the underlying problem is how we react when someone approaches us about the unflattering behavior of our children.

We may think we want to know, but how we choose to handle that information, and how we treat the messenger, is what makes the difference.

Of course, a lot of how this type of conversation goes depends on things like how well you already know the other parent. Calling up someone you’ve never shared more than a parking lot greeting with is a whole lot harder than sitting down over a cozy cup of tea with a friend, especially if what you’re saying is likely to make them uncomfortable or defensive.

But there are ways to approach other parents without making it a hostile situation. Most of these are related to not what you say, but how you say it. For example, it’s important to ensure the other person knows that you’re sharing information and not calling them out on what a crappy parent they are; not participating in a tit for tat war on who has done the most  dubious acts; and that the goal is to figure out how to get everyone back on track. And it’s important to remember that everyone will always be looking out for their own kid’s best interests.

In my mind, it might seem like interfering — or perhaps even tattling — but when you talk to another parent, you’re modeling grown-up behavior for your child. Kids today often rely on texting or social media for communication. By attempting to have a conversation with another parent about an issue that occurred between adolescents, you are actually demonstrating what mature adults do. If two people have a problem, no one should have to suffer in silence. If the other parent does not cooperate or takes the conversation to a bad place, then you can model that sometimes it is okay to walk away from a bad situation. When kids have a problem, it’s still important to think of other parents as allies, not enemies.

If you are on the receiving end of a parent who is informing you of a problem between your kids, or maybe even some illicit behaviors your chid may be involved with, then how you react is even more important. In the first instance, taking the other person’s feelings into consideration — no matter how irrational or inconsequential they may seem to you — models empathy and compassion.  Justifying your child’s actions away or belittling someone’s opinion is not parenting. It’s enabling.

In the second instance, if another parent approaches you about your child doing something unhealthy, unsafe, or perhaps even illegal, the first thing you need to realize is how difficult it is for one parent to approach another about a topic like this. Force yourself to believe the other person is operating with a positive intent, even if you believe they may be experiencing some satisfaction out of your parenting woes. Then, it’s up to you to do some recon on the situation, either by confronting your child or increasing the supervision of your child.

Perspective is in the eye of the beholder. Since my kids are in their young tweens, I plan on first giving them the tools to help them solve a problem on their own, and then stepping in if it spirals out of control. I know it won’t be easy, but if I can’t show my girls how to repair a relationship, how can I expect them to learn?

To interfere or not to interfere. The answer lies only with you.

 

We All Face the Same Parenting Potholes

This picture continuously shows up in my Facebook news feed. Every time I see it, I feel depressed, and then relieved I had my kids before Facebook was the norm.

I never truly experienced the mom shaming that is so prevalent in today’s culture when I had my kids nearly eleven years ago. After facing infertility for three years, and then experiencing a challenging pregnancy that resulted in twins born five weeks early, most people in my circle rejoiced in the mere fact my babies were healthy. When I had my third daughter sixteen months later, people were more interested in how we survived through a day as opposed to the specifics of my parenting regimen.

This is not the case for new moms today, however. Now, most people highlight the ways in which they choose to parent, wearing it like a badge of honor. To me, sometimes it is like wearing your gang colors on social media.  Some moms post pictures of baby wearing and breastfeeding in the hopes to “normalize” these parenting choices; other parents post pictures of their messy houses or children sleeping on top of a laundry machine in a car seat to show others that they are not alone facing the challenges of raising kids.

I believe that everyone who posts these types of commentary do it with the best of intentions, but sometimes it backfires. When it turns into mom shaming, like in the photo above, we all lose.

A funny thing happened the other night when I went out to dinner with a group of moms, all of whom had children in elementary school or older. We talked proudly of our kids’ accomplishments, but also shared some of our fears.

When one mom confided that her son was having difficulty making friends, no one asked if she let him cry-it-out as an infant or if she responded on-demand. Instead, we nodded our heads ,because it was a fear we all shared at one time.

Another mom described how her daughter continues being a picky eater. No one pummeled her with accusations on whether she was bottle or breastfed as each of us had felt frustration with our kids’ eating habits.

When I shared that my nine-year old, once my best sleeper, was now waking up several times a night, not one single mother asked if I co-slept with her or put her in a crib as an infant. In fact, many of the parents went through a similar stage with their children.

I suspect the six of us moms all chose different parenting paths in the beginning. Somehow, despite our different starts, we all ended up in the same place, facing the same problems.

I was a combination of the above photo, breastfeeding and formula feeding all three, and baby-wearing my third, but my first two were always contained in a double stroller when ever we went anywhere. Letting one of my twins cry it out was the best parenting decision I ever made, and co-sleeping would have been a disaster in my house; yet I have friends who loved the experience.

These first decisions we make as moms are important. It sets the tone for the type of parent you will be and gives you an opportunity to provide your child with the best start possible —whatever that may be in your eyes.

