Sunday, May 10, 2009

Momma, You Know I Love You

That's the lyrics to that "Soul Food" song. Not sure I'm going to play it, though. I just refer to it because "Happy Mother's Day" is done.

Now, about mothers, let me offer a word of advice to those of you with the more strong-headed children.

My mother is an amazing woman. She's managed to take care of me, my father to some extent, and the family business all the while still being involved in church, civic and political activities. Just recently, she's decided to cut back and focus her attention on family and the business. Something I've been suggesting for years.

My mother is the one who introduced me to public life, right? She's instilled in me a sense of civic duty. A responsibility to my community and to others to help in any way I can. And for my family, due to my great-grand and grandfather, and our baby-faces, public life and political office is one of the ways in which we can help.

She's also instilled in me a sense of business acumen. Buy low, sell high. Invest and save. Manage and budget your money. Save for retirement which will need to be about 70% of your current income.

She's instilled in me a sense of excellence, or to be more honest, perfection(ism). You know, try my best at every turn. Nothing less than a best effort is acceptable. That whole thing. Because of her, I'm terribly, terribly self-motivated.

And to her great agony, she's also managed to instill in me a strong-will. She's actually okay with it when I use it against other people or situations. I managed to finish college even though the onset of CFS came my last year due to God's grace and a strong-will. She's proud of that. I'm single, but should I marry, there's no worry that I may marry someone who's abusive. She's proud of that. I speak out against sexism, even if it's to my uncle. She's proud of that. I've managed to be my own person despite all the teasing and peer-pressure I endured growing up. She's proud of that.

I'll even stand up for myself when I feel like she's disrespecting my boundaries and independence. She not proud of that.

So here's my advice to mothers of strong-will children. Mothers whose children don't always take their word as gospel. Children who will let you know they think they're right and you're wrong.

You are the mother. This title and position can only change if you allow it. If you apologize when they fuss because you didn't cut the crust, the position has changed. If you let them put you in time-out, the position has changed. But, if when they fuss about the crusted pb&j sandwich, you calmly say to them, "You don't talk to momma like that," while you cut the crust, you've done two things:
  1. You've diffused the situation. Oh trust and believe, if you throw your shoulders back and straighten your back preparing for battle, your child will do the same. Oh I know you don't allow that and this poor child will have to suffer your wrath. No pb&j for little Toot-toot. Here's my question for mothers who take the battle-route: what do you think you've accomplished? Do you really think you've taught your child how to respect other people, including you? No, no, no. Listen. As iron sharpens iron, so a strong-will sharpens a strong-will. What you're doing is teaching your child how to battle.
  2. You've taught them how to respect you, themselves, and others. I know you may well think that not putting up a resistance is not the way to teach your child to respect you. But understand this. Your child can't respect you if s/he doesn't know how. How we treat others is by responding to evil words with kindness. This kindness doesn't put the other person in a better battle position than yourself. This isn't about taking licks by refusing to fight. This is about ending the other person's need to fight. This kindness, in fact, disarms, the other person. How can the other person fight when they have no weapon? Turning the other cheek isn't letting the other person know they can hit you again. It's letting the other person know you will not fight, they're making themselves look bad, and, by the way, "That first punch didn't knock me out." By killing your child with kindness, as it were, you're made them embarrassed about having had such an attitude. Your child will probably put on a sheepish face and apologize. "Sorry, Mommy. I love you."

We've gone from the child trying to boss you around to the child now seeking your approval, right? And how do you respond? You then respond by approving of their humble behavior. No, no, no. This isn't teaching your child false humility, that they're worth less than other people. This is teaching your child true humility, that everyone is worth as much as them. And this isn't approving of their bad attitude. It's approving their response to you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You gave them what they wanted. But you've taught them that they can get that by being nice. You know, "you get more with sugar than with vinegar." Or, some such saying. Whatever.

Now, it may not go as scripted in every case and lets deal with two probable situations. Let's say your child responds with, "You better cut my crust off." Here, you take away the sandwich, which now has no crust, until they behave. Again, you're not engaging them in battle, not sharpening their strong will. In this case, you're just demanding respect. That's fair. They don't get what they want until they do what you want by respecting you. That's fair. Then, situation #2, let's say your child doesn't respond to your kindness with kindness or such. Let's say kindness has no effect on them whatsoever. No emotional response at all. They never put on a sheepish face and seek your approval. Then instead smile snarkly and just say "ok." Darling, I hate to have to be the one to tell you, you might be dealing with a psychopath.

Don't get me wrong. It's not standing up for my independence that my mother has a problem with. Here's the problem: by defending my independence, I have to challenge the idea that she's right. Her problem is with me challenging her. And she has this old-school, discredited, idea that a child should never, ever go about as though the parent is wrong. Well, on second thought, when it comes to other people and their children, it's okay. When it comes to me and her, it's not. All my life, I've felt like she's disrespected my agency of choice. Trust and believe, even children have the ability to choose and they like to exercise their ability to choose. Yes, set boundaries. Don't let your child choose what's for dinner, choose what you cook. But whether or not your child eats dinner is up to them. Let them sit there hungry. They'll eat eventually. And most important, you've let them exercise their right to choose on matters dealing with them. But you've set the boundary that they don't choose on matters under your control.

But really. If your child has realized their independence from you as a separate individual, be glad about that. That's something that has to happen for healthy human growth and to become a healthy adult. And in fact, if your child never asserts this independence as a separate adult, they will either grow up to be everybody's doormat, or they're a psychopath who can adjust as needed before they strike to kill.

When they assert their independence from you as a separate individual, assess the situation. Is this decision ultimately about you or them. If it effects you as in the previous pb&j example, diffuse the situation with kindness. If it effects your child, like what shoes they wear on any random day just to go out, again, diffuse the situation with kindness. And this kindness says, "Okay, you can wear those shoes."

Or, if they're trying to wear sandals during winter, this is what you do. You acknowledge that they want to pick out their shoes themselves be inform them, teach them, that sandals will make their feet cold. You done two things here: one is letting your child know s/he's been heard. That's very important. Everyone wants to be heard and one of the things that exacerbates an argument between my mother and me is that she never lets me know I've been heard. This also helps them understand for themselves as a separate individual that you don't wear sandals during winter cause your feet will get cold. Next winter, you have to tell them they can't wear sandals. Then, after acknowledgement and teaching, let them choose among the pairs of acceptable shoes. If you have a stubborn child you refuses you, still don't fight back. Don't sharpen their stubbornness. Just continue acknowledging, teaching, and offering alternative choices. Children's attention span isn't long enough to be stubborn for very long. And if you're pressed for time, just put a pair of shoes on their feet and toss them in the car screaming and crying. Again, a child's attention span isn't long enough to scream and cry about shoes. Just as sure as you're born, they'll notice something else and move on.

Now that I've gotten all that off my chest, let me go practice what I preach and try kindness on my mother. I ask that those of you who know the words of prayer, pray for me.

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But Don't Jack My Genuis