Okay, everybody, this is the last installment.
Almost five years ago, after my defense but before my graduation, I presented my dissertation results to a mix of students and faculty from my department. I wrote about it at the time: my deliberate decision to aim the presentation at the master's students, the eruption of rude and hostile questions from the organizer during the Q&A, the audible gasps from other faculty when my advisor told the story at a gathering two weeks later. That hour marked a change for me, from nestling to fledgling. His final question was prefaced with "There must be a literature on this," which flicked a switch inside me. I realized, "He knows nothing about this topic. Nothing. And I don't know everything, by a long shot, but I know a lot."
In that moment I stepped into my authority as a scholar. I did it with my body, when I squared my shoulders and stood up tall. I did it with my voice, allowing a hint of frosty steel to surface. I did it with my words, shifting into researcher-ese to show that I could in fact speak that language competently. I did it with my attention, purposefully saying, "Who else has questions?" and shifting my focus away from him. Most of all, I did with my inner certainty: I have poured my brainpower and my heart into this project, and in consequence I am the expert on this question. I was polite to him, but I was also clear that I was not there to be steamrolled.
"You handled it beautifully," my advisor told me afterward. It was hard, you guys. It was really hard. It took me a long time to feel at peace about it. In that post from a month later I was still fretting about what I might do if it happened again.
I see a lot of parallels with my authority as a mother. It was hard to own that authority. It took me a long time to feel confident about it. One of the most striking scenes in Bringing Up Bébé is the moment when another woman urges Pamela Druckerman to say no like she means it, to say it with confidence that her son will listen. He listens.
Motherly authority has the same constituents as scholarly authority. Part of it is in my body, whether I draw myself up or kneel down for a face-to-face chat. Part of it is in my voice, which might range from tender to stern. Part of it is in my words, which can convey much more than a casual observer would hear. A big chunk of it is my attention, about which more below. But the heart of it is in my inner certainty: I have poured my heart and my brainpower into mothering this child, and in consequence I am the expert on him. He is hard-wired to love me and respond to me, and I am not here to be steamrolled.
I want to go back to the issue of attention, because just last night I was reminded about how much of a difference it makes. Stella hates having the earliest bedtime. I was knitting in the floor while she played with Jenga blocks next to me, and she was unhappy when I told her to pick them up and put her pajamas on. Drama loomed, but I did not need a magic wand to defuse it. I needed to put down my knitting. With my eyes on her face, I could read her better. With my face relaxed from its knitting scowl, I could set the mood for the interaction. With my hands free, I could offer to fasten the ziploc bag she filled. She had to pick up the blocks herself, because six-year-olds need to clean up after themselves, but I was available to help her with the hard parts. I could have said the same words while I kept on knitting, but they would not have had the same effect. (Another bit of this interaction that might be useful to somebody is this: I said, "If you briskle, we'll have time for a story." This offers a measure of autonomy to a frustrated kid, because I don't care if she goes fast or slow, within reason. This teaches real-world time management skills: if you dawdle, you might miss out on something fun. Bedtime is coming at 8:30, and you can decide how to use the minutes leading up to it. As it played out, we didn't have time for Curious George but we could squeeze in Good Night Gorilla.)
I think if I had read this post as a young mother I would have been skeptical. "You're telling me I'm not paying enough attention to this kid?" I might have said. "I have never paid as much attention to anybody as I pay to this kid." I'm talking about a particular kind of attention, though. Have you ever felt someone staring at you? It's the same idea, without the creepy: your focused attention has a perceptible weight. For kids it's like a mantle: comfort when they are sad, warmth when you are proud of your achievements, authority that's not yet theirs -- but that they're growing into slowly -- when they're misbehaving. It says something really important; it says, "You are worthy of notice," and that opens a kid right up to hear you say, "...and I know you can do what I'm about to ask of you."