But it is also important to remember that these decisions — these personal choices — are all okay.

What I learned that evening, is that as parents we’re all headed to the same destination, but we take different vehicles to get there.  And no matter what we drive, we’re all going to face the same parenting pot holes.

I doubt that picture will stop making the rounds on Facebook, and I’m sure there will be a meme retaliation from the rival “gangs”.

For me, I am no longer interested if you bottle or breast feed; carry your infant in a sack made from a tribe in Africa or use the latest in car seat technology; or, if you respond to your child’s every whimper or let them cry it out. I know that any of these decisions can turn out a great kid.

I am interested in those delicious, naked newborn photos that show the most adorable little butt cheeks. I am giddy when seeing chubby thighs and round bellies that only babies can pull off so well. And you will make me ugly cry when I see that first picture of you holding your new son or daughter.

I hope we learn to rejoice again each time a new baby is born into this world, instead of grilling the mom on every parenting decision. Our choices should be viewed just as that — choices — and certainly not used as weapons to shame new mothers.

There is a reason why raising a child is often called a journey, not a race.  No matter what you drive, we all need some help in getting there.

I Am Sad Before It Even Begins

I watch the two girls ride away on their bikes, and I am surprised when tears fill my eyes like raindrops in a bucket.

“They look so big,” I think to myself.

I am unsure why this particular outing causes me to choke back tears, paralyzing me in the moment. I have watched my twin daughters ride to their various friends’ houses all summer without significance.

But this Friday is the last one before fifth grade starts. It is their last summer weekend as elementary students. Next year the pair will be middle schoolers.

I swallow hard trying to control the rush of emotions surging through my body like an electric volt. It all went so fast.

I am sad about the end of this chapter. I am sad before it even begins.

Memories flood my brain like a slide show on fast forward. I see images of the first day they rode the bus, school parties, and Christmas mornings. I see snapshots of them with their tiny arms wrapped around their friends, playing dress up or walking in their father’s work boots around the kitchen floor.

Next year, they may go to their first dance, have a crush, or get embarrassed when I show up at school. Playdates will get replaced with “get-togethers” and the pressures of academics and social status will increase. They will need me less and more all at the same time.

I already miss our walks to school. I miss their excited little faces as they run through the door to tell me about their day. I long to hold them in my arms, squeeze them both tight and tell them one more time how lucky I feel that I am their mom.

The sound of my daughter’s cackling laughter startles me, pushing me back into reality. I shake my head side to side quickly to clear my mind and turn to wipe a tear before she sees.

“Mom, I totally forgot to put the sunscreen in my bag,” she says, cracking herself up. Her long leg easily goes over the side of the bike, an adult-sized one we bought this summer since she now stands five feet tall at age ten.  She sheepishly smiles at me and my heart grows a little bigger as I watch the beautiful young lady standing before me. This girl who is self-conscious but with a wicked sense of humor, sensitive yet resilient, routine-oriented, but an individual to her core.

As she runs into the house, her sister shouts good-naturedly after her,“Yeah, mom only reminded you like fifty-seven times!” I am always surprised at the loud voice that comes out of that little body. My other daughter proves that great things do come in small packages. This petite powerhouse has never met a challenge she didn’t believe she could win. While life comes pretty easy for her, she soaks up every experience to the fullest, and I smile, knowing  it was she who reminded her twin of the sunscreen and then did not get angry at her forgetfulness.

In a flash, I feel gangly arms around my body and kisses on my cheeks. We shout our I love you’s again and I yell out, “Be careful” just one more time as I see tiny hands wave straight up in the air so their pink and purple backpacks don’t slip off their narrow shoulders.

And then they are gone.

I miss them already. I miss this time filled with innocence and wonder and imagination, already.

I have no regrets. I know I live in the moment with my kids, relishing every experience and celebrating every first. I will continue to do so.

But, I also know we are at the beginning of the end of an era. It reminds me of reading the last chapter in a great book that I don’t want to finish. I want to know the ending, yet I don’t want it to be done.

I am sad before it even begins.

I finally turn away from the empty road and walk slowly back into the house.  Before I even shut the garage door, my phone beeps with a text message from my friend. “They are here!” it says across my screen.

I smile, feeling happy they are enjoying the last moments of summer, as they should at this age. Happy they are old enough to go places by themselves, but still want to climb trees; happy when we eat frozen yogurt with their friends they still want me to sit next to me; happy they want to shower me with hugs and kisses one more time if only because they forgot their sunscreen.

Although I can feel the tears stinging my eyes yet again, this time it is with joy. Because although I am sad knowing it is the beginning of an end, I am grateful to be a part of it, a voracious reader in the story of their lives.

And I sigh, thankful that although this is the last chapter of their elementary years, the next book in the series will be right at my fingertips.

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