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Yes sir, that’s my baby

I was dropping Kiddo off at daycare the other morning, carrying him across the parking lot before setting him down inside the lobby.  As we neared the door I heard another mom say to her child, “Look at the cute baby!”  I glanced around to see who she was talking about, and then realized she meant us.  I smiled and didn’t say anything out loud, but mentally grumbled a bit as we went downstairs to Kiddo’s classroom. Baby??

This kid is no baby.  He’s more than a year and a half old!  He’s walking, he feeds himself (sometimes even using the appropriate utensils!), he can tell us when something’s bothering him although, regrettably, he’s not so good at telling us exactly what that something is.  He plays with cars and stacks blocks.  He colors with crayons and only chews on them some of the time.  He’s lost the baby chubbiness from his cheeks and legs.  He’s even managed to grow some hair.

We have to change some of our habits now, because he’s tall enough to see what’s on the kitchen table or the bathroom counter, and he’s got enough of a reach to grab for the things he sees.  He knows about cell phones and laptops and what Mom and Dad do with them, and if he catches one of us attempting to do work when we should be playing with him, he’ll come over and shut the laptop with a firm “NO NO NO.”

When I pick him up in the morning, I’m not carrying the tiny little bundle who once was small enough to snuggle on my chest.  Instead I’ve got a monkey who wraps his arms and legs around me for a big hug, and hangs on to me as much as I hang on to him.  When we walk to the car in the morning, he asserts his independence by trying to take us through the outside door rather than the one leading to the garage.  Oh, he’s still got his clingy moments, like recently when we went to a friend’s new house for a Superbowl party, but it doesn’t take him long now to get comfortable with being in a new place, surrounded by people neither of us have met yet.

So, nope, this Kiddo isn’t a baby any more.  With all the things that he can do, he’s definitely a little boy now.  Every day it seems like we’re finding something new that he can get into.  The babyproofing we did is no longer adequate; it’s time to rearrange the contents of counters and drawers to move unsafe things to better locations.  He hasn’t started climbing on things just yet, but from what I’ve seen lately, it won’t be long now.  Nothing will be safe unless it’s locked down or stowed away.

I kind of miss the little baby snuggles.  But the little boy snuggles are great too.  And I stand by what I told him that first week when we brought him home: no matter how big he gets… he’ll always be my baby.

Kiddo plays next to the couch

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The penny finally drops

I was standing in line at the grocery store one night recently when Dennis DeYoung’s “Desert Moon” started playing. That album has the dubious honor of being the very first album I ever bought with my own money, at the tender age of 12. I brought it home and popped it in the tape deck of the living room stereo, and then went into the kitchen with my mom and tried to act all nonchalant, oh, we’re just listening to some music that I picked out, no big deal, not going to act like it’s important to me that anyone likes my musical tastes… I don’t remember anymore how my mom actually did react to it–I think I was trying hard not to see her reaction because I didn’t want to know if she disapproved.

For most of my growing-up years, the primary motivator behind my choices was whether Other People would approve of them.  I was a chunky kid with brains, glasses, and braces. I didn’t know how to do my hair or makeup and I had no sense of style.  Junior high girls can be some of the most insecure creatures on this planet, and often the only way we know how to build ourselves up is to pull down others.  We do things that make no sense to adults because we think those actions will make us look cooler to the boys we want to impress and the girls we want to surpass.

In my struggle to not be at the bottom of the social ladder, I had this idea that anything and everything I did during non-school hours was going to get back to the popular kids and give them fodder for talking behind my back.  It wasn’t supposed to be cool to have a close family life, so I tried to push it away.  I scowled in family photos, and I sequestered myself away from my parents and sisters rather than risk someone catching me actually having fun with them.  Heaven forbid!  I’d be ostracized forever.

Yet, at the same time that I wanted my classmates to approve of me, I also wanted my parents to approve of me, and that was a tricky tightrope to walk. I wanted to be the kid who could come home and talk with her mom about what happened in school and what this boy said and what it all meant.  But I always felt awkward doing so, because what if she thought my worries were dumb?  So I damped it down, tried to pretend it was No Big Thing, just something I was casually wondering about.  Even now I sometimes reflexively hold back a bit when talking about my life, because it’s crushing to be told that something you’re passionate about is stupid, or worse, uninteresting.

With the birth of my son, it was as if the lens through which I viewed my childhood was twisted ninety degrees. I gazed adoringly at my tiny newborn, thinking Oh my god, this little boy is less than a day old and I already love him so much that I can’t believe my heart can actually hold all that love.

Followed by Oh my god, THIS is how my mother feels about ME!

And then Oh my god, I was such a little shit!

I used to cringe when I looked back at my younger years because of all the ridiculous things I did. Now I cringe as I look back and realize how I unintentionally hurt people.

When I was in fifth grade, my mom made a maroon blazer for me to wear for school picture day. She bought the pattern and the fabric and stayed up late nights sewing it.  The night before pictures, the blazer wasn’t quite finished when I went to bed, but when I woke up, it was hanging on my bedroom door.  What were my first words?  Not “Yay, Mom, you finshed it, thank you!”  They were  “…but it doesn’t have any buttons on it.”

