Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Getting off the Ladder
I've been thinking a lot lately about the examples we set for our children. Now that we ride our bikes most places, I've become increasingly aware of the number of helmet-less adults riding with their helmet wearing children. I'm particularly aware because I used to be one of them. Oh, I had all kinds of rationalizations: I didn't have the money to buy one, it would mess up my hair; and anyway, I was really, really careful. Yeah, whatever. Then one day, about 6 months ago, as we were getting on our bikes, one of the kids asked me why I didn't have a helmet. We had been riding more and more frequently and talking often about traffic safety and the rules of the road. The girls had recently begun riding places on their own. It was time for me to walk the talk. "You're right, guys," I admitted. "I need to buy a helmet."
At first I only wore my helmet when I was riding with my kids. It was important for me to set a good example, right? Interesting that I was really only going through the motions. A perfect example of "Do as I say, not as I do." It wasn't long before I was caught, helmet-less. The kids drove by in the car with their dad. They never said a word, who knows if they even noticed. But I did. I'm at this place in my life, and in my parenting, where it just doesn't work for me to say one thing and do another. I used to do it all the time. I'd harp on the kids to shut off the faucet while they brushed their teeth, and then completely ignore it for myself. "No dessert tonight guys, we've had enough sweets today," I'd say. And then I'd be scarfing down a bowl of ice cream as soon as they fell asleep. Okay, so I still do that every once in a while, but for the most part, I really try be consistent. And as unschoolers, that has meant letting go of some of the "must dos" that I previously preached about to my children.
I realize that this evolution has been, for me, an exercise in stepping down off of the pedestal I had been standing on. It seems like my tendency to micro-manage my children's lives was a symptom of my own inability to take good care of myself. What I'm aware of now, is that when I am gentle with myself and do the things that I need to do in order to make good choices for myself, I am showing my children how to do the same for themselves. And this is what I believe to be my most important role, anyway. Mentor, resource person, trusted friend. I used to think my role was teacher, wise elder, superior. But that doesn't fit into the family paradigm that suits us right now. I prefer the we're all in this together model.
There is a saying I love about standing on a ladder. When you're standing the rungs of a ladder you are always above or below other people. It isn't possible to stand side by side, unless of course you get off the ladder. I suppose what is happening for me is that I am climbing down off of that ladder in many areas of my life. I spend far less time and energy figuring out who's above and below me that way. It takes great effort for me to do this with my children at times. I was raised to believe that the needs of adults trumped kids' every time. As hard as I try, there is still that part of me that reverts back to that attitude from time to time. A few moments ago I didn't feel like getting up from the computer, so I asked Janey to get something from downstairs for me. As soon as the words were leaving my mouth, I realized what I was doing. I wasn't asking as a favor, with no expectations. I was asking as the adult, fully expecting that as a child, she would do as I asked. And she did. This doesn't sit well with me now. I'd rather live in house where we ask each other to do things without expectation and help one another out because we want to. Expecting my children to jump up and obey, every time I have a need, doesn't help foster that sense of independence and free will. It places the proverbial ladder in the center of our home. I'm on the top rung, and they're not.
It seems to me that our culture is quite adult focused, and everyone is standing on that darn ladder. Kids are usually left standing on those bottom rungs. Children's opinions and needs are dismissed, or at the very least placed behind the needs of the adults around them. They're kids. They're smaller and less significant in the eyes of many. At school, children are expected to obey their teacher, without question. When I taught, even in very alternative, progressive schools, the adults were always at the top of that ladder. Questioning authority and challenging an adult was seen as an act of rebellion, rather than a declaration of independence and healthy self esteem.
My children are excellent mirrors for me. All I have to do is follow their lead when I stray from this more compassionate and respectful way of parenting. This afternoon I was frazzled because I was tripping over three baskets of clean laundry, over and over again. I asked the kids to put away their clothes. I went and did something else, came back, and the laundry was still there. I asked again that the laundry be put away, and yet again I was put off. Janey was cleaning the mice's cage, Macy was working on her book, Charley was playing outside. This happened a few more times. I got irritated as I tripped over the baskets for the bazillionth time, and snapped at Macy to put her laundry away. She was just getting started on a painting project, and she sighed, "Mom, if you need the laundry out of your way, why can't I just put the basket in my room and put the clothes away later?" I smiled. I swallowed my pride and realized that both of our needs could be met without my desires trumping hers. I'm going to try to stay off that ladder.