Rachel asked about what I would have done if Stella had pitched a fit about leaving the childcare room. My answer, I'm afraid, is "it depends." If it were an ongoing problem, I'd be thinking about context. Is this child getting enough rest? Do I need to send myself an automated reminder for next week, to bring a cheese stick to avert a blood sugar crash? Does this child hear me say, "Okay, I can be flexible about that" with some regularity? Does this child have plenty of opportunities to exercise autonomy, to say no? (For instance, I am really laid back about what my children wear to school. If it doesn't have holes in it, it's probably fine. If she puts her T-shirt on backwards I will point it out, but she is free to leave it that way.) Does this child have plenty of happy interactions with me, in which she can see that I genuinely enjoy her company and see the best in her? These are guilt-free questions, Rachel, because I know how hard it is to keep the balls in the air.
Even in a supportive context, though, some kids will continue to push. They may need to see that you are strong enough for them to push against without knocking you over. Even if it gets loud, you can still scoop them up and take them out. I might position a fighter with his back to my chest, flexing his legs all the way up in front of him to minimize flailing limbs. In those circumstances I would do my best to keep absolutely calm, to keep stating my expectations clearly, and to avoid looking at anyone else who happened to be around. I don't need to worry about judgment -- I've got enough to do. Afterward I would be clear that the behavior was not acceptable, but belaboring the point is a bad idea. Kids need space to feel the weight of a bad decision. A typically developing kid will know that other x-year-olds don't act like that. If it doesn't even work to get them what they want, they can decide to pursue other options...especially if you give them room to make the choice freely. This is pretty much my ZETZER approach: set a reasonable standard, and enforce it with absolute consistency and unrelenting courtesy (while making sure you have supportive adults around you to whom you can complain later). Drama only sets you back.
I do want to say very clearly, though, that just as I cannot be authoritative about someone else's scholarship, I cannot be authoritative about someone else's children. I can only determine what works for us. One last example: this is my fourth year in the classroom and this year I am feeling comfortable at the lectern. My evals are pretty consistent. Most often they say, "This class is really hard, but Dr. Gladly is kind and patient with us." They're not all favorable; for some students the "really hard" is "ridiculously hard, so hard that I don't care if she's nice because I'm never registering for one of her classes again." Regardless, I am pretty comfortable with that identity. (When my chair heard me stewing about my fall semester evals, she said, "It's supposed to be hard.") That's what I hope to be like as a mom, too: high standards, yes, upheld with kindness and patience.
The competence curve for academics, I think, looks something like an inverted U. Novices struggle, because presenting complex information is a hard and unfamiliar task. At the other end of the age spectrum, I have seem professors near retirement who are totally phoning it in. They're not meeting the needs of their students, because they're no longer engaged. Parenting can be the same way. Kathy asked me if my younger children picked up on my authority more rapidly, and the answer is both yes and no. Rachel Balducci wrote a post that resonated with me, about how it's easy to let things slide with the youngest kids in a large family. The confidence that kids will learn over time can get tangled up with the reality that a person gets tired of teaching small people to sit on their bottoms and close their lips around their food, every bite every time. Sometimes I have to herringbone myself up from the wrong side of that U-shaped curve.
I don't blog much about parenting these days (except for, you know, the odd 6000 words here and there), mostly because I am figuring out the teen thing as I go. How can I communicate effectively about the hazards of substance abuse when I have SO MUCH BAGGAGE about substance abuse? How can I send a kid out into the world when his bathtub-scrubbing skills are so far inferior to his coding skills? This series has been really helpful for me to write, my friends. I have been down on myself as a mom for years, because teenagers, and it has been encouraging to think, "I can learn useful things and apply them!" I was full of self-doubt as a young scholar, and full of self-doubt as a young mom. But I know that impostor syndrome is a treacherous waste of time. And I have been thinking about the promise of 2 Peter 1, that God has given us all we need for life and godliness. It leaves me feeling grateful, and hopeful, and quietly confident.
Thanks for reading.