6.24.2008

The Monster In All Of Us

Kids bring a lot of monster out in a person. Today I'm not talking about the frothing, slowly going insane kind of monster that we sometimes turn into when people won't let us into the turn lane or the kids smear desitin all over everything. I'm talking about the monster kind of parent who just wants everything for their child, and sometimes can't help becoming a mother bear or sometimes can't draw the line or see what is really good for their child over the long run.

A couple weeks ago, David told me about this article and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. For some reason, it just captured my imagination and my sense of irony, and it makes me laugh and cringe.

If you didn't click the link to the article, let me tell you the main story: At a school in Japan, the students were doing a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Except all the parents went toxic and insisted that it wasn't fair that only one person got the lead role. The pressure they put on the teachers and administrators resulted in a show in which all twenty-five students played Snow White. There was no witch, there were no dwarves.

That is what makes me laugh, just picturing that - all twenty-five of them saying the lines together and singing all of Snow White's songs, without a plot whatsoever. Hilarious and ludicrous on several different levels. For one thing, who wants to be Snow White anyway, with her tweedling, "Some day my prince will come" hang-up? And for another, what kind of story do you have when everyone plays the exact same role as everyone else? It's difficult for me to even picture. And yet it has all the makings of an analogy to life. "When everyone is super, no-one will be."

The really interesting thing about it is that the parents who created this situation did it as part of a societal response to years and generations of being submissive to authority. They are rebelling against forced conformity. And yet the conformity they've created with their children on the stage is chilling. Not to mention the entirely false messages that are conveyed to the next generation: "There's only one acceptable role for you...The only way you are going to get that role is if your parents go in and force it to be given to you, because you can't make the cut on your own merit...Love, recognition, success is a zero sum equation: if someone else gets the limelight for a moment, that means there is no limelight for you..." etc.

When David and I were talking about it, we laughed and said that we would be the parents who
would go in and insist that if all the other kids were going to be Snow White, we wanted our kid to be the Wicked Witch. And then we'd just see who was the real star of the show...

Like I said, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind, picturing twenty-five Snow Whites. But then our conversation about wanting our kid to be the Wicked Witch made me start thinking about my own form of monster parenting. It has already reared its ugly head once or twice on the preschool level, as much as I am loathe to admit it.

Let me give a little background: I have a thing about conformity, mostly about popularity and the "in" crowd. I am grown-up enough to admit that it's largely the result of insecurity and failed social attempts when I was younger, but I am also grown-up enough to see that being "all that" among one's peers, especially when young, is not all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, I've seen it be a huge detriment to those of my classmates who were big fish in a little pool in high school and then couldn't ever function as regular (or even small) fish in the world outside little Colorado town.

There are of course exceptions to that rule, but in general, I don't ever want my kids to feel like what they own or what they wear or what they do is necessary to "fit in" with the crowd, that "fitting in" is the most important thing, or that it is who they really are. Lots of things that are "cool" are illicit, dangerous, habit-forming or just plain stupid, so it's better to not feel that being popular is the end-all, be-all of existence. I also think that most things that are "cool" are much like the emperor's new clothes. I want my kids to grow up being individuals who are fully clothed in "the real thing," and who have friends who are true friends.

This is not to say that I don't ache to be accepted or admired or that I don't worry about my kids fitting in and making friends. And it doesn't mean that I'm a rebel or deliberate social misfit, either. (That kind of rebellion against the norm makes me laugh, too, because so many of those kinds of rebels think they are so different, but they end up looking and acting exactly like their "rebel" friends...)

Anyway, I want my kids to think about what they really like and what they really want, and to not be afraid to think it or do it. It took me too long to figure out that I didn't have to follow or comply or agree for people to like and respect me. In fact, I wish I could remember more often that being true to myself and a little bit assertive sometimes makes me a lot more confident than any kudos I might garner from the "in" crowd.

So, having said all that, I have a confession to make about the monster parent in me. It was not a big deal, just a little faux pas, really, but it made me feel like the controlling, overbearing parent that I truly don't want to be. I knew I needed to adjust my anti-conformist scope a bit...

Every week during the school year, Calvin's class had sharing day. Most times, they had to bring something that started with the letter of the week, but other times there were themes. Anyway, "B" week came along and Calvin was insistent on taking a stuffed bear. I don't know why, but that bugged me and I wanted him to be more creative. "Everyone is going to take a bear," I said. "Think of something better." I did. I really said that.

I went through everything I could think of that started with a B that I felt was more interesting and unique than everyone and their bear. Calvin just kept saying, "But I want to take a bear." And I didn't listen. It became this crazy matter of principle to me. Finally, he agreed to take a picture of his brothers for B day.

We pulled into the preschool parking lot and one of the teachers was dressed in a bear costume. I actually thought to myself, "See, everyone thought of bear."

After school, I asked Cal if everyone liked his cute picture and he told me yes and that there were lots of bears at school that day. I felt smug. My boy wasn't like all the other sheep. Yay. I'm such a good, stand-out, be-your-own-person kind of mom.

A couple days later, I was cleaning out the car and found a half-sheet of paper from their school under the back seat: "Remember to bring a bear on B day for our teddy bear picnic!"

I literally had not gotten the memo. I wanted to cry. I had sent my boy in without something his teachers had asked him to bring, and something the whole activity of the day revolved around, something they had talked about and planned all week. I thought of him having to say that his mom didn't want him to bring a bear. Besides being embarrasing, that was so sad to me.

What would it have hurt anyway, even if it hadn't been teddy bear picnic day and he had brought a bear like everyone else? I asked him if he had felt bad that he didn't have a bear for the picnic and he said no, because someone shared theirs with him. Ouch.

He was totally cool with the situation, but I realized I needed to chill. out. It was my own parental form of rebelling against submission and conformity, not entirely unlike the Japanese parents of twenty-five Snow Whites. I realized that my thing doesn't have to be inflicted on my kids. They have a lot of natural curiosity and creativity and individuality and all I need to do is be excited about it and encourage it and love it. I don't need to force it.

By talking him out of what he wanted to do and pressuring him to be different, I was actually forcing him to conform to my thinking instead of what he knew or wanted for himself. And I know if I keep doing that, pretty soon his personal little compass won't work when he needs it to, for more important decisions that I won't be around to make for him. Yikes.

Hopefully I've learned that lesson well enough from a preschool B day that I won't have to learn it more painfully over larger choices later on.

Have you ever recognized a bit of a monster parent in yourself? You know, have you ever been that one who wants your kids to do or be or have a certain thing, or who gets a little out of line in behalf of your kids without realizing that you might be undermining them more than you're empowering them? What did you do? What did you learn?

2 comments:

Liz said...

OUCH. The kind of ouch that cuts to the heart of the matter. This should be in your "best of" collection.

NOBODY said...

I agree with Liz.

And you, UGH. I've done the EXACT SAME THING. Show and tell, preschool, talked Bo out of what I thought was mundane---found the note later that said, "blah blah blah, you're a crappy mom for not letting your kid do what he wants and for not reading every memo. Jerk."

I love the Snow White story. You need to be passing that stuff along. That was hilarious.

Anyway, I think it's REALLY important for kids to do what they want, whether it's fitting in or not. Right now, it will probably be to fit in. But if it's not going to hurt him, we have to swallow our pride and let them. And some kids don't have the personality to not conform, but that doesn't mean their minds are small. Just means that is their comfort level. Bo is a nut about being just like his friend, and Avee will throw down to be able to wear mismatched, two left foot shoes.

Am I preaching? Sorry. I've been thinking along these lines.

As always, love your writing.