Monday, January 23, 2017

How many people can you cram into an SUV, and other lessons I try to teach my children

Being a parent, especially a single parent, is hard.

And I don't really mean the day-to-day part of it. That can be hectic, and often I feel like I'm lurching from task to task in my efforts to keep my children's world (and my own) spinning, and not doing any of it particularly well. But complaining about stuff like that is boring, and for the most part I've got it down. I have a steady job and a roof over my head and I don't worry about keeping the kids fed or clothed or safe - in the grand scheme of things, my life is easy.

But I worry about making sure they grow up to be good people.

Different parents have different approaches to this. The kids' dad is more of a disciplinarian than I am - the rules at his house are very strict. There are bright lines drawn and time-outs meted out for crossing them. And I don't have a problem with that. The kids bristle at it sometimes, but there are worse things in the world than learning how to follow certain rules.

But that kind of regimentation has never been my style. It's not how I was raised, and as a result, trying to set up a system of tokens or rewards and sticker charts and the like - in addition to being a pain in the ass - feels foreign to me.

Instead, I do what my parents did - I shower them with love and affection and hugs and kisses and snuggles, while maintaining certain baseline expectations for behavior and rules pertaining to safety and manners and decency. Some of it is practical in nature - brush your teeth, wash your body, flush the toilet, put your clothes in the laundry hamper, put your shoes in the shoe basket, put your dishes in the dishwasher, wear your seatbelt, don't juggle knives - but most of it is big-picture stuff that boils down to "don't be an asshole."

I firmly believe that if everyone adopted that as their mantra, the world would be a great place.

I talk to the kids a great deal about kindness. I tell them all the time that I want them to be smart and accomplished and to get good grades and be good at sports and all of that, but what I want more than anything for them is to be kind. To have benevolent, generous instincts towards other people. They have it drilled into their heads that there is nothing they could do to upset me more than to be a bully. I talk to them about the importance of sticking up for kids who are being picked on, or who might not be able to defend themselves.  I've even done role-playing exercises with them, practicing how to respond to people who are picking on them or someone else.

And when they are bickering, my admonishment is two parts "quit fighting over dumb stuff" and one part "be kind to each other." In the moment, they usually keep fighting over stupid shit, like whose head is taking up too much room on the center armrest/cupholder in the back seat of the car when they're trying to grab some extra sleep as we drive to the mountains at the crack of dawn.

"Josie, quit moving your head so it bumps against mine!"




"Guys, why are you fighting about this? Switch positions so your heads aren't touching! And be kind to each other - you're both tired, try to recognize that and be gentle with each other!"

Eventually they settle down. And it doesn't feel like it right then, but my hope is that some of the "be kind" message sinks in, bit by bit.

And I think it does. I was talking to Zeke's teacher last week, and she was telling me that there is a child with a disability in their class and that Zeke is incredibly sweet to him - he always offers to help the boy out and makes an effort to include him in class discussions and activities. Similarly, Josie is jokingly referred to as "Mama Jo" by her teacher, because of her maternal way of trying to take care of her friends.

Hearing this makes me proud, and gratified that maybe I'm doing an OK job.

We've had lots of conversations about kindness and respect and tolerance in the aftermath of the election. And Zeke's class is learning about the civil rights movement, so we've talked about racism and equality and the politics of both. When I told them that we were going to participate in the women's march in Denver, they were excited but unsure of what it was all about.

"What does Trump do that's bad against women?" Zeke asked.

"Well, he has a history of not respecting women, and many of the things that he wants to do as president aren't good for women."

He burst into tears.

"Honey, why are you crying?!"

"I don't want bad things to happen to you because you're a woman!" he wailed.

He really is a big marshmallow.

I assured him that I would be fine, but that we needed to speak out to protect not only the rights of women, but the rights of everyone to be themselves, no matter what color or religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation. He and Josie were on board.

We made our signs. I knitted pussy hats for everyone. We met up with some other families from the neighborhood and headed to the march, along with nearly 200,000 other like-minded folks. When the buses were so packed that they wouldn't even stop to pick us up, and the Uber rates were through the roof because of the demand, we loaded everyone into an SUV and drove downtown, taking care to keep the windows up so as not to attract attention from the police.

All the kids were adorable with their signs. We explained to them that in marching for equality and freedom, we were participating in a sacred American tradition - that we are fortunate to say what we believe, even if it means criticizing the president. My kids were a little bit cold, which made them grumpy, but I think they appreciated the experience.

When, after marching for about an hour, we went to the library to get out of the chill, Josie said she wanted to check out books about American history. I considered it a win.

Cold, grumpy Josie

My hope is that if I'm doing anything right as a parent, it's teaching them about kindness and decency and tolerance and sticking up for what's right.

And also that if you're in a jam, need to get a group of people downtown, and have a big SUV with a third row in the back, you can fit 13 people in there, no problem.

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