Fall is falling here in the Northern Hemisphere and leaves and temperatures won’t be far behind. The little bunnies all went back to school, I’ve begun preparing for hibernation (or failing that, Armageddon), baking and making casseroles and knitting a gigantic afghan and reorganizing my kitchen cupboards. It’s like some sort of frantic and bizarre nesting disorder which I’m certain will only get worse as the holidays approach.
In the meantime school has reunited us with other parents that we haven’t seen over the summer, with teachers and with school staff. I’ve accidentally wished several people a “happy new year” this week…that’s how much this all feels like a fresh start. Summertime is awesome. It’s a time for freedom. Rules tend to be relaxed, there’s no homework, more candy is eaten, more video games played, chores are not mandated the way they are when school’s on. But I have to admit, it’s nice to get back into a routine and as we’ve tightened up the reins, reestablishing routines and chores and restrictions, it’s made me think about boredom, boundaries, and the word ‘no’.
One of my favourite films of all time is Sleepless in Seattle. Quit your wincing, yes, I saw you. I remember buying my mother the VHS copy and many nights sitting down together with a bottle of wine to revel in the story of love meant to be. We watched it so many times, we could recite much of the dialog verbatim. Many scenes still stick with me, but the one I love the most is an exchange between Sam and his son Jonah. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Sam’s wife has died and as painful as it still is, time has passed and he’s finally beginning to carve out a life without her. He has found a new girlfriend and is, with much of his own trepidation, planning a weekend getaway with her. Jonah hates the new girlfriend and is furious with his dad for going. No matter how much Jonah fights for his dad to stay, Sam won’t give in. Jonah gets mad and yells “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” to which his dad replies “Good! You’ll have a lot to tell Oprah!” For me, the scene perfectly captured some of the frustrations of parenting. Jonah likely has no clue who Oprah is, nor why she is even remotely relevant to the argument and I know my kids certainly don’t, but it was Sam’s way of telling Jonah that shit happens and sometimes you have to just get over it because you’re not going to change it.
Parenting, done right, should not be easy. Sure, it will be joyous and bring pride and love into your life beyond the scope of description. But easy? No. I am the proud parent of two clever and very strong-willed boys and I’ve had more battles of wills, especially with my eldest than I can count. Many times over the years, I’ve wondered, occasionally out loud, if I need a lawyer, U.N. Peacekeeper or a hostage negotiator…and yes, I’ve often told them to save the histrionics for Oprah.
Over the years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve read loads of parenting books, studied other parents, my own included, and dissected my own parenting, especially when it all goes pear-shaped and I’ve been run over by a steamroller of kidlogic so convoluted I could weep.
We look at our own childhoods and wonder what we can bring into our children’s lives to make them better. What values were instilled in us that we want our kids to have? I remember being bored. I remember being told no. I remember knowing I was loved. The boredom made me creative and self-sufficient. The word no gave me boundaries and helped me learn about the world and how it works. The love came from the people who listened to me chatter on about my day and took the time to celebrate the good and correct the bad while still showing me that they would always be on my side. Simple, no?
So here’s Mama Bunny’s two cents worth….maybe three…
I think kids are over programmed. An unbelievable number of my children’s friends complain that they have too many activities and they just wish that they could slow down. And why not? Instead of the mad rush from one activity or another, why not sit with your child and play a game? Draw a picture? Stare into space and talk. Get to know your bunny before they grow up and you don’t know who they are.
Or (gasp) let them be bored! They’ll find something to do. We did. Just make sure they have enough to get started and then let them go to it. Yes, they may push their boundaries. Yes, you may end up with overflowing sinks from science experiments in the bathroom. I believe it will all be worth it. (Shoot, it had better be).
Why we parents feel the need to fill every.single.solitary.minute of every day with programmed activity is a mystery to me. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. It’s like collecting merit badges. I listen to parents on the playground comparing the activities their kids are in and I catch myself feeling like I’m a bad parent because my eldest refuses to be interested in any extracurricular activities at all and I’ve only ever forced him to take swimming. Am I failing him somehow? I don’t think so anymore. He is the most interesting kid I know. We sit and draw together, play games together and I know every detail of what is going on in his life. We talk about anything and everything. When he complains he’s bored, I say “let’s think of something to do” or “come give me a hand with what I’m doing” and inevitably, it’s awesome. Will loads of activities make my child more well rounded? Get him into Harvard? I’ll never know. I’m pretty happy with my kids being “bored”.
I also believe that like Jonah in Sleepless in Seattle, children need to hear the word ‘no’. They need to hear it nicely, firmly, but liberally and often enough that they don’t think the world will be delivered to them on a silver platter. But it is hard. You need a will of iron to withstand a 45 minute shriek-fest when you won’t give in to demands from a 2 year old. It’s seems easier to give in, but then, as my Mumsie was fond of saying..you’ve made a rod for your own back.
You have the power to shape your bunnies into awesome, strong, resourceful, loving people and your greatest tool is the word ‘no’ and the teeth-gritting strength to back it up. You need to show them that there is integrity behind the word because you are the one that they slowly -and occasionally terrifyingly- morph into as they grow up. (Don’t tell me you will never be like your parents. We all get there eventually, no matter how much we try no to. I open my mouth and I hear my mother and wonder how the heck did she get in there? Easy. My parents taught me how to be a parent by example. Granted, sometimes it was ‘what not to do’ but that’s an entirely different blog). Ultimately, you have to be the one who says ‘no’ to them because they learn far more from you and far more from the ‘no’ than from the yes.
I get a lot of pushback from my kids and damn, it’s hard to say no, because when you do, all heck lets loose. It’s like that one little word is the code to open Pandora’s box and (yes, yes, mixing my metaphors) it feels like there’s no way to get that genie back into the bottle without giving in. But we can’t give in all the time, and ‘no’often gets me “you’re the worst parent EVER!” Well, at least I’m the best at something.
But here’s where ‘no’ works for you. ‘No’ gives them the boundaries that they need. No matter what some books will tell you about societal constructs, (yes, I’m looking at you “The Four Agreements”) we live and work in a society that has rules. Like it or not, we generally need to work with these rules. But it’s easier when we are busy and tired to say ‘yes’, right? Yup. Until everything starts to come unravelled and you have a child throwing a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket because for once you said ‘no’. Every one is looking at you, it’s embarrassing…it’s too easy to give in. Here’s where ‘no’ needs backup.
‘No’ should come with two other things: an explanation and a consequence that you enforce, even if it causes you grief. One of my favourite and most revered parenting tales came from a friend who was one day shopping with her two girls. They were misbehaving and were told no and why. The consequence would be leaving the supermarket. When they didn’t stop, she wheeled her cart to one of the staff, and with her girls listening, explained that they were leaving because her children wouldn’t behave and would he mind putting her groceries back. She left the store, her girls mortified. I’m not sure I would have had the guts, but those girls never repeated their performance of that day because they knew their Mum would back up her ‘no’ with a consequence.
No is inevitably followed by “why?” And that’s where you have the chance to be the awesome parent you are. Tell them how the world works. Tell them that they have to work for what they want. Tell them about self control. Failing that, tell them “because I said so”.
Then explain to them that sometimes they just have to take no and live with it. And if they don’t like it, well, they’ll always have something to tell Oprah.