Sunday, 20 January 2008

Try As I Might, Do As I Do...

I was sitting on the bus the other day, pretending to read, but actually indulging in my habit of eavesdropping. Two women with young children were talking with an older woman -- most likely the mother of one of them -- about the importance of providing one's offspring with a good example to follow. I kept my nose in my book and tried not to smile too sarcastically, but all the time I sat there, avidly following their conversation, I found myself dangerously close to snorting in indignation.

"It's not good enough, telling them to do it, you know?" one of the young mothers commented. You've got to set an example, like. So they'll know you do it too."

"Yeah," agreed her friend. "S'right."

Whereupon the older woman echoed their sentiments, providing an example of this from her own childrearing experience: she and her husband always got up early in the morning, and now their adult offspring were all early risers. She offered this commonplace with complete confidence.

Good thing I was sitting in front of them and they couldn't see my face. I couldn't really blame the younger women, whose children were still tiny, but the older woman had either had a damned easy time of it or one hell of a case of amnesia. If only it were that simple!

When my husband and I first started out, like all beginners, we were sure we would soon have a handle on this parenting lark. We saw so many examples of bad parents around us: people who let their kids run wild and paid them little attention; people who paid their children too much attention, following their every movement, monitoring their every activity. We frowned at the snotty-nosed brats in filthy tee shirts we saw creating scenes and the spoilt, coddled mamas boys and girls. We shook our heads over the parents who ceaselessly whined, nagged and issued threats and ultimatums. We knew that our children would be as confident and independent as they would be tidy, biddable, and well behaved. How could they help but be with our good examples to follow?

We now look back on this time and laugh at our naivete, but I have come to see that this innocent confidence is a good thing and perfectly natural. As has been frequently pointed out, if most prospective parents knew what lay in store for them, they would never pass the Rubicon and elect to procreate. Most normal people do not seek out torment and hard work; who in their right mind would agree to exchange comfort and well-being with guaranteed misery and an uncertain future? I am convinced that this blind assurance that we cannot fail -- that we may even do better than the ones who came before us -- is one of the things that keeps our species going.

And I'll tell you one thing: If our kids are learning from our example, we're having a little problem with a delayed reaction.

When they were tiny toddlers, I made a big point of teaching them how to put things away. I tried to make a game out of it: See? Mommy will put three away, you put one away. Unfortunately, as soon as they tired of this (and it never took long), Mommy ended up putting away the lot and nagging them non-stop. I worked hard to keep the house tidy, taking pains to point out to them what I was doing and how they could help -- to little avail. In no time, their toys and other belongings were scattered all over the house -- and my good example didn't amount to a hill of beans.

When they were still infants, I carefully chose toys for them that were safe, colorful, engaging, educational, and durable. By the time the kids were a couple of years old, my criteria for toy selection had been narrowed down considerably: How big a mess will that make? How bad will that hurt when I step on it in the middle of the night?

The bedroom I share with my husband is virtually pristine, largely through my efforts. Our kids like coming into our room and flopping down on the neatly made bed. They help themselves to items they cannot find in their own rooms but are always sure to be able to locate in mine: nail scissors, hairbrush, tweezers, stapler, and hand lotion. I am sorry to say that their own rooms -- which I refuse to have anything to do with -- are kept in a very different state. Once in a while, one of them plunges into such depths of chaotic squalor that we are forced to issue some ultimatum: Tidy that up or you can't... Nagging and threats, we have learned, tend to work better than positive role models. Still, I always point out how neat and tidy our room is, however pathetic and futile I know this is. Some day, I tell myself, some day they will see the light of our shining example.

The other day my eldest smugly told me about her plans to teach her children how to do the laundry. I smiled and said encouraging things. After all, you never know: she might just succeed.


Merry Monteleone said...

Actually, new parents crack me up. Another thing I find amusing are the parents with one child only who like to tell me how much mine are missing out on because they're only in a limited number of activities at a time... umn... yes, okay, if I could bilocate, I'd be sure to have all three of mine at three different locations daily, but until then... I think they're okay in one thing at a time...

If it helps at all, when my children got old enough to need scheduling and make messes in every room of the house without putting adamn thing away, I often had the urge to call my own mother and apologize. I think much the same will happen to my children, they'll learn to keep up after themselves because no one else will do it - I'm certainly not going to their houses to do laundry...

I look forward to the day that my daughter will growl in indignation and yell at my future grandchildren that their rooms are a mess and one day, if they keep their own homes that way, they'll likely draw rats... then the torch will have been passed :-)

Do as I do... pbthhhhhhhhh......

Kara said...

I enjoy watching the idealism of new parents crumble into a little pile at their feet. My step-sister decided with her first that she would never use the word "no". Yeah, that lasted 3 months.

That being said...any offspring I have...well dressed though they will be...will be monsters. There's no way around it.

debra said...