Someday I’m going to get my own time machine, and one of the first things I’m going to do is jump back to ten-year-old me and smack myself upside the head.

I don’t know where that blazer is now, but I might dig up one of the old school pictures and keep it on my dresser as a reminder.  Because one day, I’ll be on the other side of that conversation.  I’ll be the mom who just wants to make sure that her child is doing OK. He’ll be the one balancing peer approval with parental approval and unthinkingly saying things that hurt my feelings.

We are the product of our accumulated experiences, and if I hadn’t had all the twists and turns that I did, I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I like the person I’ve become, but I wish there was a way I could tell fifth-grade or eighth-grade or eleventh-grade me to worry less about what my classmates thought.  It’s OK to love and be loved by your family.  They’ll keep doing it, even if it’s uncool, so you might as well love them back.


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Good Job: bad parenting?

I’ve seen a handful of articles recently on the perils of praise addiction.  Most of them have been around for a while, but really, before I became a mom I was unaware of all the potential pitfalls of parenting.  But the other day someone tossed out a couple links in an online discussion and it got me thinking about the concept.

If you’re unfamilair with the topic of praise addiction, the idea is that too much praise can have a negative impact on a child’s emotional development, just as too much punishment can.  Over-praising allegedly teaches children to do things primarily because it pleases their parents, rather than because it’s enjoyable for the child.  Heaping praise on a child for simply picking up his blocks grooms him to expect over-the-top accolades, and leads to depression later when he no longer gets mad props for doing everyday tasks.  It may have long-term effects on his self-esteem, the activities he chooses or avoids, and his relationships.  It denies him the chance to evaluate himself and determine his own worthiness.  There’s even a school of thought called Unconditional Parenting that would like us to expunge the phrase “Good job!” from all interactions with our children.

While I’m no praise junkie, I did identify with some of the articles’ descriptions of adult behaviors of over-praised kids.  I frequently mentally measure myself against my friends and co-workers, and feel inadequate when their performance is objectively or subjectively better than mine.  Trying new things is really tough for me–what if I don’t do well?  What if I don’t like it?  Why can’t I just stay right here in my happy safe comfort zone?

These traits and others I know all too well were called out in The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.  The article describes what happened when psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia compared praising fifth-graders for their intelligence to praising them for their efforts.  Turns out, telling a child that she’s “really smart!” sends the message that it’s her IQ that is valued most.  If she’s asked to do a task at which she’s less skilled, she might balk at it, because by not doing well, she reveals a lack of the intelligence that she was lauded for before.

In contrast, praising her for trying hard or putting in good effort sends the message that it’s less important whether she’s good at something; what matters is that she took on the challenge.   The students in Dweck’s study who got props for their efforts took on harder tasks and enjoyed them more, even when they didn’t do well.

Clearly, I’d like to send my own children a better message.  But though it sounds straightforward when presented as a study of hundreds of children, it’s murkier when it’s your own child whom you’re trying not to emotionally mangle.  Right around the time I first read about the Dweck study, my then-infant son learned how to operate a light switch.   He would turn to me with a look of delight and pride–isn’t this great? I do this and the room gets dark!–and seriously, how could I not respond to that?  I was proud of him!  Why shouldn’t I tell him so?   He wasn’t merely learning how to flip a switch, he was learning that he could control elements of his environment, and he was inviting me to share the joy of this discovery.  It just felt right to respond the way I did.

Fortunately, there are parenting experts out there to fit everyone, and the last article I found gave me some hope that I wasn’t completely beyond redemption.   Ruth Peters’ take on it is, Make Praise Appropriate, Not Addictive.  In a nutshell, exercise moderation in doling out praise, and be sure to compliment their efforts as well as their results.  I do wonder, though, whether we might be in danger of swinging too far the other way–of raising a generation where kids feel they should be merited solely for making an effort, even if it doesn’t pan out.  Because in the real world, that’s not what happens. Jobs, raises, and promotions aren’t handed out just because you showed up and took a swipe at it.  The real world rewards Results.  “I tried” may score some points, but “I tried and succeeded” scores more.  Perhaps the key is to teach our children that it’s not just the trying, but rather the trying to do better, that ultimately reaps the benefits.

By now, turning off the lights in the hallway and bedroom is just part of our going-to-bed routine, and flipping a light switch is old hat for my Kiddo.   Now our response is more of an acknowledgement than an accolade.  Now, I’ve got a 15-month-old who just this past weekend got the confidence to let go of the couch and walk across the room on his own.   The look on his face as he free-toddles over to me is almost beyond words.  He’s beaming like this walking business is one of the best things he’s ever stumbled across, and he laughs and throws himself into my lap for a hug.  I can’t help it; the words just tumble out.  “Look at you, walking all the way across the room!” I exclaim, squeezing him tightly.   “You did that without holding on to anything!  GOOD JOB!”