Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mother Culture

Lately, we’re hearing a lot about how French parents parent and how Chinese parents parent, which got me thinking: Is there such a thing as American Parenting? And, if so, how do American Parents parent?

I am an American Parent, but I frequently feel like I’m parenting upstream, against a current that is flowing in a different direction, as opposed to being part of a larger unified, perhaps unspoken, parenting philosophy.

Then I have to wonder if that is how everyone feels—if that is American Parenting—a salad bowl of styles. A New World phenomenon of having people from so many different cultures living side-by-side. A patchwork of mothers and fathers parenting in response to their individual cultural norms, their inner voices, and the demands of their environment.

And, let’s face it. The US is just so much noisier than other countries. As parents we are inundated with a cacophony of “expert” voices coming everywhere from Hollywood to Harvard, omnipresent blather from Madison Avenue, and the audible pendulum swings of parenting zeitgeist (from “children should be seen and not heard” to “helicopter parents in the workplace”).

When I look at American literature/blogs on parenting today, there appears to be a trend towards a laissez-faire, more laid-back style of parenting: Parenting from the Couch, Free Range Parenting, Slow Parenting, The Idle Parent, The Three Martini Playdate, Confessions of a Slacker Mom. But how representative of the population at large is this?

Not very, I suspect.

We lack a mother culture. We are diffuse, diverse and sometimes divisive group. Sure there are trends in American youth, which, by proxy, point to trends in parenting—such as the fact that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years or that, on average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of the TV. But we can hardly generate a profile of the American parent based solely on this data.

Can we generalize region by region? (Southern parent, Northeast parent, Midwest parent) State by state? (California parent, Jersey parent, Texas parent) City by city? (Livingston parent, Newark parent, Point Pleasant parent) Or does this always reduce us to stereotypes, obscuring our true values and practices?

This week, in a rare breech of the imaginary wall that stands between us, I’m reaching out to you, dear readers. What do you think characterizes American parenting? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bad Example

It is Wednesday morning, and, like all Wednesday mornings, Sophia and I are in the car, headed two hours North for my mother’s nursery school. Sophia is happily chewing her way through a Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon raisin bagel, quietly watching the scenery fly by. Something compels me to turn on New Jersey radio, usually so offensive to my ears, to listen to the traffic, which I know comes on at exactly 7:33 AM.

The report is said in one long sentence, full of clauses referring to this highway or that parkway. The ability to take in this information, to single out the roads you depend upon and quickly listen for the state of their alternate routes, should be a subtest on an IQ exam--maybe for processing speed. Or perhaps it is a form of decoding. There is a certain music to the these reports, a language with its own grammar and vocabulary. When I listen to the traffic in other places, it is foreign and impenetrable. PA, with it’s colloquial terms for it’s main arteries took me several months to learn: The Shulkill, The Blue Route--roads never referred to by the numbers that appear on maps. But NJ, I speak fluently.

So I am quickly able to discern that we are going the wrong way. Two exits up (exactly 14 miles away) there is an overturned car and a 10-mile back up that will cost me at least an additional hour. I quickly take the only exit that will spare me this fate.

As I head down the road less traveled, a calmness passes through me. Sure, we will now be plagued with red lights and 40 mph speed limits, but at least I will not be a prisoner, sandwiched between other cars, inching my way mile by mile.

When we finally re-enter the highway, I feel liberated. Sophie is listening to her music, I’m plugged into a Fresh Air podcast, lost in an interview. I steer us into the fast lane, gain speed, pass two cars on my right and--

Oh no. A police car.

I am in the cars-only lanes. The police car is in the truck lanes. A median stands between us, so it is possible that he will stay on his side. I quickly maneuver into the middle lane, hitting the breaks to match the speed of the cars I have just passed.

Oh no. He’s coming over.

I am the kind of person who cries when she gets in trouble. The sting that precedes the tears makes me sneeze.

Red and blue lights flash behind me. I’ve got to give Sophie a heads up. “Sophie,” I say, “I am getting pulled over by a cop. I need you to be very quiet.”


“Because mommy was going too fast.” Why do I speak of myself this way, in the third person? Am I trying to separate myself from her--this person who was breaking the law--or do I do this all the time?

“Why were you going too fast? What is he going to do? Are we going to stop right here? On the road?”

“Yes. Shhh. Please.”

He walks over to the car. I’ve got my hands at ten and two. He bends down and I lower the window. He looks like a teenager. I feel my cheeks flush.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No, officer.” I don’t know why I am saying this, because I do know why he pulled me over.

“You were going 87 MPH.”

“Really?” I say. I am incredulous. I speed, but I generally try to keep to the flow of traffic. Eighty-seven is completely uncalled for. And with Sophie in the car. I am appalled at my own behavior,

“I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I must have been zoning.” I should shut up right now.

“License and registration.”

“I need to reach into my glove compartment.”

“Go ahead.”

“Mommy, what are you doing?’

“Shhhh. Sophie. I’ll talk to you in a minute.” I hand him the cards. He studies them for a moment.

“You have a clean record?”

“Spotless.” I say, hopeful. I was going more than 20 miles over the speed limit in a 65 MPH zone, which means the fine is doubled. I’m looking at 4 points on my record and--I don’t know--400, 500 hundred dollars.

Why was I doing 87? Why? It would be one thing to have been doing this alone, with no one’s life at stake but my own. But I had Sophie in the car. What kind of an example am I setting for her?

