Author: Alvira, Marco

Why Don’t Kids Come With Instructions?

The sallow woman across from me dabbed her eyes with a rough tissue. He husband rested his forearms on the table, his palms pressed together and fingers interlaced. His jaw was clenching and unclenching. This parent teacher conference was not going well. Their thirteen-year-old son was running these folks ragged with his lack of homework and complete lack of cooperation at home. The science teacher sitting next to me and I gave each other a knowing glance. This family needed help, and family counseling was outside our purview.

I felt bad for this family, but the parents had abdicated their authority at home long ago, and they even didn’t know it. The hard part about parenting, as the old joke goes, is that there isn’t any owners manual once the baby comes home from the hospital. Who can’t remember that hopeless feeling of ignorance and ineptitude when you carry your first child across the threshold for the first time, and then it hits you that you’ll be feeding, clothing, and nurturing this little bundle of dependence for a long time to come. Instant doubt about your ability creeps into your mind immediately. Simple questions become quiz show stumpers: Is the baby eating enough? Is the baby cool enough? Is the baby warm enough? Should I lay the baby on its back or side? Each question seems to carry great gravity, for the wrong answer can be catastrophic to the perspective of the neophyte parent. If those parents only knew that those early years are the easy ones. It only gets rougher from there. Parenting seemed so effortless for our parents…and perhaps there was a certain laissez faire that is rare among today’s parents. I recall riding my bicycle a mile home in the dark after Little League practice when I was eleven. At the middle school where I teach, the cars are lined deep in front of the school on the clearest, warm Indian summer morning, everybody dropping their kid off to school. We used to get home from school, wolf down a snack, do our homework, and then Mom would shoo us out the house to go and play until dinner was ready—usually about the time the street lights came on. Today, kids are whisked away to guitar lessons, to soccer practice, to youth group meeting. Dinner is on the run and homework is completed in the car between stops. Today’s parents seem to work very hard to keep their children entertained, safe, and cultured. Our parents had Doctor Spock for expert help. Today’s parent has an entire section at the local bookstore devoted to child rearing tips.

Despite our best efforts, child rearing is not an exact science…nor is ii art. It is grueling work with uncertain results. A couple in my acquaintance was the uber parents. They had every moment of their children’s’ lives filled with athletic, creative, spirit raising activities. Unfortunately, their son is spending a second term in jail and their daughter is in rehab in Los Angeles. Another couple has four children that are the envy of the neighborhood—kind, polite children that do well at school and are stars on the athletic field. When I asked them for the secret recipe to their success so I could bottle and sell it other less fortunate, they could only shrug and smile; they hadn’t a clue. Of course sometimes siblings from the same parents are very different. My tow kids for example, are extreme opposites: my daughter is short, artistic and a very warm young adult. My son is very tall and athletic, and has a surly disposition. By popular acclaim, both my kids are great, though I hardly consider myself a great parent. My wife and I made thousands of tactical errors in raising the kids. Yet, despite our best efforts at messing them up, they came out O.K. I simply don’t know why.

There was one thing about classroom management (discipline in laymen’s lingo) that I could share with the parents at the meeting. After 28 years in the classroom, I’ve learned that every teacher has four cards that can be played in keeping the classroom orderly: 1) Physical presence—I’ve know four foot-eleven, spinster teachers that have that. 2) Positional authority that comes with our title—the most short-lived card if one is not careful. 3) Intellectual authority—powerful if one can inspire curiosity in the kids. 4) Emotional authority—the ability to control anger, frustration and other negativity in one’s self as well as in others. This is the single most powerful card. I’ve seen too many young teachers and parents acquiesce emotional control to adolescents. The parents in the meeting had ceded control to their son. Their perseverance crumbled under the weight of his obstinacy. This very bright child had convinced his parents that he was incapable of completing simple tasks without their direct supervision every second. He wore down their resistance. They now saw their situation as hopeless.

I wish there were a happy bluegrass ending to this story, but at this point there isn’t. The up note is that most of us parents muddle through child rearing and the kids typically come O.K.. Sometimes I think that if God had actually given us some foresight into what it really takes to raise a child, there wouldn’t be any children born at all.

A serious disclaimer: persons and events are based on composite events over time and do not represents any specific individual.

Posted:  11/6/2011

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