Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Independence, inter-dependence

The blog about my conflicts as a parent. Is what it should be called. Today I am thinking about Little Man's struggle for independence -- or, more accurately, his struggle for its opposite. Mommy, can you put my shoes on? help me in the bathroom? zipper my coat? He's my first and only (so far), and I just don't know what is reasonable to expect. At five, he sometimes strikes me as, I don't know, weirdly done. No, not done, of course, not like he's ready to look for an apartment and get his own checking account. But he needs me for so little now. He can get his own snacks out of the kitchen, pour his own milk, design his own craft projects. He can negotiate with me over rules, he can remember tiny details about animals who live in the rainforest halfway around the world, he corrects me on my spotty understanding of how a steam train works. He knows what he wants to wear, and he reminds me to put on my seatbelt, after having clicked on his own.

But he also wants to be a baby forever. And who doesn't want to be babied? (See my husband during his last cold. Ahem. But, honestly, me too -- when my latest cooking project wasn't going well, did I not want someone to step in and say "Oh don't worry, honey, I'll finish that. You got put your feet up and let me bring you a cup of tea"?) But when Little Man won't fasten his own kid-friendly shoes "because it's hard," (and we're talking velcro, here, people), or won't even try to take care of his own bathroom hygiene, or is reluctant to zipper his own coat, I wonder. The bad part is that I find myself wavering between empathy (I do understand his feelings, after all) and frustration. The thing to do, I begin to understand as I'm writing this, is to express the empathy but without letting him get away with fostering his own dependence. Because it's the emotional part I find compelling; it's not that I don't want him to learn to take care of himself; I just don't want him to feel abandoned.

This morning at preschool, when he said he wanted me to stuff his mittens into his coat sleeve because it's "too hard," and I said, "Honey, it's not that hard," and he said "Because you're a grownup," I could simultaneously see two things: sure it's manipulative, in a way, but it's also true that his world is full of things that he struggles to do and grownups find easy. My refusal to help must seem to him arbitrarily mean at times. Look, it's easy for you and hard for me, why not just do it for me? Right. Reasonable. Except that you won't be a kid forever, and I can't come to college with you to tie your shoes.

I want to do both: wrap my kid up in my arms, making him feel safe and warm forever, cherished and cared for all of his days. And, also: I want to help him grow up to be self-sufficient, stable, clear-visioned adult, not looking to other people to fill up the holes in his own heart. I need to stop indulging his feelings by doing for him, because indulging a feeling isn't the same as honoring it. Instead, I can empathize while also helping him find his way to greater independence. Even if it means he will eventually leave me and go to college, or a mountain in Tibet, or wherever. Because he will do that anyway, and it would be better if he didn't need to ask a dorm advisor or passing yak farmer to zip his coat for him.


i am the diva said...

i never looked at it that way, that kids might find it mean when we don't help them with something that we can clearly do so much easier. hm. food for thought.

daydreamymama said...

I know. I never thought of it either, until I was writing that post. But it's clear he finds it unreasonable, not being a guy who thinks about his own future too much. So maybe I need to learn to just explain why I'd rather he do it for himself. It's hard to remember that, though, in the moment.

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phd in yogurtry said...

It's always hard knowing what is manipulation and what is genuine need. But I will say this, some of the things kids ask for help on they may not be able to physically do on their own. There are lots of individual differences between kids development in the area of fine motor skills (zipping, putting on or tying shoes) and gross motor skills and all sorts of oddity skills in between. So yes, it's always a struggle as a parent to figure out where is the true need and where is the feigned helplessness.