Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Parenting Tip for Those Raising Independent Persons

If you are a parent with a goal of raising an independent thinker and a person who acts independently this nugget of wisdom may help you if you haven't figured this out for yourself yet.

No one told me this; it is something I figured out after first doing the wrong thing once, twice and probably three times. Finally I realized the error of my ways and changed my reaction when a child's independent thinking and independent acts go wrong. Each time a new mishap occurs I have to literally take a deep breath and bite my tongue to hold back what wants to come out. I have to purposefully and carefully construct words in my head that are the right reaction to address the situation immediately (as sometimes the issue is urgent). I keep in mind that if I do the wrong thing my actions will not produce the desired result.

After years of trying to raise children to be independent, years of actively parenting yet encouraging each child to grow by learning new skills and using them, years of trying to gently allow for developmentally appropriate responsibilities, when something goes wrong, it is important that we parents react correctly. Wrong reactions can cause a child to fear making mistakes. In the attempt to protect themselves from either their parent's wrath of anger or the emotional defeat felt when a child knows they let down or upset their parent, the child will choose to not act independently or to think for themselves, choosing instead to retreat into a more dependent role and will wait to be told what to do and how to do it. The child can learn to not trust themselves, to not trust that their memory is correct about what they think is the right thing to do, or to not trust that they are capable enough to handle even the simplest task.

What I am talking about are the problems and even the small disasters that can and do happen when parents encourage independent thinking and actions, and when the child makes a mistake due to forgetting a step, or trying to be so independent they don't seek our counsel to double-check if the new thing should also be done the way that other thing is done. It can also happen when a child forgets a step in a process and something goes wrong.

I have found myself angry that my child did something wrong that made something worse or damaged something in their attempt to do something correctly or to fix a problem, but then realized that all they were doing what I wanted them to do, see a problem and fix it, or cause something bad to happen and try to fix it themselves. In those moments my first thought is, "If the child only came to me to tell me what happened I'd have told them the right thing to do". Then I have to remind myself that I don't want my children checking with me on every little decision as I'm trying to raise independent children.

Here are two examples.

Upon giving my children some art markers for Christmas, I saw that these new markers bled through some of our papers so when they use them to please use their drawing boards underneath or scrap paper or anything to protect the table (or whatever surface they were leaning on). The ink is permanent. The second time my eleven year old used the markers he forgot and the ink bled through onto the wooden kitchen table. I have taught my kids to clean their own messes. My children are not punished for accidents.

My son came to me to tell me that it happened and that he used the dish sponge to clean the table. He admitted that it was hard to get off so he used the abrasive side and that did the trick. He showed me the table. The finish on the wood was removed in the process. I bit my tongue. My temper was starting to flare. He permanently damaged the table, well, at least until and if we ever have the table stripped and refinished. I knew this would make my husband go berserk as the one biggest he has an issue with is children damaging furniture or the house itself; he is pretty lenient about every other common child 'mess'.

What I did was show my son the damage the sponge did and told him that I have some special cleaning products that I seldom use but could use (not him) that might have removed the ink without scrubbing the finish off of the wood. I didn't show anger or disappointment in him. I said something to indicate that if simple cleaning measures didn't work he could come to me and ask if I knew of a special cleaning technique that might work.

This month we attended a New York Yankees game, the first time for my children to see a live game. The game ended on a high note with the Yankees coming back from losing for just about the whole game to win in the 9th inning. My kids were so excited and filled with team spirit they begged for a certain Yankees shirt. My husband agreed before seeing the price tag. We gasped when we found out the shirt to fit my older son was $80. We splurged as for years our budget has been super-tight due to employment issues and still today the money pot is not overflowing. My son was so happy about the new shirt that he wore it immediately for the ride home. He wanted to wear it to bed too.

The next day he wore the shirt and apparently spilled spaghetti sauce all down the front. This was a meal he made almost all by himself (I oversaw the turning on and off of the propane range and straining the pasta from the boiling water). I didn’t notice when he spilled the food as I was working at the kitchen counter as he ate and he stealthily ran to change his shirt without saying a word. Because I have my boys doing the laundry, he threw the shirt in the laundry and washed a load immediately, and dried it.

Only afterward did he come to me to show me the two giant stains on the white shirt. I wanted to rant and rave. Thoughts went through my mind, things like my mother said to me that I almost said out loud, things like, “I know we shouldn’t have spent $80 on one shirt, that is a ridiculous price to pay and now you ruined it the first day you wore it. If you were more careful with your food and pulled your chair up close to the table as you should have this may not have spilled all down your shirt”, so forth and so on.

You see I was worrired because the fabric cannot be bleached, so that one simple solution for white fabrics was not an option. Getting the stain out would pose a challenge and I knew I may not succeed at the daunting task. I know that putting a stain through a dryer sometimes sets the stain permanently. I know the stain could have come out if hand washed immediately with soap and cold water and if that didn't fix it, various chemical stain remover pre-wash products we own would have worked. And if it didn't work after one washing, I'd not have dried it but treated it with another product and re-washed it.

