Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Our Parenting Mistakes

When my husband Cliff and I adopted a baby from China, we were amazed at all the advice we got. One look at us and people must have known we didn't know up from down.  A woman watched me let Maggie crawl in the grass and offered, "If you let her keep doing that, you'll need to give her at least three baths a day."

I let her keep doing that. I never gave her three baths a day.

We pay attention to parents who know the rules. Along the way, they've tried to help us. They mean well, but so far we've made one mistake after the other.

          We let her watch television.
          We let her eat sugar.
          We let her eat fast-food. 
          We let her find her own friends.
          We let her pick her own books.
          We let her spend her allowance any way she wants.
          We let her choose her own courses.
          We never forced her to play an instrument.
          We don't make her attend church.
          We let her pick her own clothes.
          We let her wear her hair however she wants.
          We did not put her in Honors classes.

We once met friends for dinner, and they seated their children with their backs to the wall-mounted TV set to protect them from seeing the screen. They believe it is a corrupting influence. Throughout the meal, the youngest boy circled around to sit on his mother's lap, feigning affection. But I could see he'd position himself to peek at the TV. Mom and Dad praised him for being a sweet little boy. 

I volunteered during a third-grade party, and we made frosted cookies. A mother took the cookie from her daughter's hand, commenting,"It's too much sugar for you." She handed a tiny piece to the girl and ate the rest herself while her daughter watched. Earlier in the year, I helped another mother with her Halloween party. She gave every child a gift bag stuffed with candy. That same little girl ran to the porch with hers and ate every last piece in a panic before her mother arrived.

In kindergarten Maggie took up with a girl we thought was dreadful. I'll skip over a lot of details about this "popular" girl, but one day she started making hurtful prank calls to Maggie, who couldn't believe a friend would say such things. "You're right," I said. "A friend wouldn't." She cried. It took a long time to get over it, too, but she learned to be discerning about friends all on her own.

Because I was a high school teacher, I saw the ravages of Honors/AP classes. I saw kids run themselves ragged for a handful of points. I saw parents pull their children out of sports, the thing they loved best, to eliminate homework distractions. I saw kids cry because they were being sent to high-powered schools they didn't want to attend. I saw kids earn placement scores that meant they could skip several levels and graduate early from college--unhappy, immature, and unemployable.

There is no AP placement test that measures confidence or joy.

Last week Maggie's school held their annual awards ceremony.  Cliff and I got a confidential email to attend because she'd be a recipient. She earned the Sophomore Language Award in Chinese, which requires as much effort from her as anyone else because she only lived in China for her first 11 months. Her heart calls her to learn it. It's her own ambition, not ours. It's far more than a GPA thing.

She also received the Sophomore Science Award, and she couldn't have had the highest score in the class. At a recent parent conference, her teacher talked about Maggie's intellectual curiosity, her kindness to struggling students, and her helpful attitude in the lab. A few years ago in science, she was required to determine a mystery substance through weeks of experiments. The day before the project was due, a careless girl destroyed all of Maggie's work in an absent-minded wave of her hand.  Test tubes crashed to the floor.  The girl said nothing and walked away.  That indifferent teacher asked our daughter, "Is there anything here you need before I clean this up?"  Maggie was incredulous, but she learned a world of lessons from that hard moment. And she learned them on her own. The person she became out of that experience resulted in the award she achieved last Wednesday. 

I think parenting depends on how you see things.

When you see a cloud, do you want to tack it down, hoping it remains fluffy white or watch it float and reshape on its own?

When you see an empty basket, do you want to control what goes in it?

When a child plays with a pile of boxes, do you smile or do you worry that it's a waste of time and a big mess?

Cliff and I can only think of one rule we followed throughout her life. She had to write thank you notes for every gift she received.

We have tried to raise her to be a good person.

We think everything else will take care of itself.