“I’ll be right back.” He leaves me with Sophie.

“Mommy? What is he doing?”

“Mommy is in trouble because she broke the law.” Still in the third person. I can’t own it. “I was going too fast. Now he’s writing me a ticket to punish me. I’m sorry Sophie. I shouldn’t have been going so fast with you in the car. I’m sorry.” Tears are running down my face.

“It’s okay mommy. It’s going to be alright.” Sophie coos. I smile at her in the mirror and wipe away my tears.

The cop comes back. He looks uncomfortable. “Because you have a clean record, I’ve knocked it down to careless driving.” He hands me the ticket. “A lesser fine. Fewer points.”

“I really appreciate that,” I tell him sincerely. “Thank you, officer.”

And then, worse than any fine he could have slapped me with, he says. “Now, c’mon. Slow down. You’ve got a little girl in the car.”

I nod, humiliated. Wanting him to go away so I can cry the tears of shame that are welling. He pulls onto the road first, so that I can pull ahead of him.

And then the dam breaks.

“Don’t cry, Mommy. It’s okay.”

“No! It’s not okay!” I sob. “I did a bad thing. Mommy shouldn’t have been speeding.”

Slow down.

Suddenly, the words sound like a revelation. Like a directive that comes not from a cop, but from deep within. What am I speeding for? Is saving a few minutes worth risking our lives? Why do I rush from thing to thing to thing--always in such a hurry?

What if I did slow down? Could I change this deeply-ingrained way of being--not just for my own sake, but for Sophie’s as well?

I decide in this moment: It’s worth a try.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Enough is Enough

The Days of Lawlessness are over. It’s time to walk the walk. Talk the talk. Put my money where my mouth is. I’m tired of feeling like a hypocrite.

This weekend, we are starting a token economy system with Sophia.

My mother called me a hard-ass this week. Well, mom, my ass just got harder. I am finally going to do the thing I advise other parents of willful, defiant, oppositional children to do.

What took me so long?

The same reason it takes everyone so long. I just kept hoping her behavior would improve. That if I stayed consistent, if I routinely offered choices and contingencies and followed-through on demands and consequences, it would be enough.

It isn’t.

And then I’d get lulled into complacency by spells of excellent behavior. Sophia would wake up, and come into my room fully dressed. “I wanted you to be proud of me, Mommy.”

Or she’d solemnly pledge, “I’m not going to have any fusses today, Mommy,” And much to my surprise and pleasure, she wouldn’t.

Which made me think that somehow, she had it all under control. That when she acted out, she could reel it back in again. But lately, I’ve watched something different happen. The smallest thing sets her off, and then she is gone, screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, hysterical. Tortured. At times it is painful to watch, at others, the things she says are so funny--”That’s not how you should talk to your little child!”--it’s hard not to smile, which only serves to infuriate her more.

“You aren’t my parents! I want different parents! I want to leave and never come back! I don’t live in this house!”

It is quite a thing to hear a four-year-old belting out these words. I’m sure I was once inspired to shout the very same thing. Except I didn’t. I kept it inside. Sophie lets it rip, assailing anyone in her path. Her rage utterly consumes her. I’ve never seen anything so raw, so uncensored, so unselfconscious.

If I wasn’t so keyed-up, so drained, so frustrated, I might be in awe of her.

The most distressing thing about these episodes is there nothing I can do to console her. I have tried sending her to her room for “calm down time.” Holding her. Waiting it out.

And waiting, and waiting, and waiting...returning her to her room when she bursts out, holding the door closed when she comes at me, like a wildebeest, scratching and biting, body-blocking her as she steps up on top of her potty, and tries to hurdle herself over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs (in high-heels, no less).

“Sophie calm down right now! You’re going to give yourself a concussion.”

“No, YOU’LL get a concussion.” Sigh. It is best not to speak. Another thing I recommend that other people do, yet struggle with myself.

Afterwards, she is contrite. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I know that I have to have good behavior for us to have a good time.” Articulate about her feelings and what set her off. “I just wanted to wear my orange dress, Mommy. It made me mad when you gave me the wrong dress.” “I just wanted to have cherries for a snack. I got angry when you said I have to wait for dinner” I just...I just.....

Why couldn’t you have just said that, kid?

I have to help her find her voice, her self-control, her ability to regulate her emotions in times of distress. Intervening on the back end, I don’t feel like I’m doing much to teach her these skills.

So, I’m starting with a simple penny chart on a wipe off board. I’ll stick five little pieces of velcro on it, to which she can affix each penny she earns, an =‘s sign, and then write in the reinforcement du jour, e.g., playing with a friend, going to the library, reading a book, etc. The pennies will be doled out at our discretion for following her rules we generated as a family:
  1. Stay in control of my behavior
  2. Get dressed
  3. Stay in my seat and eat
  4. Let my mommy wash me
  5. Speak nicely to others
This way she’s not sure when it’s coming, keeping her on her toes and we can control when she gets the reinforcement. If it seems she can’t delay her gratification that day, we’ll reward her sooner. But if she’s having a particularly good day, I’ll space them out a bit more.

We gave it a test run. She’s so excited to get pennies, collecting them has been reinforcing in and of itself. I hope it works. I hope I can be consistent.

But more than anything, I hope that I can get back to the place I was before, when Sophie was two and I naively said to a friend, “I can’t imagine ever yelling at her. I don’t know what could possibly provoke me to do that.”

If we weren’t so invested, they wouldn’t make us so crazy.