Our Lives

When parenting, the teacher sometimes becomes the student

February 16, 2013 


Elizabeth McCarthy for "Our Lives" column.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

I like to think that I do a fair job of appearing to be a competent mother. A friend recently told me I am the most confident mother she knows, but I chalked that up to her needing to meet more people.

I probably should give myself more credit than I do, but even though I have four children, I am just learning that parents are not so much responsible for teaching their children as we are forced to learn on the fly. Just when I think I have things sort of figured out, along comes a change or a decision I act upon and react to, and the smoke dissipates and the mirrors tilt, leaving me scrambling to close the curtain before I am exposed as the fraud I suspect I am.

The latest of these changes is that our family recently joined a new church we had been visiting for almost a year. I will leave the theology out of this. I was raised in a church-going family where religion was never discussed because my mother firmly believed that one simply did not discuss religion or politics.

The only time I saw her truly angry (oh, if only my children could say the same about me) was when someone came to our door asking for a moment of her time, and she told him she would be glad to speak with him if he was not pedaling religion. He assured her he was not, but when he pulled the bait-and-switch, she let him have it. For better or worse, I honor her tradition of keeping my beliefs to myself and letting my kids form their own.

And that is the rub. My husband and I have tried to raise independent thinkers. File that under “be careful what you wish for.” Lesson learned No. 1: If you encourage your kids to think for themselves, they will, and they won’t hesitate to tell you about it. My children have preternatural bull-jive detection systems.

I know this because after we stopped attending the church we’d been going to for years and began visiting the new one, my kids were happy with all the “extras.” They loved the children’s programs and suppers, but the actual services were a complete drag.

Tired of the complaining, I put my foot down and told them that they couldn’t attend the fun stuff without going to the services. If you describe one thing as fun, then by default, the other is un-fun, and your little critical thinkers are going to call you out for that. I get away with nothing.

Then there is the question of beliefs. If nothing else, we’ve drilled into our kids’ heads the idea that we must respect what other people think. We’ve encouraged them to listen and learn and make their own decisions. Lesson No. 2 is that I cannot have it both ways.

My oldest daughter and I have detailed conversations while I am brushing out her long, curly hair, which takes a long time and makes us the other’s captive audience. Recently she reminded me that she doesn’t want to cut her hair, and I told her I respect that.

Without missing a beat, she reminded me that I don’t respect that she doesn’t want to go to church. I delved into my internal Parenting Handbook for the On the Spot and said something about how it is my job to expose her to things so she can make decisions about them. I even threw in a bit about her likely changing her mind many times as she got older. Her response? She’s not going to change her mind about her hair. Another teachable moment lost because I went on so long my audience drifted off.

The final lesson in all of this is that I should probably lighten up. A lot.

I could start with finding the humor in accusing my family of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too, when I want the same. I have said for years that the problem with smart kids is that they are smart, and really, I cannot ask them to think for themselves while telling them what to think. I teach plenty of adult learners who missed out on critical thinking skills, but there is no chance my kids will fall through those cracks.

For this whole church thing, I’m either going to have to brush up on my persuasion skills or just let it all unfold and see what happens. I’m inclined to do the latter. Pushing too hard will inevitably result in their pushing back, and that tug of war defeats the whole purpose of a journey toward understanding. To be authentic, their beliefs have to be organic, not imposed.

As for me, I may be finally understanding that I need to revise my internal syllabus for parenting and become a learner.


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