One day while my mother-in-law was helping us organize the new house, I got onto my daughter for dropping food. “Ahh! Be more careful!” I huffed and dabbed the crumbs like they were killer spiders. Yes, I yelled. You do it. I do it. Moms get annoyed at crumbs (and unfinished homework discovered in backpacks at 7:34 AM and bath splashes and muddy boots left in the hallway). It happens. Some moms have managed to cease altogether but the rest of us are mortals. What needs to change, however, is when we get upset, if not how.
While I was furiously dabbing and admonishing my daughter for not being careful, my mother-in-law plainly said to me, “why yell at a kid when they spill something? You’d never talk to an adult like that for an accident.”
Her words stuck me in the side. So true. If a friend of mine came to my house and accidentally dropped a taco on the way to her mouth, I’d offer a napkin, politely wait for her to finish, then clean it up later without incident. (One of my nice white dining chairs survived two toddlerhoods only to be undone by an adult at a baby shower.) If my husband spilled his drink, I’d rush over with a towel and a refill. So why then, didn’t I treat my kids with the same courtesy? Kids. Tiny people. If we want them to take responsibilty for themselves and treat others with compassion, we have to treat them like people who need guidance, not like subhuman pin cushions whose mistakes needed to be rubbed into their noses.
I got in a heap of trouble with some gender-equality activists a few years ago when I questioned male volunteers in the girls’ bathroom at my daughter’s (understaffed) school. Male caregivers with lady babies in their charge wasn’t the problem. That, I could handle and in fact, there was a male teacher in the room I didn’t give a second thought about. The problem was the restroom – the girls’ restroom, a place I thought and still think is a place for female occupants (or female-identified occupants) but certainly not adult men. It took me many hours of thinking and self-criticism to get to the bottom of why men in the girls room sat so wrong with me. It’s because we’d never allow that for adult women. Adult women are afforded privacy, modesty and feelings of safety in ladies’ restrooms – so why did the school think it was okay to breach that cultural norm with my child? Because she was a child?
There are plenty of things children shouldn’t be able to do. Go to bars. Burn rubber. Juggle real estate. I’m not saying small people should be given all rights and responsibilities of adulthood. I don’t even think parents and kids should be friends. I’m the big dog, she is the little dog.
Basic humanity, however, is awarded at birth. If we treat our kids’ accidents the way we’d treat the guests’, they’re going to be better little people. Guest treatment might also go a long way in a marriage and to a self.
I still raise my voice sometimes. I’m a human being and so are you and every other parent who gets exasperated. We’re like our kids in that way. Sometimes we let out noise when words fail us because we’re overwhelmed. The difference is after that conversation with my mother-in-law in the kitchen that day, I stopped getting onto my kids for things I’d never criticize an adult about. Now I get short with them for precisely things I would snip at an adult about because I expect more. Hitting? WE DO NOT HIT. Refusal to go to the bathroom because we’re busy playing so pee comes out on the floor or calling someone stupid? AIN’T COOL. Etcetera.
It’s not that parents have to be robots with perfect, even voices 24/7, it’s that we need to frame our frustrations around different expectations. People will spill things. That’s okay. People will be rude, hurtful and inconsiderate and that’s when we break out the guidance and exasperated sighs. Those are the occasions to dab the proverbial spiders.
Which reminds me, I owe my mother-in-law a phone call. Also, I really hate spiders.
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