When is it a good time to thrust independence upon our children? Any parent knows this question is inflammatory, and misplaced. After all, except for extreme and tragic circumstances, independence never is thrust upon a child; it’s something we slowly imbue upon them.
From television programming to video games I can’t help but think that many of the insidious elements of our society create hypocrisies and conflicts in how we want to raise our children…
One of the most intriguing challenges of parenting is adjusting our own expectations to the hard-wiring of our own children; they are not always congruent. This difference becomes so painfully evident when you choose (or happen) to have a second child.
After adjusting to the parenting needs of our first child, and getting into a rhythm of his needs, and how those needs changed periodically, I started to think that I understood what it was to be a dad. I was starting to feel comfortable, and I’d be bold enough to say confident. My building confidence did not diminish my extreme fatigue, or introspection regarding whether or not I was making the good parenting decisions. I was often petrified that the choices I was making were going to cause my son years of therapy later in his life. I finally made myself feel better about that by realizing the choices I was making were to minimize the amount therapy he would later need, not eliminate it.
With all of these great feelings about my parenting skills, when our second son arrived on this earth my wife and I looked down upon this little bundle and realized how unnecessarily uptight we were when our first was an infant. This of course returned me to my struggle over how much psychological damage I’d done to our first, but I slowly learned to rationalize and laugh about my prior miscues.
At this stage in parenting two children we also started to slowly, very slowly, understand my mother’s mantra, “Bigger kids, bigger problems.” The advice of our pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital started to become starkly evident, “Until your child is two years old, your only job is to keep him alive.” With a job, and a toddler, and a wife with a time-gobbling career, our pediatrician was dead on: all I could really accomplish was to keep this infant alive.
Eventually the youngest was older than two, and his personality began to shine. That’s when we wondered what happened. Where had all of our parenting skills gone? This little guy didn’t want us to do anything for him. He was totally independent. So much that he was a danger to himself. I thought we only had to work to keep him alive for the first two years of his life.
Of course the days came when I or my wife were not close enough to spot our youngest boy when he would attempt something truly dangerous. He did not break any bones, or need any stitches, but the accidents were bad enough to scare a small bit of caution into him.
So there we are with one child who can’t get enough independence, and one who is perfectly fine having us do everything for him. What do you do with this when you’re trying to treat each of your children equally? What’s equal about any decision that we make regarding either of them. Later, after they were both school age, and both with homework to do after school, the oldest has needed a lot of extra attention from us, while the youngest finishes his homework even before we think to ask him. When he first had homework, he signed my name to it, indicating that I had corrected it. I hadn’t, but his teacher did not say anything because all of the work was correct.
So how do we, as parents, manage our children’s differing personalities when it comes introducing them to the practical dangers of life: going on the Internet while unsupervised, going to school on their own, using sharp knives.
And for all of the things that we use to babysit, I mean entertain our children while we are trying to do everything from clean the house to finish that project for work, those things are placing all sorts of conflicting ideas in the minds of our children. All of the television programming aimed at teens are consumed by ‘tweens and younger kids as well. And so many of these programs are so devoid of parental influences that the young kids watching these shows start thinking that they deserve a high degree of autonomy.
We learned early on the mistake of allowing our young kids watch these shows. Our boys would become lippy, and acting well beyond their years. I don’t blame them, or the shows; I blame us. We are the parents, and we need to remember that these are impressionable little kids, with no concept of age-appropriate behavior. That’s something we need to teach them.
So what is age-appropriate when it comes to them taking greater physical risk? I guess there is no stock answer for this. I’ll feel more comfortable allowing our oldest son to take some of these chances before our youngest. Our oldest is instinctively more cautious. For these dangerous endeavors I’m happy to see that. For our youngest, however, I have more concern. Just as my perception of taking care of an infant changed radically between my oldest and youngest, by the time our youngest is as old as our oldest is now, I’m sure my concerns will change, I will come to realize that I’m being too worried, and I will be on to worrying about the next, bigger parenting issues.