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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Scarred for Life?

Maybe I should stop calling him Number Two.

The wee feller had been getting pretty good about pooping in the potty (well, toilet, really--I don't believe in those little stand-alone potties), occasionally initiating a session, but more often just being amenable to the suggestion, after meals or upon waking. Then, last week he started being less willing, giving ambiguous answers when asked if he needed to go, etc. One day (Wednesday? Thursday?) he told me "no" when I asked, but then a few minutes later I heard him grunt a little. I ran out of the study and rushed him downstairs to the changing table; the contents of his diaper seemed a little scant, so I sat him on the pot to finish the job, put some books within reach and then went to do some laundry. He was quiet, but then called out a few minutes later.

Experienced mothers can surely guess what I saw when I ventured back into the bathroom. His older brother had occasionally gotten some poop on his fingers when playing with himself on the potty, but this kid had done his brother, shall we say, two better. He had apparently reached down and caught his, um, product, and was covered up to his elbows and all over his belly and thighs, with the unused material sitting in a lump on the potty seat between his legs. Naturally I started shrieking in horror, then ran for some baby wipes to start cleaning him up. The noise frightened him enough that he started to cry, then reached for me for comfort. "Don't touch me!!!!" That had to make him feel good.

Anyway, I got the worst bits off, then ran a tub and plopped him in it to get the rest off. Then we had a serious talk about how you should never, ever, touch your poop. He seemed contrite, and comprehending, but then he didn't poop on the potty for a couple of days. Of course then I started wondering if I'd permanently damaged his psyche and given him poop hangups for life. But then he got back on the horse, so to speak, and we seem to be back to the status quo ante.

But what if I had scarred him for life? All those do-you-or-don't-you parenting choices (epidural, breastfeed, co-sleep, immunize, etc.) get so much press, but the things that will really affect the kind of person your child becomes just don't. The way you interact with your child, how you react to the things he or she does, the examples you set of how you use your time and interact with others, those are the things that really matter.

So when I said, in a comment on a post of Adriana's, that we are much stricter about behavioral rules than some other crunchy-ish parents of our acquaintance, I was only partially talking about basic rules like saying please and thank you and not hitting (are there really any parents who don't at least think they're strict about these?). I was also talking about the other things we're really strict about, like getting meals and sleep on a regular schedule. Sure, our kids could probably be more flexible about these things than we typically are, BUT . . . well, here's how I figure:

In my experience, otherwise happy and well-adjusted kids don't much misbehave (whine, purposely do things they know will annoy you, etc.) unless they're either tired or hungry. When they act up/out, you correct/punish them, right? And thus they learn how they should behave.

But if you make sure they get the right amount of sleep and the right amount of food on a regular schedule, they are less likely to misbehave, and you are less likely to have to correct them. And thus you can spend a larger proportion of your interaction time enjoying each other's company, instead of every other thing you say to your kid being some variation of "no." I think the cumulative effect of this practice is hard to overstate. There will always be a need for a bad guy, the mean mom, the stern parent, but by planning ahead and being proactive you can make that person's role as small as possible.

But even this choice, about which I feel quite strongly, can be characterized as a parenting style. Where, though, does parenting style turn into plain old bad parenting? Surely somewhere this side of one instance I recently heard about, in which the hands-off, let-kids-be-kids parents of a little sociopath in training reacted to him stealing from the wallet of a friend's mom during a playdate by giving him his own wallet (I swear I'm not making this up).

I know from plenty of experience, first-hand and otherwise, that much of what kids are is born, not made. Certainly my own two sons have quite different personalities, and my brother's two sons are the proverbial chalk and cheese. But as parents we can and should do what we can to make sure each kid ends up being the best chalk, or the best cheese, he or she can be. Gosh, our job would sure be easier if all kids came out as unformed clay, or blank paper, and all we had to do was follow the simple instructions like in the "draw me" section of the Sunday comics. But the vagaries of genetic recombination being what they are, our approach has to change for each kid. We have to pay attention to their strengths, their faults and weaknesses, and try to bring out the good and minimize the bad all the while without infringing on their free will. It's a tricky process.

So there aren't any one-size-fits-all approaches to parenting, unfortunately. I did read a book several years ago that I found quite helpful, though. In fact, it's time to read it again, and add it to my permanent collection: Building Healthy Minds by Dr. Stanley Greenspan. The subtitle is "The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children," so it really focuses on helping you raise smart, stable kids. I highly recommend it.

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Blogger MWR said...

"back to the status quo ante"

If you use that Columbia Law School lingo around the little dears, you really will scar them for life.

I note that immunization is a public health issue as much or more than it is a parenting issue.

June 26, 2007 at 7:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And sic crusticulum fregit to you too, buddy.

Immunization/not is also an ethics issue, since those who don't rely on everyone else still doing it to keep their kids healthy. One such mom (who I actually rather like, but haven't seen since Number One changed schools) told me she would immunize her kids if they were ever going to travel to the developing world.

June 26, 2007 at 7:41 PM  
Blogger MWR said...

As far as I can tell, the parents without religious issues who don't immunize have an indefensible anti-intellectual streak, misunderstand the cost-benefit analysis and/or are just really peculiar. My suspicion is that they might also have a bit of a siege mentality about the curious, possibly indefensible decision they are making on behalf of their minor children.

I could make an argument that it's a bit of a slap in the face to the memory of all those who have and will die from these now-preventable diseases when affluent Americans elect not to vaccinate, but I have to go now and don't have time to lay it out properly.

June 26, 2007 at 8:33 PM  
Blogger Adriana Velez said...

Oh good, I love poo stories.

Somehow I ended up with a child who never felt compelled to play with his poo. Sure we had a few "floatie" baths, but I never had that, er, hands-on experience. My scientist friend tells me that your own poo is not actually toxic for you, but that there aren't plenty of other reasons not to play with it.

Anyway, bad parenting... I don't know, I keep hearing about it but I don't see much of it, not in Park Slope anyway. Maybe because we live such a large portion of our lives in public in the city we're always on our best behavior. Maybe you have higher standards.

By the way, Jasper has those same pants in navy blue. Love 'em.

June 27, 2007 at 11:27 PM  
Blogger Adriana Velez said...

NOT that there aren't plenty of other reasons not to play with it -- I meant to say.

June 27, 2007 at 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I don't doubt that my standards are pretty high, especially with the pregnant-with-a-girl bitch-maximizing factor. And certainly we all make parenting mistakes (in my case, often making a threat I have no intention of carrying out--sound familiar, anyone?). But monster children aren't all just born that way. And if a child is whiny and bratty when he or she is *not* tired and hungry, most likely it's because that kind of behavior has been rewarded in the past. If it didn't get them what they wanted, they would stop doing it.

June 28, 2007 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Lane said...

That's for damn sure.

I try to avoid empty threats, too, but the other day I asked Jasper "do you want lunch or not?!?" Lucky for us all he didn't call my bluff.

Adriana, not Lane

June 28, 2007 at 6:14 PM  
Blogger Sara McOllie said...

While I don't have children, I have had my own personal childhood experience with this topic that is a favorite story of my mom's to this day. Let's just say that my siblings and I frequently tested our parents in our attempts to discover the exact boundary of appropriate behavior. My parents must have responded appropriately because they didn't have any major problems from us as we entered the teenage years.

July 2, 2007 at 10:56 AM  

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