Broad-sided by the Parenting-Pendulum
I’ve been home alone with the kidlies for a week now, and it’s been — to my frank surprise and delight– a wonderful time. Thankfully, I am between projects, so I haven’t had to do much else other than play with them and figure out what to eat, which none of us mind. Yesterday, however, we had a bit of a row in the morning. Zane, my oldest (8) sometimes gets into a sort of hyper-sensitive snit where everything his sister (6) says to him is somehow insulting. He, like me, has an over-developed sense of justice, thus these sorts of moments quickly escalate into screamy emotional tornadoes. I have little patience for it (probably because I do the same thing, and we always most hate the negative characteristics we most represent, yes?) and I lost my temper. In a flash, I switched from frayed, teeth-gritting self-control to shouting. Zane, of course, crumpled and fled to his bed.
I followed, reigning in my temper again and reminding myself that he is, at his best and worst, just like me in this regard. A few minutes later we were tickling and laughing and the rest of the day went by without a hitch. The three of us played at the Botanical Garden. We had movie night and watched Superman. We ate fish sticks and cucumber slices for dinner. We read a chapter of Harry Potter at bedtime. I kissed them goodnight and all was well.
And then, as I was getting ready for bed, a moment of self doubt landed on me with both feet. I remembered how I had lashed out at Zane. I remembered the shocked, frightened look on Greer’s face when I shouted at her brother. I remembered the way Zane fled and hid. And I, of course, felt like a horrible father.
Any father who makes an effort feels that way sometimes, I am sure. I reminded myself that the three of us have had a wonderful week. Both kids have told me so. It was one lapse of anger, and it was quickly remedied. Nobody is perfect. Sigh.
Later, in the dark, I wondered further. Sometimes one’s love for their children can seem frightening, mostly because of how much potential there is for us to get it all wrong. As hard as a parent tries, we all still screw up in some ways. I am constantly aware of this fact, and thus am perpetually asking myself how I might be getting it all wrong even now. What am I doing that my kids, when they are grown, will be complaining about to their therapists? Because I’ve done it myself. I’ve complained about what my own parents did wrong. It’s inevitable. And a thought struck me– a particularly disconcerting, and yes, perhaps preposterous thought. But still:
What if I am too good a papa?
Wait. Let me try that again because that sounds ridiculous, of course. I am not that good a papa, actually, but that’s not quite what I mean. Lemme ‘splain.
My own dad was not particularly involved in my life. He was a decent provider, but he was distant and aloof, absorbed with his own stuff, completely unwilling to be inconvenienced in any way by any of our comparatively petty requirements and desires. I learned early on not to expect him to care about my problems, thus I learned to be very self sufficient. This defines me to this day. Granted, things are better now. My dad has made an effort to be the dad I need now, as an adult. But the point is this: most of us learn how to parent by looking at our own parents and making one of two choices. We either say “that’s how my dad did it, so that’s how I’ll do it, too,” or we say “that’s how my dad did it, and it didn’t work, so I am going to do the opposite”. I chose the second option. When the kids were younger, I would never kick them out of my office when they came to me with a book in hand, wanting to be read to. I purposely sacrificed my own time, energy and self to make sure they understood how important they were to me. I think about how to be the best papa I can be almost constantly. I fail a lot, but when I do, I am acutely aware of it, berate myself about it, and try to learn from it.
But this is where the doubt struck me last night, ridiculous as it sounds. If I am the papa I am because I am choosing deliberately to not be like my own dad, am I taking away from my kids the necessary motivation to be a good, involved parent themselves someday? What if being prized so much by me results in a feeling of entitlement, leading to selfishness? What if it means they grow up to be the sort of self-obsessed, aloof parents my own dad was?
Boy, that does sound kind of stupid. But there is this: when I was in grade school and high school, I saw an interesting pattern emerging in the older classes. One generation of upperclassmen would generally be asses– mean, spiteful jerks and bullies. The next generation would be more tolerant and kind to the younger classes. I developed a theory about it, and it’s really simple. Being bullied creates empathy for those who are bullied. Thus, the kids who were most abused by the jerks grew to become kinder and more supportive to those younger than them. Those kids, growing up with no experience of being bullied, easily fell into the arrogance and self importance of pushing others around, and became bullies themselves. This is where I developed my theory that society is a pendulum, always swinging from one extreme to the other. I have found it to be demonstrably true in both the micro and the macro, across the board of human behaviour.
So. If family sociology works the same way, and I am responding as a papa to my own father’s behaviours, how will my kids respond as parents to my behaviour?
But even as I write this (and this, by the way, is why I write these things) I realize there is a difference between a high-schooler and a young parent (unless they are one and the same, in which case all bets are off). As any teacher will tell you, high-schoolers are not precisely sane. They are so immersed in hormones, the high-drama of clumsy romance, and the pressures of figuring out who they are that they do not generally make very wise decisions. More importantly, they do not make deliberate decisions about some things at all. They are not actively thinking “my upperclassmen acted in such and such a way; should I act the same or should I choose to be different?” They are, with few exceptions, simply reacting on instinct– on the hardwiring of survival and pleasure and a sort of Pavlovian social conditioning. But by the time those individuals grow up a little, get married, and choose to have kids*, one can hopefully expect that they will have matured enough to be rather more deliberate with their life choices. By then, consciously or unconsciously, they should be asking themselves those important questions: how did my parents do it? Did it generally work? Do I want to do it the same way?
With that, I guess I can relax a little. In fact, Zane and Greer are right next to me, in the dining room, drawing. I’m going to ask them about it. I’ll record their responses, er, for posterity:
Me: “Hey guys, when you grow up and have babies of your own, do you think you’ll be the same kind of mama and papa we are to you?”
Zane and Greer: “Yeah.”
Good enough for me.