I read an article recently about moms in the 1970s, and how their solution to planning playdates and scheduling their kids was to throw us all outside, lock the door, and drink a case of Tab. It reminded me of a scene in David Sedaris’s book Me Talk Pretty One Day*, where on a cold winter night his mom sends him and his siblings out into the snow, locks the door, and as they run around the house peering in the windows they see her on the couch calmly sipping a cocktail. In another scene, he describes how when they were in trouble in elementary school, their teacher would actually visit the house to talk with his mother. When his mom answered the door, she took one look at the teacher and said, “You look like I need a drink.”
I read Me Talk Pretty One Day years before the boys were born. It was one of the few books I’ve read where I really did laugh out loud at length. Sedaris portrays his mother as a no baloney, tough love parent who always seems to be bracing herself for what’s coming next. And, while the stories are hilarious, they are a stark contrast to typical parenting today. The article about the mom drinking Tab said that parenting has become too precious, and continued with the usual commentary that our kids are over-scheduled, we plan too much of their lives, and they’re going to grow up without any knowledge of how to fend for themselves.
I think I fall somewhere in the middle as a parent. I have on occasion thrown the boys outside and told them to run 25 laps around the yard, or a few laps around the block to work off some of their energy and keep from destroying the one decent lamp we have left. But I’ve also fallen into the trap of doing too much for them because it’s easier and faster and for crying out loud, we need to get out the door before the day is over.
Those are the extremes. I struggle more with things in the middle. When one of the boys asks me a question, if I’m in the middle of something else my instinct is to answer it, instead of turning it back and asking them what they think the answer is first. As they get older, and we have set routines, I have to constantly remind myself that they’re capable of doing more for themselves. The trouble is we get used to doing things a certain way, and to ask them to do something would mean changing up the routine… and that would take longer.
All of this came to a head a few days after Christmas, when I was trying to bake the cookies I’d run out of time to make before the big day, and we were packing up to go away for New Year’s. The boys received iPad minis for Christmas (from Santa, and a screen time story for another day), and the older boy was trying to transfer his Clash of Clans village from my old iPod to his new device. To his credit, he had googled how to do this, and made a brief attempt before asking us. My husband was in the dining room on a quick break, so CEO asked him first. He spent a minute listening to the situation, then said figure it out or start over, and he went back to work.
Next CEO came into the kitchen. I stopped what I was doing, started to focus on the layers of his problem, and then snapped. I had no idea what he was talking about, and to figure it out would take an hour I didn’t have. But, his frustration was nearing panic. What if it couldn’t be fixed?
And then I remembered the Christmas when I was 11. My sister and I had been introduced to word processing and coding in Basic through a program at school, and had been begging our parents for months for a computer and word processing software (Bank Street Writer) like the ones we were using, if only because it would make typing so much easier. What we got was a Commodore 64, a computer I had never heard of, with a completely different word processing software- Paperclip.
Once it was out of the box, my dad- who was working on a Masters thesis- handed me the user manual and said, “Here. Figure this out. And then write out all the commands I’ll need to turn it on and write papers.”
I didn’t explain this quite so nicely to the older boy. It came out more like, “Did you know that when I was your age, we got a new computer, and I had to figure the whole thing out by reading something called a User Manual, and then write out all of the instructions for Grampa? And we didn’t have Google or the Internet or anything else to figure out how to troubleshoot. I think you can figure this out yourself!”
“They have to have some kind of customer support. Contact them and ask.”
And, he did. I was impressed. He wrote a message explaining exactly what had happened, and why he was having trouble transferring the account. A few hours later customer support replied, and he was elated. They had a solution, but he would have to follow a number of steps to make it work… and when the message itself confused him, he wrote out each step it listed so it made more sense. We only had to help him with one part (finding an original receipt, taking a screen shot of it, and including it in the reply- my technical challenge of the month), and then, after another day and several messages back and forth, he was up and running on the iPad.
I was relieved, and suddenly saw from my dad’s perspective why he had put it on me to figure out the computer (and the VCR. And the microwave. And anything else with a poorly translated instruction manual). Going through the steps of figuring out new technology is a time consuming drag, unless you really love figuring out new technology. Today, kids do have it easier with instant answers at their fingertips, but they still need to be able to think through multi-step challenges themselves. And as parents, we need to figure out how to walk that fine line to guide them without completely solving the problem.
With all of the technology and interconnectedness and overscheduling of activities we face, sending them outside saying, “Go play!” can only be a solution some of the time. Our kids do need our involvement and basic knowledge of what’s happening in their lives, but we need to remember to step back, bite our tongues, and let them figure things out… even when it’s inconvenient, and hard for us.
If only this parenting thing came with an instruction manual… and a kid to read it for us and write out the basic commands.
*Me Talk Pretty One Day links are Amazon associate links.