Jul 12, 2008

How to Be a Great Parent, Like Me

A lot of our parenting styles are rooted in our childhood experiences. As a young girl, I was pretty plain vanilla. I was not too girly, too athletic, or too anything. I was shy, extremely thin, and sometimes confused for a boy, but I was also oblivious and quite happy. I learned early to go with the flow.

See, I was the youngest of three girls, with two older sisters who were talented, pretty, popular, smart -- you name it, they had it! They got great grades, great guys, and they had great hair. I had a bit of a mustache and a unibrow. My best friend was my Winnie the Pooh teddy bear, and sometimes even he distanced himself from me. But who cares? I had spunk!

We grew up in Maryland. All the neighborhood kids gathered at our house to be around my sisters. We played sports, rode bikes, and engaged in spirited games of Mahjong or intriguing discussions about different styles of literature -- typical kid stuff. I excelled at little and was always the last kid chosen when picking for impromptu baseball games, team races, etc. My mother told me it was because I was special, which is what mothers must say when their kid is a dud.

So some thirty years later, when I had kids, I used those experiences of childhood to shape the kind of mother I am today. When my then-first-grader came home from school saying the kids were teasing him for being short, I told him he was special. When he failed the first test of his life in second grade, the dreaded telling-time clock test, I told him not to worry because he was still special. When my kids got hurt, I’d kiss them on the forehead and tell them they were special. All this positive reinforcement following times of trouble and stress has shaped my kids into failures. Now they equate negative outcomes with feeling special. One son just got fired from his first job at the quickie mart, and he's happy as a lark. Another failed the ACTs, and he's still smiling. Oh well, my bad.

My sons are pretty interested in sports, not thwarted by my own disabilities in that arena. I compare myself to Venus and Serena Williams’ dad, who never played tennis, but, like him, I am very instrumental in my sons’ sports successes. (I understand that he compares himself to me, as well.) I teach my boys what I know and then coach from the sidelines, always being supportive. One time in a soccer match, the ball was deflected off my son’s foot and went into his own goal. I cheered, "That's my boy!" proud that he scored. When my kids played baseball and made it around all of the bases, I was the one jumping up and down in the stands yelling “touchdown!” The boys are so humble about their accomplishments that they tell me it’s not necessary for me to come to their sporting events. Isn’t that adorable? What good kids.

We recently were captivated by the Wimbledon finals, so I decided it was time to teach my sons all I know about tennis. That took all of 10 minutes.

We played today, my middle son against my younger son and I (teamed up together). The game was not going well. The middle son, Raphael, was beating us 5 games to 4. The stage seemingly had been set for us to win, but here we were, doing poorly. It didn’t make sense. We were playing on the shady side, while Raphael's good eye was in the sun (he has a temporary eye patch). In addition, Raphael's two-handed backhand wasn't working since his broken left hand was in a cast. And finally, the boy was tired and breathing hard, despite having taken his asthma medication that morning. Yet, here were were, losing!

The score was 40-30, with Raphael preparing to serve to me. Set point. I called a time out, ostensibly to express concern about the hives that had just developed on his hand when he retrieved a ball that had landed in a patch of poison ivy. In truth, I needed to interrupt his winning streak. I realized I had to break him mentally, if nothing else. This I did in the spirit of teaching my child about competition. Above all else, I am a mom first. I recently learned how to talk smack, so I criticized Raphael's looks. I observed out loud that he was having a bad hair day. I asked if he bought his tennis shorts on sale at the grocery store. I tried to think of something else, but I had exhausted my arsenal of put-downs. There was nothing else I could do but play hard. Focus. Focus.

It was an intense moment that played out in slow motion. Raphael tossed the ball high up in the air. He swung hard downward with his Chrissy Everett Junior Pro racket that I gave him for Christmas and released the ball in its fury towards the box. I could see it coming. I positioned myself for the stroke, swung hard, stepping into the ball, and . . . missed it. Ace! Raphael won. My teammate, my younger son, emitted a groan.

Kids take sports a bit too seriously if you ask me. In any case, it just goes to show that you can be a great parent and teacher, like me, even if you were just a mediocre kid. I realize my son won the game, but it was because of me that he developed that ability. So really, it was a win for both of us. I call it a tie.

Before I end, I’d like to thank you for the great outpouring of appreciative mail. Please read some of the wonderful comments I have received by clicking on Comments below. Disregard any negative comments from Jane from NJ, who, I am happy to report, is now back on her medication! Thanks for reading