“You guys need to learn how to work it out on your own,” says my friend. Her daughter has just run up to her to tell her that my son called her stupid or bashed her on the head with a toy or something, but before she can finish expounding, I’ve already put my coffee down and am halfway to his room to go talk to him—AGAIN…for about the hundredth time this morning. This “playdate,” like many playdates in this phase of my son’s life, is less like “play” and more like one long, miserable lecture. I haven’t been able to focus for more than a few minutes at a time on my conversation with my friend, so I’m disconnected with the only other adult in the house. I can sense her annoyance, just as I can feel my own. I don’t WANT to be running back and forth between my warm kitchen and my son’s chaotic headspace. I’d rather not be constantly tuned into what’s going on in the other room, coffee cup perpetually paused on its way to my lips because I’ve heard a thump or a yell. I’d love to tune the kids out entirely, let them be, relax. I’m just not there yet.
The sad truth is, I’m a “helicopter mom.” You know the kind—they hover over their kids at the playground making sure no one falls and scrapes a knee, always reminding little Johnny to keep his hands to himself, always shouting “Be careful!!” I see these parents, and I cringe inside because this is who I am—or at least who I would be if I didn’t constantly keep myself in check. I see also the cool, collected parents who sit on a bench and chat with one another, barely aware of where their kids are, not freaking out inside. I envy them, so carefree with their iced coffees, tossing their hair back in slow motion and laughing at each other’s jokes. I glare at them while I wipe sweat off my upper lip, willing myself not to run over to my two-year-old who is climbing the playground ladder that’s clearly marked “For Ages 5 and Up Unless You Want Your Child to Fall and Break Her Kneecaps.”
As they get older, I’m learning to let them run down the hill, let them get scraped knees. I’m learning to let them work out some of their sibling squabbles without always rushing to intervene. It’s slow, agonizing work for someone like me to let go and let her kids be free to get hurt and to make mistakes.
Because my friend is right, of course. Kids do need to learn to work things out on their own. But in my mind, there’s only one way to achieve that lofty goal, and it begins with helping kids figure out what to do when they are frustrated. A couple of years ago I read an article that changed my perspective on “tattling.” Kids don’t start out by running to the nearest grown-up whenever something goes wrong. They START by hitting, snatching, biting, etc. We adults admonish them for these actions, but when they begin telling their parents every time they’re aggravated by something another child does, we tell them not to tattle, to work it out on their own. But isn’t asking an adult for help their way of trying to work it out on their own? They could, like my son does, just take matters into their own hands. Instead, they are making a decision NOT to hit or bite or scream. They are coming to a grown-up to seek council on the situation. Once we equip our kids with the tools they need to work things out on their own, the tattling will stop.
My problem is when my five-year-old son starts messing with his two-year-old sister. Partly I get so livid with him because, as I’ve explained to him one thousand times, he is bigger than she is, so taking her toy or putting her in a choke hold is bullying her. My daughter is saying (okay, SCREECHING), “STOP, Noah!” but because she is sort of half giggling and just a second ago they were playing, he doesn’t think she’s being serious. I don’t care, I tell my son. She said stop. That means you stop. IMMEDIATELY. The biggest reason, however, that I find myself intervening is because I can’t help but fast forward to the future. I want him to respect another person’s “no,” and I also want my daughter to grow up believing that her “no” should be respected.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. The truth is that when my son plays rough, I think he’s going to grow up to be a bully. When he shows no empathy for hurting feelings, I think he’s going to grow up to be, like, a republican. (Just kidding!) So I give my kids a few minutes to work it out, but if I hear my daughter tell my son to stop and he clearly doesn’t, I go in and help them work it out. Sometimes I feel like I’ve actually done some good; some days my son runs away while hollering, “Sorry!” like he really could not care less.
My hope is that someday they will take the tools I’ve given them and listen to each other, and I won’t have to rush upstairs every time we have friends over, and I’ll get to focus on good conversation and finish a cup of coffee before it gets cold. But for now, you’ll see me hovering. You might not realize the inner struggle I’m dealing with when you’re chatting with me and I’m wondering if everything is ok with our kids. You also might not know how much I long to be less careful, more relaxed, and how hard I am trying to let go of my death-like grip on controlling every situation. I can only hope the struggle will be worth it and that my kids will grow into loving, compassionate children and adults.
Either that, or I’ll be paying for their therapy bills while they complain that their mother never let them breathe. I’ll stop myself here, because “Confessions of a Worried Mom” is a blog post for another day…