Give me liberty or give me lunch

November 27, 2009

When volunteering recently at my kids’ school I had occasion to take a highly informal poll of middle and high school students and thought I’d share my off-the-cuff Studs Terkel findings.  The question:  “If you could have your parents change one thing to make your life better, what would it be?”

While not an exhaustive sampling of kids by any stretch, responses broke down into three categories:  be there more, let me be there less and a thumbs up for a job well done.  This last one was the key inspiration for this post, as it surprised me.  After all, there were certainly kids who either couldn’t think of anything to say, or who shared their too-busy-living-Catcher in the Rye-I’m-impossible-to-understand-me-lives contempt for the question with the subtlety of a non-response (much like the busy pedestrian deciding to simply not notice the panhandler), but the kids who gave my question honest thought and then looked me in the eye and said that their parents were pretty great and that there was nothing they could think of to change—I suspect that would have surprised even their terrific parents.

Of course, we could be snarky and speculate on how frequently a repressed and over-controlled young therapy client enters treatment with depression, low-self-esteem and an idealized picture of his or her actually rather limited parents, but we’ll leave that to another day—these kids certainly looked happy, engaged and unrepressed.  The point being that well-parented kids typically save their worst selves for us parents, and it’s the disengaged parents who aren’t really there to catch the flak who fail their kids by not being there to catch and contain the crappy feelings—leaving those kids with little choice but to spill their pain over onto those people in the world they would be better off forming positive bonds with, such as friends and teachers. 

Therefore, if your kid tests you, gives you attitude, shows their would-be entitlement to you and blesses you with ample opportunity to help them have happier lives by modeling for them the notion of dealing gracefully with their crap, you might not realize that they may actually give you a gold star when you’re not within ear-shot.

As far as the kids who said that they wanted more freedom to go out, it was not said with much rancor, more with the vibe that these girls, and it was girls who said this, wished to be trusted and respected in their maturation—acknowledged that they were growing up and could handle a bit more freedom.  To me, they seemed young and vulnerable and it made me think that these parents too get gold stars for holding the limits that tweens and young teens can dislike, yet internalize, as they grow into their fuller capacities for love, adventure and autonomy.  These kids felt loved; they just wanted to be validated in how they were changing.

Several polite, but sadder, kids earnestly said things ranging from, “my dad has to travel a lot—I wish he could be there more” to one girl, wistfully holding up a cookie, saying “I wish they would give me a more nutritious lunch.”  This has been something of a theme this week—the disengaged or absent parents who disappoints their kids by not stepping up, somehow leaving kids feeling malnourished emotionally and even nutritionally.  If parenting across the group were like a game of Red Rover, the disengaged parent marks a hole in our Red-Rover line, a game that causes us to lose kids to depression, low-self-esteem, poor social relatedness, entitlement and rudeness.  Sadly, these disengaged parents are not the parents who will come across these words, and who might not recognize themselves in the words of their kids if they did read them—parents who confuse giving plenty of cash to a kid with abundantly nourishing them.

I am well aware that many of us have to work, we have busy lives and cannot be available 24-7 to our kids (nor to they want or need this); that is not what engaged parenting is about.  It is about helping our kids feel understood and cared about, even if that means bearing witness to their pain and complaints, even about ourselves—understanding how we fail them, at least in their view.  I often fail to rise to the gold-star-standard, but my wife is truly an engaged parent—and so I watch, learn, try, blog and grow.  I’m trying to be here for myself and the other silver-star, bronze-star and frowny-face parents that most of us can also be, sometimes disengaged and sometimes getting it right, in the hopes that our collective effort (and mutual virtual griping) it motivate us to keep trying, keep our courage and our restraint, and might even trickle down or radiate out to benefit more kids, and even parents, than we might otherwise imagine—after all sometimes we get good marks but never hear about it, so I pass along the gold star to parents who might benefit from getting one today.  Your efforts are not pure futility!

As for the one kid who said that they wished their parents were less passive aggressive, it might be worth reviewing a previous post on this topic if you’re not sure about what that could be about: http://tiny.cc/RLmpO.

So, to misquote Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “Stars?  We don’t need no stinkin’ stars…”  But we do need to stand strong and Red-Rover together, even if at times ironically and somewhat sardonically, in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf November 27, 2009 at 5:04 pm

I never fail to learn or rethink something when I read you. I’m going to try asking my teen this question – at an appropriate moment. I’m very curious as to what he would say. And whether or not I would find it something I can understand that he would want me to do differently, but where, as a parent, I would consider it in his best interest not to.

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Bruce Sallan November 28, 2009 at 11:18 am

I’d be afraid to ask my boys that question? Rather go with “where would you like to eat out tonight?” LOL. A more sobering example of polling kids is something Dennis Prager does often in groups of kids. He asks who would they save if they could only save one – a drowning stranger or their drowning dog. He also gets three equal replies. 1/3 say they’d save their dog, another 1/3 would save the stranger, and the last 1/3 say they don’t know. Hmmm.

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