(Not) Letting Go While Letting Grow
I was calmly proceeding through the bedtime routine on the one night a week I do it by myself. My oldest flippantly threw the detangler spray toward my 6-year-old while I was combing hair, and the bottle hit her sister in the face. I scolded her and she responded, “whatever.”
I can’t explain the switch that went off in me. I felt like the meek scientist guy who suddenly bursts into his raging green, Hulk form. The reasonable, calm Mom morphed into the primitive monster Mom. “YOU DO NOT TALK TO ME LIKE THAT. IT’S RUDE AND DISRESPECTFUL AND NOT OKAY.” I think I grabbed her leg to make sure I really had her attention.
In all fairness to myself, she had a couple other comments that morning, such as when I asked her sternly about a certain behavior that I can’t even remember now, “Do you understand?” and she said, “No.” I told her then she wasn’t behaving respectfully, without the Hulk, but maybe this set the stage for later.
It’s not that I don’t think I should have corrected her behavior, it’s the way I FELT that bothered me: out of control and impulsive.
I threatened to no longer allow the girls to watch a show they had discovered on Netflix that week, Liv and Maddie. They have good judgment about the appropriateness of TV, so I hadn’t sat down with them to watch it, but caught scenes of these main characters basically acting like exaggerated teenagers. “Is this where you are learning to talk like this?” My daughter vigorously denied it and her distress escalated at the thought of losing rights to this show. I backed off my threat (because I really didn’t have much to back it up), but she still withdrew into her bed to whimper, head under the covers.
While she turned away in silent protest, I read with the other two kids in my son’s bed, while regretting how I handled this. I’m all about setting limits, and I always explain to my kids that my job is to help them learn how to behave in the world, and it’s okay to make mistakes because they are still learning and growing.
When I heard that “whatever,” I made my own mistake, as I continue to learn and grow even as a grown-up. I wish I had just stopped what I was doing, held her hands, looked her in the eyes, and explained that behavior was rude and disrespectful, and if it continued, we would need to have a more serious discussion with Daddy about what to do.
I was disappointed in myself because I know my daughter’s emotional being. She desperately wants to be older than she is, can be impulsive with regret later, and is extremely sensitive to making mistakes, becoming easily ashamed. I hate thinking that part of her feeling ashamed is because of how I respond to her.
This girl is the model student in class. She earned “camper of the week” last week because she exemplified the values of responsibility, safety, and respect. She is a pretty awesome kid and engages with her world quite well.
So did I make this a bigger deal than necessary because of some weird hang-up I didn’t even know I had? I grew up with progressive 80s parents who introduced adults by their first names when I was a kid; it’s not like I have this “respect your elders” value as deeply rooted in me as many others do.
I wonder if it’s the glimpse of her future adolescence that struck a chord. As much as I constantly work on the “letting go” part of parenting, realizing we don’t have as much control over our kids as we think we do or should, I have control issues.
I listened to a TedX talk a few months ago about raising our kids to be grown-ups, and one speaker presented the metaphor that our kids are like bonsai trees with unique shapes and quirks, that we help grow with some pruning and water spritzing, but we are ultimately not in control of exactly how they turn out.
A Freakonomics podcast reviewing the research around how much what we do as parents actually matters echoed this metaphor. It matters, but not as much as we think it matters.
In infancy, it feels like everything we do matters SO much it’s suffocating and panic-inducing. Although we learn we do not have control over things like temperament and colic, we do have control over doing tasks we know are good for babies: tummy time, talking out loud to them, reading books to them even when they just want to put them in their mouths, feeding them, keeping them physically close.
Toddlerhood is usually the first huge reality check on our control issues as their behavior can defy all logic and adult reasoning, which is endlessly frustrating. But we do have control over how they spend their time all day, who cares for them, exposing them to toys and activities that help them develop, closely monitoring developmental milestones and health.
The preschool years mark a relieving growth of self-sufficiency when we finally don’t need to be as closely hovering to make sure they don’t put small objects in their mouths, and they can do things like get dressed (when they feel so inclined). But again, we still have a good idea of how they spend their days, whether we are at home with them or they are with other caregivers, and we have a lot of say around how we influence the world around them.
Elementary school probably heralds the biggest shift toward losing control. My tears the first day of kindergarten sprang from this feeling I had of letting my baby loose into a big building with lots of people, with no real idea of what she would be doing. I knew my fear defied logic, as fear does, but the image of watching her resolutely hold back tears and walk in a single file line into the school will always stay with me.
I haven’t yet gotten past elementary school, and thankfully have three years left (although that is still too short for my mom heart), but I work with teenagers and of course have some friends with teenagers. Don’t get me wrong – I love all they have to offer. When I do therapy with adolescents, my greatest rewards are watching those lightbulb moments, and witnessing true transformation in this age of finding independence and selfhood.
But I also know in these adolescent years of establishing this sense of self, their job is to rebel and push back against their parents. It’s actually a good sign when teenagers argue with their parents because it shows they feel they can, instead of sneaking around to get what they want (of course, they can do both, but I would like a good ratio of open rebellion to secret rebellion). But I imagine it’s pretty hard to keep this in mind when they are yelling and slamming doors.
Even though she’s only 8, my oldest has given me the most glimpses of her future adolescence compared to the other two kids. Maybe she’s giving me a chance to warm up to our future relationship, with the occasional eye rolls, stomping off, sassy retorts, and moments of utter dismissal of my authority with words like, “whatever.”
When she runs up to hug me as tightly as possible around the waist, tells me she loves me more than infinity, and wants to spend alone time with me, I wonder how long she will feel this way about her mother. When will I lose the sweetness of childhood in my first baby?
Unlike many, I didn’t feel confused about the recent short film, Bao. I immediately got it. Without spoiling, I felt that sadness of a childhood ending, and accepting that it is your child’s time to truly, completely be in the world without you.
I didn’t explain all these complicated existential motherhood emotions to my 8-year-old daughter. But I did finish reading to her brother and sister, turned off the lights, and crawled into bed next to her. I whispered to her how much I loved her and asked if she wanted to say anything. She didn’t, but let me kiss her on the cheek.
Within 10 minutes, she came downstairs to complain about her siblings crying. On the way back upstairs, she got a splinter, so we sat together on the bathroom floor to extract it, unsuccessfully. Then she went to bed and we ended the day as we would start the next, with her still a child needing her mother, “whatever” or not.