One of the blessings of having a large family is that I can see more clearly where I'm going these days.
I knew, intellectually, that I was raising children who would one day live on their own out in the world, but it was so hard for me to feel that truth when my first few children were small. The idea that preschool discipline strategies might shape a future relationship seemed implausible.
It is the worst parenting cliche to say it goes so quickly, but WOW does it go quickly. My firstborn was just 3 years old, like, last week, and he is moving away from home in May: a summer job far from home, and then his freshman year of college. As I see his strengths and weaknesses and the places where we struggle, it shapes the way I am mothering my youngest. I know it's true now: it will actually be 12 years before she goes to college, but it's going to feel like I blinked and it was over.
These thoughts are brought to you courtesy of swimming lessons. Twice a week I find myself in the locker room with parents who are trying to wrangle their little swimmers into dry clothes and out the door. There is a fair amount of unhappiness in the accompanying cacophony.
I think it's easy to forget that some kids find swimming lessons particularly exhausting. The noisy echoes of an indoor pool make it harder to hear the instructor, amping up the work of listening and following directions. The shallow end is not so shallow for preschoolers, and some of them find it stressful to be immersed there. Skinny little bodies are not as buoyant as well-padded adult bodies, and they may need to work harder at staying afloat. Small kids get colder faster because of their unfavorable volume-surface area ratio, and the locker room can feel like Siberia in January. The noisy echoes of the locker room make it harder to parse a parent's instructions, and the bustle of bodies in various stages of undress is highly distracting. I myself am not at my most cooperative when I am cold and tired and hungry and overstimulated.
These are the things I have been thinking about in the locker room. I am remembering evenings when I was so frustrated after swimming lessons that I could have cried, or punched somebody. I am also observing my own reactions to the Hulk Smash version of Jo Frost, who pops up there with some regularity.
Recently I watched a woman hissing at her slow-moving daughter: "You have CHOSEN to sit on the naughty chair when we get home. Are you going to CHOOSE to sit in the naughty chair even longer? Are you going to CHOOSE to forfeit all your videos? Are you going to CHOOSE to lose your American Girl doll until you learn to behave?" At this point my shoulders were up around my ears and I was twitching. (NB: I have issues -- big, ugly, old old issues -- with adults saying to kids "It is your fault that I am out of control.") I have thought about it again and again, and the thing I keep coming back to is that threats and bribes are not good long-term solutions.
One of the gifts of fifth-time motherhood is that I have learned to inhabit my authority as my daughter's mother -- to say "That is not okay" and expect to be obeyed. I have seen that kids do eventually learn: it feels better to do the right thing than the wrong thing. There is joy in duty, as implausible as it sounds. I have also learned, alas, that there are no reliable shortcuts. Threats may change behavior in the short term. (Or they may not, as I learned from my firstborn. He's the one who said to me, at age 5, "it was one of those 'better to reign in hell than serve in heaven' moments.") Threats don't change hearts.
Today I made croissants with my 12yo. It's a slow process: mixing, rising, turning and chilling to make the flaky layers, cutting, baking. "They were awesome," he said enthusiastically. But I think it is a frozen crescent-roll kind of world, in which we want tips and tricks to get the 2yo up from the locker room floor RIGHT NOW, to make her stop gawking at the naked lady next to us RIGHT NOW, to compel her into her clothes and out the door RIGHT NOW. If I were still in the intransigent 2yo stage I might be annoyed by this post. "What do you MEAN, I should inhabit my authority as her mother?! I just want to eat my DINNER before the next geologic AGE rolls around!"
And I do not mean to say "Moms of America, you're doing it WRONG!" I only mean to say that it will get better, it really will, and that love, and motherly stubbornness, can conquer all. Or at least most.
(O-kay, this post could invite a slew of unhappy comments. If I had not planned to blog daily this month, it would go straight back to the drafts folder. I stumbled across this post earlier today, which contains many of the same thoughts from the perspective of a younger me.)