Monday, March 16, 2009

Kung Fu Parenting

Unlike a car, or almost any gizmo on the planet, babies don't come with a manual. They just wrap 'em in a towel and send you on your way with a few bottles of formula, some disposable diapers, and lots of paperwork that eradicates any liability on their part. Anyone can have one, really, and they do. But the best part is that, once you get home, they're all yours to screw up as you see fit.

Thankfully, most of us have only the best of intentions -- too good really -- and indulge 'em with love. So much love, in my case actually, that it is only now, fifteen and a half years later that I take pause and think, wait a minute, what's with these grumbling, moaning, dogmatic, ungracious, unmotivated semi-adults living in my house, rent free?

Being members of the great child-centered parenting generation that we are, and anxious not to repeat any of the dysfunction that marked our own childhood, we have showered our little darlings with love and adoration. And as they scream back across the dinner table, whine endlessly, and roll their eyes when you dare suggest that they make a contribution to the household, such as making their beds, perhaps, or sitting straight, with their legs under the dining table, not half lying across the chair, you can't help thinking of the phrase 'spoiled rotten.'

Like tomatoes that are way past their due date, I often wonder if my three offspring aren't a little ripe at times? I discovered that I wasn't the only one, which led to a conversation with someone in the know about these things, someone who has my mental health interest at heart. Like a good parent really, except I pay him. And this sage and perceptive person revealed that he too has experienced the ungracious teen who will do everything in their power to make your life a misery, and that the root cause of it is, wait for it, too much loving. I kid you not. I call it Kung Fu parenting because of the image of myself leaping up into the air, a la Bruce Lee, parrying a grumble from all sides, with a deft kick here, an arm thrust out there. I never stop. I am exhausted and burned to a crisp.

Some of us love our kids to the point where they can do little for themselves. Don't really want to use the 'enabling' word but it snuck out and there you have it. In our effort to protect our chillun' from the big, bad, world, as such, we inadvertently disable their self-reliance, and independence, and motivation, leaving them with only one way for them to separate and show us that they are different. They stop doing what we want them to, and they sneer, to boot. Which makes (some of) us pull out our hair, rent our shirts, and wail in the bathroom as we puff at that forbidden cigarette, and in doing so, realize that we have become the cliche that we so dreaded -- the deeply disappointed, guilt-tripping, lecturing parent.

Which shows you that what goes around, comes around, however you choose to do it. Dysfunction is dysfunction. Teens are teens. And parents will always be parents. Poor, ignorant suckers, groping in the dark for a helping hand.

And the answer? Simple as it sounds, it makes sense. Love them but leave them be. Their failures are their failures, not yours. Stop catching them when they fall. Show them that you have a life, and get on with it. Stop making their actions the center of your existence, and when they realize that the emotional leverage has gone and that their behavior no longer affects you (visibly), who knows, it might change. It's a long, slow, work in progress. Watch this space.

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