Take a recent incident, involving some candy. I’d given each girl the same number of gumballs. But one of my daughters lost some. She then implored me for extra. “Now I have less and that’s not fair,” she moaned.
“But they’re my candy! It’s not my fault we lost some of hers!” the other one replied.
My solution — to put all the gumballs together in one bowl and split them equally — was unacceptable to both. All afternoon, they threw tantrums, slammed doors, or tried to slyly outwit me, crumbling when I didn’t fall for it.
“How about we keep our own gumballs and I get an extra other kind of candy that she doesn’t get?” said one.
“Why am I being punished for her missing candy?” asked the other.
Three hours later, the result was the same as it would’ve been had I taken a sterner approach from the get-go: We did what I said. But what should have taken five minutes took three hours, and everyone was in a bad mood.
* * *
I remember being a little kid. While my mother was amazing, I never felt like I had a say. What she said went, end of story. I spent my childhood bemoaning how unfair it all was (like, I know, every little kid ever). I had to overcome many obstacles to learn that my voice was important.
But I’ve gone too far in the other direction.
Three is probably a bit too young for the pay-gap speech, but there I was, explaining why I turned down a low-paying position at a local business. It’s a big world out there, and I want my girls to know what they’re worth. But since they’re so little, their whole world is our home, and their needs. The poor and disadvantaged? In their world, it’s them, when they don’t get their way.
I’ve given them power they don’t know what to do with. So minor decisions that should be left to the parent (like, say, wearing tights without holes in them) become ruthless, time-consuming battles that add unnecessary dissonance to their lives.
I thought my parenting approach would lead to strong, confident girls who are able to assess situations and logically thwart unequal systems. And it probably will, someday. But right now? They’re 6. The lessons I’ve taught them have led to two very dissatisfied girls who don’t know if their mother is their friend, their adversary or their keeper.
One poignant instance illustrates this perfectly. My daughter wanted me to buy her candy but had not behaved well enough to warrant an extra treat.
“Mom,” my daughter said, “people without money need help, and people with money need to help them.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said.
“Well, I don’t have money, and you do, so you need to help me and buy this.”
A perfectly well-reasoned, thought-out argument.
When the answer was still no, she tantrumed and screamed, and I had to drag her out of the store. She did what I’d taught her; she still didn’t get what she wanted. I didn’t get what I wanted. Everyone was unhappy.
* * *
I’m not about to swing around and go authoritarian. I am who I am.
Instead, I’m changing my communication style. What I had thought was explanation they deserved is actually confusing baggage they cannot parse. I’m refocusing, trying to teach the girls about priorities, about why it’s more important to go to school than color in the mornings.
It’s not without a fight, but it’s a reprogramming well worth it. If I could do it again, I’d wait to start on the grand-scale ideology until the girls were 10 or so, when they could more easily grasp the concepts as outside of themselves, and differentiate their present lives from their future lives.
But for now, I’ve taught the wrong message — that life should be fair and there is no other acceptable option. I did it before the girls had the capacity to understand the meaning of fair. Fair became “what I want right now because I want it.”
I should have stuck to the well-worn, well-tested “life isn’t fair, and I call the shots” route when my girls were babies and toddlers.
Because what isn’t fair is asking children to think and behave like adults before they have the mental ability to do so.
Liberalism ruined my parenting, but I’m slowly getting it back.
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