Saturday, July 18, 2015

Small Kindnesses

I stayed home sick from high school one day.  I hated high school, and regularly took advantage of my father's liberal policy toward "mental health days," but this time I was really, really sick.  Strep throat, if I remember right.  When my dad got home from work that afternoon, I was bundled up in an enormous sleeping bag, napping in the sun on the back porch (this was Northeastern Ohio, remember, so sun was a rarity worth soaking up).  I was miserable.  Groggy. Grumpy. And my dad kept trying to cajole me into a better mood--which, if you think about it, generally only makes the grumpy grumpier.

He kept telling me to get up and come with him, that there was something I needed to see.  I kept telling him I was too sick to move anywhere.  Eventually, he won.  He bundled me into the pickup truck and drove a couple of miles to one of those abandoned natural gas wells that dotted the area.  He rattled down the access road and then stopped.  In front of us was a little pond.  It was entirely unremarkable, but beautiful, ringed in cattails and yellowing leaves.  Crickets chirped.  Frogs croaked.  And suddenly, out of nowhere, a pair of wild mallards dropped down and gracefully slid across the water.  We watched the wake ripple out behind them in silence.  We listened to the birds singing, hidden in the trees.  

After a while, he turned to me and said, "Feel any better?"

"Yeah," I said, and I didn't even begrudge him that admission.

We drove home.

My dad was the master of this: small kindnesses.  I've tried to propagate this idea with my own kids.  Little gifts, unexpected kindnesses.  

My mother's assessment (or one of them) of my parenting style is: "You're such a soft touch, Erica."

She does not mean it as a compliment, necessarily.

I've noticed recently a trend toward romanticizing the hard-assed stoicism of the parenting of an earlier era.  At least weekly, a meme pops up on my Facebook feed that says something to the effect of, "We got our asses beat for stealing our folks' Pall Malls and we knew better than to mouth off!  'Share' if you're a child of the 70s!" And I wonder if I am the only person of my generation who doesn't think it was, perhaps, not the most enlightened time for parenting, or the healthiest time to be a kid.

My approach to parenting--and before you go taking any advice from me, let me refer you to my children, who will be happy to share with you the long and colorful list of my shortcomings in that department--starts here: There are plenty of people in the world who will try to beat your kid down. Be the one who teaches your child to build him/herself back up.

I believe that treating your kids with kindness, honesty, and respect--the same way you would want to be treated (or wanted to, before someone else convinced you you didn't deserve it)--will help them grow into healthy adults who have enough self-respect not to take bullshit and enough resilience to bounce back when life hands them bullshit anyway.

Sadly, that doesn't make a very good meme.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think raising a child without discipline or consequences is kind. Teaching your kids it's OK to mouth off or steal your Pall Malls isn't doing them any favors.

But life is hard enough on its own.  Life--LIFE ITSELF--will hand your kids enough grief  during their run.  Piling more on doesn't make you a good parent.

My kids, despite my best attempts to the contrary, have suffered plenty of losses.  Their dad & I got divorced. Beloved pets have died.  Grandparents have grown ill.  Trusted friends turned out to be bullies.

So amidst the hard lessons, I try to sprinkle small kindnesses.  A favorite piece of candy, for no reason.  A souvenir when I return from a trip. Scooping the cat box when the cat-owner herself is sweating through finals week. A bracelet I wear just for them.

Stoicism does not make kids strong; it just makes them hard.  Kindness does not make children weak.  It gives them the courage to be strong.

1 comment:

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