Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Flexibility: The Ultimate Sign of Strength in Parenting

For my son's first birthday, my husband found a deal online that was hard to beat, a $100 ball pit/tent on sale for $25. We were thrilled . . . until we read the reviews of it online. It turns out the supports tended to break and most people thought the craftsmanship was not good for small toddlers because it was too delicate. The ball pit lasted throughout our first home, but by the time we moved less than a year later, we had to buy new supports for it. This time, we anchored it to the ceiling and replaced the flimsy, plastic rods with wooden dowels. Still, by the time we moved from that home into our new one this summer, we decided not to put it back up because we knew that the dowels were likely going to break under the pressure our growing son would put them through without the added rafter support we had in the unfinished basement of the house we were moving from.

Yesterday, I found a play tent on sale. Because my husband is gone camping/kayaking this weekend with his family. I thought it would be fun for my son and I to set up our own tent at home and "play" camp. The supports for this tent were very different then our ballpit/tent had been. They were made of many pieces of plastic curved over a thick elastic center. It actually is amazingly flexible. This was perfect because that tent is exactly the type of playstructure my son needs. It is rigid enough to keep the shape of the tent and provide him with the stability of an indoor/outdoor private space. Yet, it is flexible enough to bend when it needs to instead of snapping under the weight of his constant testing.

I think the tale of the two play structures is ultimately the perfect metaphor for what real strength in parenting means. Often, as our children get older and more vocal about how they feel we get frustrated by their inflexibility and their demands. Too often, we, in turn, sometimes feel like we have to be equally inflexible to "show them who's boss" or "to give them structure." Even I've found myself sometimes getting into silly power struggles with my toddler before I've made myself step back and ask, "Is this really a time for inflexibility? Is this really what I want to draw a line in the sand about?" I've found that if I ever feel foolish about "sticking to my guns," than that is my sign that I should probably find a way to compromise or back out gracefully. (As a matter of fact, when I find myself thinking whether or not I should "stick to my guns," I usually discover I shouldn't. "Sticking to your guns" is about defending your life and being willing to shoot down others. . . not the image I would ever want to use when thinking about my relationship with my beloved son.) I'm usually pretty honest with my son about it, even though I know that he is barely three and doesn't really understand everything I am explaining to him. Sometimes, it's just as simple as telling him, "You know what? I've been thinking about how you feel about this and what you've been saying and I think maybe I was wrong and you were right. It is important that you wear some clothes to the store, but if you want to wear the same shirt you've been wearing since yesterday morning, well, okay. Who is that going to harm? It doesn't have any food on it or anything. Just put on some pants for mama and your shoes." Even a toddler respects a compromise when he hears it most of the time and he chose to put on underwear, pants, and shoes even though moments earlier he was demanding to be allowed to go wearing his shirt and nothing but his shirt.

Like the tent frame, there are times when I have no problem being absolutely rigid and holding my shape without compromise. In matters of safety (like my son's food allergies or running in the road), I am completely inflexible. I compensate by remembering to be soft and tender in the way I respect his emotions even as I am telling him absolutely no. I find it's actually pretty easy to be geniunely sympathetic and still firm with my limits when it is a subject on which I know I am in the right about it. When I get the most upset, childishly rigid, and downright power struggly myself is in the situations that are a little more gray. Because I am not completely convinced I am in the right, I play a caricature of myself in which I am Mrs.-Bossy-Pants-I'm-Adult-You-Are-Child. My son does not respond well to that person, and honestly, I wouldn't either. After all, my support for my argument is as flimsy as the support for the crappy ball pit tent. It's so rigid, it fractures when challenged. When I am at my best parenting my son is when I mimic the balance of the new tent frame. I am rigid when he needs support, but flexible when he needs that, too. When I am open to remembering that my relationship with my son is not about who is boss or who is right/wrong, I find the real power in our exchange with one another. It is the power of our mutual love and respect. He is learning to respect my experience and my ability to be flexible when I need to be (and rigid when I need to be) and I am learning (out of love) to respect where he is at in his learning process and that he may have something to teach me about how to really be a strong person and flexible mother.

So, for all those mamas out there who are at the end of their wits with children who are too inflexible and who constantly start power struggles with you, I offer you a hug and all my love. I am there sometimes, too. Keep in mind that the best way to keep your "shape" is to sometimes bend a little when the stakes aren't very high and when the fight isn't worth it. I'm not saying to let them "win" or to "give in," but I am saying that it's okay to find a compromise where you both "win" and where no one has to "give in." You are the frame of your relationship with your children. The strength of your relationship will be in the way you are willing to bend in order to teach your children how to bend themselves. Remember, an old stick is easily snapped and irreparably broken because it has lost its flexibility. A new branch is almost impossible to break because for all its stiffness, it remains flexible and alive inside. Be that branch, even if it is an olive branch sometimes, for the good of your relationship with your child.

Thanks for reading,


Madigan Rollins said... [Reply to comment]

Love!! You're awesome. Thanks for the reality check, I really have needed it of late. We are facing some new behavioral challenges here in our little Vermont house and wowzers, it has been a struggle to say the least!
Miss you mama.

Shawna said... [Reply to comment]

I miss you, too, Madigan. Believe me, this was written for me, too! You wait so long for them to be independent and to speak and then when they do! Wow! They really are independent with a lot to say!

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