This weekend I found myself in the ridiculous position of standing fast, insisting my child finish his pancakes before he could get his Skittles. I’d say its the principle of the thing, but I have a hard time coming up with the principle. Perhaps the principle is the simple exertion of authority. This sounds like bullying even to me, and perhaps it is to some degree, but until you’ve spent a good amount of your time with a four year old in your care you can’t know how important it is to hold fast.
I’ve spent a long time avoiding power struggles. It was a tactic that I not only employed, but one that I taught. Seriously. I co-wrote a curriculum that I’d teach to young adults working at a summer camp for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities every year about the allure of a good power struggle, what it accomplishes and what challenges it presents. Then we’d work on skills to recognize, deflect, avoid and re-engage in order to avoid the power struggle. As counselors it was a no win game for them since inherently, as the caregivers, the power dynamic was in their favor. By accepting the invitation to the power struggle they were simultaneously lessening their own authority and feeding their charges defiance. Year after year I’d see the best of the best get sucked in. I thought to myself, that won’t happen to me.
Ever notice that when you take such absolute stands they almost always bite you in the ass? I feel so bad for my kids. Before I had them I was a perfect dad. Seriously. I could have easily been a dad-coach. I could write a dad behavior plan with detailed instruction on how to interact, how to behave, what to let your kid win on and how to always end at the result you wanted to and I could have guaranteed the results if you committed to the process. It’s what I did and I was good. Parents consistently praised our abilities, mine and those that worked with and for me, to bring out aspects of their child that were wonderful and yet to be seen. We were good. So what the hell happened that made me so, so… mediocre with my own kids?
It’s a simple answer, really. Its the expected answer, though perhaps one you can know to be correct without fully understanding why. It’s because I love them so damn much. It’s because they love me so damn much. It’s because we resist every separation and on a level we aren’t even conscious of, we know that we have to separate to survive. Granted, it’s decades away, but when you love something this much you need a few decades to let go fully. it’s because disappointed expectations is a part of the process for both growing up and being a parent. It’s because we each, parents and kids, think there’s some version of a perfect god in the other which is hugely disappointing when a perfect god is incapable of resisting the urge to punch and kick you (toddler attacking parent and NEVER the other way around) or when the perfect god has chosen to make a thing like Skittles and then made them ‘bad’ for you. It’s because on the grandest and most minute level we are engaged and intertwined so thoroughly with our children that in order for them to grow up and be independent we must be constantly working at cross purposes, us holding on to whatever control we have in order to ensure their safe passage and them trying desperately to gain more and more self direction in order to learn through trial and error, the very errors we try so hard to protect them from, how to navigate the world. The one tiny piece of information I lacked that would have assured my burgeoning dad coaching business its failure was nothing less then the very nature of parenthood and family. The parent child relationship at its best is by definition dysfunctional. Magically, blissfully, frustratingly and wonderfully dysfunctional. So much so that I can’t help being proud of the little tykes and how maddeningly defiant they can be.