Now I know why my mother and other seasoned parents just smiled and nodded when I made oh so true pronouncements. #2 daughter "likes my room the way it is". I do insist on a pathway to a particular window (in case of fire) and to her from the doorway (in case we need to get to her quickly). I would like her to use the drawers in the dresser rather than the drawers on the floor. She tod me today that I "really need to put away things when I am done using them" I seem to have a terrible habit of not putting away the carrots after I have made a salad. Go figure.

Kim Ayres said...

I watched comedian Dara O'Briain on TV a couple of weeks ago and was in tears when he talked about being as depressed as a wife who gave up her career and her kids turn out shite.

The difference between expectation and reality could not have been expressed more clearly :)

Carole said...

Along with the patter of tiny feet
Come a thousand words to eat.

Most people realize eventually that having kids and raising them is just one long held breath. And you may never get to exhale. And the other sad thing is that if children for generations had followed the examples of their parents we females would still be in a cave being pulled about by the roots of our hair.

Kanani said...

Yes, you can only guide and point in a general direction, not do...

Mary Witzl said...

Luckily, the people we knew with only children were pretty savvy about what our situation with two must be like. I myself always defer to mothers of three or more. I think it was Bill Cosby who said that parents of only one child are beginners, parents of two are beginning intermediate, and after that the difficulty level climbs almost exponentially. To this day I cringe to remember the stupid things I said to veteran parents back before I joined the club. I had just enough experience with kids to be certain that I knew the score. Whenever I find myself in the opposite position now, I try to remember the gentle compassion I was treated with way back when. It usually helps me keep my mouth shut.

I also look forward to the day I hear my kid blow a gasket with her offspring. And I too would apologize to my mother if only I could! In Japan, I knew a mother who visited her grown son's house to collect his dirty laundry. A woman like that is beyond help.

Kara -- Every time I hear someone start up with that 'Never say NO business,' I have to work hard to control myself. I think it is just possible that there are people who can carry this off, but they are scarce as hen's teeth.

As for your kids, you never know: they may be the exceptions! I know a fiery, bitchy, opinionated woman who ended up with the sweetest, nicest girl you've ever met. Smart, too. It makes me sick with envy.

Debra -- I laughed aloud reading this. We also have a fire-clearance path from our doorway to the kids' hidey-hole beds. They are on the third floor, though, so the window thing wouldn't be much help. And my eldest, the world's greatest clutter maker, is always quick to point out when I've left out ONE item. As though she's caught me out or something. Oh, it takes martyrs, it does.

Kim -- Ooh, I'm crossing my fingers and knocking on wood! But no: my kids are really pretty good. True, their rooms are shite, but slobs that they are, my kids are still my darlings and, though provoking, as good as gold. I do know women who can say this about their own kids, though, and I can think of few things that are more heartbreaking. Remind me never to give up writing -- just in case.

Carole -- I love that rhyme, and where did you get it? How was your holiday? I am going over to your site to find out.

Yes, I often find myself taking those deep, slow breaths. The ones that were totally ineffective during labor, but come in pretty handy in the throes of parenting teens.

Kanani -- Sometimes my arms get tired, though, I find myself doing so much pointing. And I wear out my voice box every single day, too.

The Anti-Wife said...

I have nothing but admiration for those of you who choose to procreate. I don't know how you do it.

Phil said...

So what you're saying is - I might as well sit down in front of the TV all day with my dirty shoes on the foot stool, drink beer and smoke? Sounds tempting. (Except I've given up smoking again and I don't like TV) And you're probably right - it likely wouldn't make much difference.

Thinking back, I grew up and developed despite my parents best intentions and it will probably be the same for my kids. So long as they never vote Tory I could forgive them most other things. I think I've successfully indoctrinated my oldest.

My circle of friends all seem to have teenagers at the moment - as do I. From listening to the , I'm just glad I don't have girls.


Kim Ayres said...

My wife has 5 children (one with "special needs") aged between 9 and 26, and 2 grandchildren.

I have 2 children (one with "special needs"), 3 step children and 2 stepgrandchildren.

Nobody ever offers us advice.

We're still making it up as we go along though

Eryl Shields said...

I don't think I've ever met a tidy child, not a happy one for sure. But almost all the adults I know are pretty tidy so I guess something kicks in somewhere.

One of the reasons I had only one child was that mothers of two or more always looked frazzled and I didn't want to be like that. I've noticed, though, that mothers of four or more tend to be quite serene. I wonder if that's because they have given up trying and just accepted the mess.

Kim Ayres said...

Eryl - once you get beyond 3, the older ones take a hand in looking after the younger ones, which definitely helps. And yes, you go way past the point of caring about keeping things tidy.

Now we're back down to only 2 kids in the house, it seems so much easier

Church Lady said...

