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Monday, November 16, 2009

Peer parenting: A classic coach tale

Last week as Annika and I flew to New York we sat next to a man and his 5-year-old son. We got to chatting and as usually happens with parents of older children, (or even sometimes people who have no children at all) he began giving me unsolicited and rehashed parenting advice.

First I want to say that he was a very nice person and his son was absolutely adorable. He shared his crayons and paper with Annika since ours was stowed. Poor planning on my part.

But as we chatted, the dad gleaned that I am a stay-at-home mom and within minutes he began telling me that even though his ex-wife stayed at home with their kids, he insisted that his children go to daycare because it would teach them socialization skills. I had a hard time not rolling my eyes at this typical misguided information.

It was apparent from the beginning that this man believed wholeheartedly in old-fashioned parenting.

The first thing his son told me was how a friend of his had hit him recently. As the boy talked, his father began shushing him and telling him that he was fine, "It didn't hurt that bad," he told him. I wondered how, considering that he wasn't even there, he could know how badly it hurt and why on earth wouldn't he validate his son's feelings, which was obvious he was looking for.

So I did.

It was really simple. All I said was: "Wow, it sounds like that really hurt."

"Yeah, it did," he responded. "And her mom didn't even make her apologize."

"She doesn't sound like a very nice friend," said I.

"Nope, she's not," he said.

Then, after that, he dropped it. I wondered how many times this kid had brought up the topic to his dad, waiting for his dad to tell him he understood only to get shot down.


Now I know that I'm sounding super judgmental here. But my point is not to get all down on this guy. Because, really and truly, he was a nice guy. He was super sweet and friendly. He asked me about myself. He gushed over how cute Annika is. He offered to switch seats with me if I wanted to. He commiserated with me when she cried during the pressure change. He talked about how much he loves his children. He told me that he loves spending time with them. And I believed him.

Really I'm just using this guy to illustrate something I think about a lot. That is, parents should seriously consider just snatching up standard parenting advice and really think about it in the context of their own childhood and the context of their own children.

Since becoming a parent I have realized that there are so many things that people parrot as sage parenting advice that is just garbage.

Like the fairy tale that children need to be with other children to learn how to socialize. (Have these people read Lord Of The Flies?)

Or that children need to learn how to be independent by not holding them or ignoring them when they cry.

Or that tantrums are just "bad" behavior.

I spent three hours with this man and his son. In that time frame he told me that children should be in day care, co-sleeping killed his marriage (that's an exact quote) and that he picked his sons' names with the intention that the names should be cool so his boys wouldn't feel weird and so that when they grow up women will think they are cool and it will help them get laid.

I actually laughed out loud when he told me that last part. Then I realized he was serious and I had hurt his feelings. I asked him what his wife thought about that and he said she liked the idea. I have a pretty good feeling that she was lying and I wondered if she had been high while they were dating.

The point is, this guy is pretty typical in that he is rehashing a bunch of crappy parenting methods like telling his kid how to feel and trying to make him conform instead of boosting his self-esteem.

I don't understand why people don't at least attempt to improve upon their parents' parenting. I mean, I don't know anyone who thinks their parents were perfect. Matter of fact, most people I know will say they hate it when they do or say things that sound like their parents. It seems to be more normal for people to talk about having a screwy childhood and feel badly about a lot of things that happened.

I've said before here that I think my parents did plenty of stuff right, but they also did lots of stuff wrong. I don't know anyone who thinks their parents did a perfect job raising them, so why not try to figure out what stuff messed you up and then try not to make the same mistakes? That's all I'm doing.

I've picked out some of the stuff my parents did right. But when I think back on the things I hated about my childhood, I figure, I've got a duty to Annika to try and make sure I don't repeat the same mistakes. I'm not saying that I think I'm doing a perfect job. And I know that I will likely repeat some of the mistakes my parents made. But I'm going in with my eyes open.

So, yeah, back to the guy on the airplane.

As we flew along, he drew pictures for his son so he could color them in. As the boy colored, his dad nitpicked about how he wasn't staying in the lines. He bought him chips from the flight attendant as a treat, then he yelled at him for stuffing too many in his mouth. Then he told him he'd had enough and offered to let Annika finish the chips, which I declined by saying that I didn't think it was fair to take away the kid's food.

Toward the end of the flight, the captain got on the intercom and told us that we were stuck in a holding pattern and we would be in the air for an extra 30 minutes.

I thought my seat buddy was going to have a heart attack. "Oh my god!" he bitched. "That sucks," he steamed. "Now my dad is going to give me junk for having to wait."

I wondered if it was at all possible that he might see how he was repeating some of the same patterns with his own son.

I highly doubt it.

As we taxied to the gate he called his dad and apologized to him for making him wait.

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