I realized that I'd never had a big discussion with my kids about cleaning stains such as simply telling them if a spill occurs to come to me and we'll find the best way to try to prevent it from permanently setting into the fabric. I know I've discussed it and they've watched me deal with a new spill the other times that I've witnessed something happen. In this case I don't know if my son forgot that information or feared showing me the spill (even though I never punish him for spilling food).

What I did was explain to my son the fact that spilled food on fabric needs immediate special treatment that is easy and fast to do and can get the stain out right away. I told him different foods have to be treated in different ways and also different fabrics and different colored fabrics have different treatments that can be used. I asked him to please come to me with any new spill that could stain a fabric and that I'd figure out the best thing to do for that situation and that I'd show him too. I told him that putting stained clothes in a dryer sometimes sets the stain permanently. I then said that I had a few stain treatments we would use to see if we could get it out. He apologized for his error. I was kind and gentle with him. Inside I was pissed but I diffused it by telling myself if I want a child who is learning to think independently and act independently there is a small cost, that along the way some mistakes will be made.

It also helps to remind ourselves at that point that we should be happy our children are actually doing the good things that they did correctly in that process. Not all eleven year old boys I know can cook pasta, heat sauce in a microwave, plate the food themselves, know to wash a piece of clothing immediately, or how to run the washer and clothes dryer. My son does all those things so I should be happy for that and try to focus on all those positives instead of the one mistake caused partially from the fact that I'd not spent a lot of time teaching my kids about pre-wash stain treaments as in the past the few spills that have happened, I've taken the garment from the child and done the work all myself. From now on I will not only tell them what should be done but why and actually have them do the stain treatment (if the cleaning agent is safe for a child to apply).

We will never have perfect children who always do the right thing. We cannot import all our wisdom and knowledge instantly inside of our children's minds. Also, our children are not in the process of becoming little carbon copies of us, some of what we know they will learn too, but they will also do different things and learn things that even we do not know. Learning is a process and along the way mistakes will be made. Many people seem to learn best only after experiencing a mistake, even if they've been told numerous times to do something this way or to not do that thing for some good reason.

If you are like me and want children who are independent thinkers and who try to solve problems all on their own based on what they have been taught and allowed to do, then brace yourself for some negative consequences when mistakes happen along the way. Know and accept that mistakes are inevitable and wrap your mind around the idea that the mistakes may be necessary for optimal learning. Then when a mistake happens, act like the mature and wise adult that you are, take a deep breath, choose your words and actions carefully, and try to cover up or change any negative body language that you may be exhibiting. Save your real thoughts and frustrations to vent to another mother or to your spouse if you need to blow off steam.

And realize that in the large scheme of life the issue is probably so small that it will be forgotten, or if remembered, one day can be looked back upon with a laugh or may even become a story to tell your grandchildren. "See that area on the table with no finish left on it? That was the time when your father was eleven and he tried to clean up a mess he made before I could see it..."

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christinethecurious said...

I had good luck with oxyclean on a dryered tomato stain by the way.

Good for you on the tongue biting - it is more important at his age to know how to cook, the nuances will come.

-Christine in Massachusetts

christinemm said...

Update: this afternoon the stain came out.

Try #1 was with Wisk spray on stain remover which I inherited when my grandmother passed away. It removed 3/4 of the stain but left a faint residue. I used the last of it on this attempt, so when it didn't work, without putting it through the dryer, I tried...

Try #2 was with Spray n Wash's Stain Stick and with one wash cycle it was all gone!


It was funny because when my son took the clothes out of the washer he checked the stain and he yelled to me with such joy (about what I didn't know) then announced that the stain came out! He was glowing with happiness.


After that it was all gone!

S said...

I think you are so right about not making children afraid to make mistakes, especially if they think those mistakes will diminish them in our eyes. I worry sometimes that I have done that in the past; I try very hard not to do it now. You're also right about the need for tongue-biting! Thank you for the post.

jugglingpaynes said...

Good for you for not getting angry about the stain! I have so been there. Recently in fact. ;o) It's always a new expensive shirt, isn't it?

So glad you got the stain out.

Raisingarrows said...

Hello from a fellow COHer!

I actually had to deal with this last night as I discovered a green crayon in the dryer! ACK! It was spread on my husband's dress pants, my capris, and various other articles of clothing, all because my daughter stashed crayons in her pockets and I neglected to check for them...lesson learned...the hard way. Thankfully, with some serious elbow grease, I got most of the stains out. Glad you did too!

I fear I am quick to speak when it comes to such things. I don't know that I ever thought about it being an independence issue. Thanks for the thinking. :)

Dave @ Home School Dad said...

Great Post! Thanks for participating in this week's carnival.

Lady Baker said...

I think it's very important not to over react, but I think being honest about our emotions is important too. "How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" points out how bottling up emotions sets us up for a blow up and isn't being honest with our children. So, I certainly use "I" language. But, when my son ruined a piece of electronics by stuffing three discs into it, I certainly shared that I was "sad" and "upset" and I talked about how it was something important to me and then we sat down together to figure out what to do next. These are certainly opportunities to learn and grow :)