This is fun. I love listening to those who think they can write the handbook.
They will learn. Yep.

I also keep our bedroom pristine, and the same stuff happens!!! But I have boys, and they once found my tampons and had whatever party could be had.


Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- WHY we procreate is more to the point, and I fear the answer is the three I's: ignorance, idealism, and idiocy.

Phil -- Sadly, no, we are forced to provide a good example just in case the kids really do start paying attention some day. Also, as you probably already know, kids are quick to find examples of parental hypocrisy and, where their parents are concerned, have sky-high standards, so not only do you have to do as you say, you have to do better than you say.

By the way, good for you, for giving up smoking!

Kim -- You have probably picked up the look of confidence that veteran parents of many children develop. I seem to be an advice magnet. I think there must be something about me -- a certain clueless, overwhelmed look -- that just begs for advice.

Eryl -- I have met tidy kids, and some of them seem to be remarkably well adjusted. And believe me, I've watched them closely.

I've noticed that frazzled look too. In the mirror, most of the time. You are right: I think parents of more than four develop a marvelously blase approach to the whole parenting issue. The mess becomes part of their lives and they wisely give in and accept it.

Kim -- In Japan, I had a neighbor with five children. She had been told that the older ones often helped with the younger ones, but in her family's case, this didn't happen. I used to see her out walking all the time. She told me that walking around the block a couple of dozen times helped her stay sane.

Church Lady -- My kids liked playing with tampons too! I once made the mistake of buying a six-pack of a rather expensive conditioner. This immediately disappeared, and months later I found most of it decanted into old wine bottles with dead leaves and moss. My youngest had been making perfume with it.

The Quoibler said...

I gave up parenting when my son came out in such a manner that the nurses literally kept sending him back in to me. ("He's disrupting the other kids in the nursery!")

Seriously. It's funny now, but it wasn't at the time. I just wanted to say, "What the hell do you want ME to do about it? YOU'RE the professional, right?!?"

I just let him parent me. And everything's okay-dokey. He lets me stay up as late as I want, eat whatever I choose, and even run naked throughout the house as long as the curtains are closed. What more could I ask for? :)

(I'm only joking a little... I don't really close the curtains...)


Carolie said...

Great post, Mary! Thanks for the laughter!

If I ever had any doubts that Nature was as strong an influence as Nurture, all I had to do was look at the three of us. We three, stair-step kids born in a five year timeframe, grew up with the same rule structure, the same two parents, the same nagging, the same examples being set. Sure, I'm a girl and my two brothers are not, but my parents were remarkably even-handed, and there were few differences in how they treated the three of us.

Yet now, it's hard to believe we're even related, even though we're very close and look alike...we're so very different! Even as children we were remarkably different.

Sure my parents had some heavy influences on us. We're all honest to a fault, we all chew our food with lips closed, and all have great posture, due primarily to constant nagging and parental example. We all have books in our homes, and all read for pleasure, though not to the same extent. There are some things that parental nagging and example do influence.

But...there are many other facets of a person that are simply not up to a parent to create, eradicate or change. Here's a single example, indicative of all the various differences in our three adult lives. We grew up attending a single denomination of Christian church, saying one of three prayers before meals. We visited other faiths, other traditions, other cultures, but in our own home, church attendance and specific prayers before meals were constant and unvarying.

As adults though, we've chosen very different paths. I identify as an Episcopalian, singing in the choir of a diverse, inner-city church. Grace before meals is infrequent, but is always either the standard "O Lord bless this food to our use..." or a sung Doxology (to the tune of Old 100) on holidays.

Brother #1 barely identifies as an agnostic, and visibly squirms if the conversation turns to any sort of religious subject. His idea of grace before meals is a vague recollection of singing the Johnny Appleseed prayer.

Brother #2 is a deacon in a modern Southern Baptist church, having been re-baptised (much to my mother's chagrin...Brother #1 and I irreverently and rudely called it in private "The Great Dunking"). He is given to long prayers before meals, hands held around the table, that start "Heavenly Father, thank you for this day, the soccer game we won, this great meatloaf dinner before us..."

Honestly, there's only so much a parent can do...but it sure is fun to listen to the naive!

A Paperback Writer said...

Okay, I'm not a parent, but I've taught multiple kids from the same families in 20 years at the same school-- and I'm onto the second generation now, where I can say, "yeah, your mom did X" to a kid.
There are some kids where a parent's good example works. There are other kids where a parent's bad example works as reverse psychology. (I know two men who will not touch cigarettes or illegal drugs because of their parents chainsmoking and/or drug habits.) And there are other kids where beating them with a brick couldn't get them to change a thing.
I remember a neighbor telling a story in church about how she -- as a very young mother -- believed in the tabula rossa (spelling?) theory, rather like you. She'd been telling her grandmother how she was going to do this and that with her future children and "form" their little personalities correctly. Her grandmother, she said, listened patiently until she finished, and then gave the comment, "My dear, it's been my experience that they come just the way they come."
I never met that grandmother, but I think she was a wise woman.
However, on the bright side, it certainly doesn't hurt to set a good example for the kids. Sometimes they do try as adults what the parents couldn't bribe/threaten them to do as kids. Maybe you're just not to that stage yet with your kids.
Remember: Mark Twain once said something along the lines that when he was 14, his father was the stupidest man he'd ever met, but by the time Twain had reached 21, he was amazed to find how much his father had learned.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

Brilliant post - you nailed it; the frustration, everything.

When your kids are 30 they might just decide that mammy's way was best. Or most familiar, organised and comfy for them, at least. It may take til 35-40. It's amazing how early life examples can affect us for the good or the bad.

Mary Witzl said...

Quoibler -- My sympathies! It looks like you got a model similar to ours. When we brought our first-born home from the hospital, we made the awful discovery that she had no off-switch. The hospital wouldn't be held responsible, and we were left trying to figure out what the hell to do -- on zero sleep. I seem to remember the first five months as one long, hazy blur: me holding a baby that screamed her head off the minute I tried to put her down. When she got to six months, I had to put her down for her own safety. And you are right: it's funny now, but it wasn't back then. Far from it.

I am stubborn, so I still insist on doing the parenting -- or going through the motions. But I've always had a feeling with my eldest that she imagines herself to be of superior intelligence. God knows what would happen if I let her rule the roost, though this might have been the right thing to do all along: maybe then she would have found out the truth.

Carolie -- Well, that cheers me up! I can't imagine either of my two turning into a Baptist, but it could happen. Two years ago, the eldest wanted to go to beautician's school, which meant that she would have to drop physics. Amazingly (she is my child, after all), she was pretty good at physics, and we had to work like crazy to persuade her that you can always go back to study hairdressing, but people seldom go back to study physics. She finally gave in and stuck with physics (a bribe helped), but it was a close thing: we almost ended up with a 14-year-old budding beautician, and given how little this interests my husband or myself, it would have been about as weird as having her turn into a Baptist. We have had to resign ourselves to her collection of fingernail polish (72 bottles on last count) and drawers full of toiletries (we could stock a drug store) as it is.

Good for you AND your parents on the posture front, though: my mother, who had excellent posture, nagged me senseless; my father, who had awful posture, never said a word. Guess whose example I followed? I now gently remind my youngest, who like my father and me, is tall and prone to slumping. All I can do is hope...and nag...

APW -- We share similar experiences! The Japanese call someone who manages to teach by setting a bad example 'hanmen kyoshi' -- ('hanmen' is 'opposite' and 'kyoshi' is 'instructor'). I have personally learned a lot from quite a few hanmen kyoshi in my time: my uncle chain-smoked Camels and used to cough himself silly, which put me off cigarettes for life. Likewise, I found young, miserable- looking, bleary-eyed parents with snot-nosed babies in supermarkets a far more compelling argument against teenage pregnancy than any lecture.

What never ceases to vex me, however, is that there are parents who have gotten off easy and managed to rear kids who have turned out the way they wanted them to. I can never figure out if it is nature -- the kids inheriting their parents' blind adherence to duty perhaps -- or nurture -- the parents' persuasive powers so formidable that the kids just naturally buckled under. Whatever the case, parents like that are the kind every other parent wants to avoid. Like self-made men, they wrote the book and want to tell everyone else how to do it. Fortunately, I'll never have their problem.

I've always loved that Twain quote. I think it ends with his observation that, by the time he was a grandfather, he worshipped his own father as a saint. I feel the same way about my mother.

Sam -- You are right about early life examples. I sometimes shiver to think how much worse off I'd be if I hadn't had my mother. I have come to see that more than anything else -- money, health, looks, education, etc -- what kind of mother we get determines whether we start off as haves or have-nots. I was definitely a have; I'd like to think my kids are too, but sometimes I'm no more sure than they are...

Charlie said...

. . . example of this from her own childrearing experience: she and her husband always got up early in the morning, and now their adult offspring were all early risers.

Heartwarming, wasn't it? Did she mention that their offspring are axe murderers just like Mum and Dad?

And a personal question, which you are under no obligation to answer: Why do you have a stapler in your bedroom?

Danette Haworth said...

How big a mess will that make?

Ha! Great post!

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- You make a good point here: we are always eager to take the credit for our kids' successes, but less inclined to accept the flack when they turn out to be shits. All we can do is try to be good examples -- and hope for the best.

As for the stapler, I will answer this question soon. Suffice it to say that I have a perfectly good reason.

Danette -- When I first considered buying Leggo, I worried that my kids could swallow it. After five years with kids, I knew that the real danger it poised was to my feet. I'll bet I'm not the only mother to think of this.