Sunday, August 7, 2011

Parenting Old-School: Did Yesteryear's Parents Get it Right?

By the time I reached sixteen, I came to the conclusion that my mother knew precious little about anything of importance. It seemed to me at the time that her sole purpose in life was to make mine a living nightmare by endlessly displaying to me her total lack of knowledge. She had opinions on everything and felt compelled to share them with me. At sixteen, I decided it was my duty to let this woman know that I was tired of hearing her voice.

I picked my time.  While she was driving down Western Avenue.   I waited until she started on one of her endless tirades one day when we were returning home from my piano lesson.  My time had come and I let her have it. "Mom, let me tell you something," I said with all of the authority of a sixteen-year-old who considered herself a grown-up, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about and you need to just shut up!" There.  It was out.  I figured I was safe because after all she was driving.  I miscalculated.

I remember seeing the back of her right hand as it left the steering wheel, but I couldn't move fast enough to prevent it from hitting me dead in my mouth.  "You hit me!" I screamed, as she calmly returned to driving without uttering a word.  Her eyes focused straight ahead.  The matter was over.  I had no choice but to sit there and endure the indignity.  With one swift move she had put an end to all the righteousness my sixteen-year-old self could muster. She had never done that before, and she never did it again.

Would we call her action child abuse today?  Maybe.  Did it give me a clearer understanding of where I stood in relation to her?  You betcha.

I have to give credit where credit is due. My mom never let me get "bigger" than herself.  She let me be a kid. Maybe I should say she made me be a kid.  Of course, back then I resented her for it.  "She's too overprotective!"  "She doesn't trust me!"  "She doesn't want me to have any fun!"  This is what I told my friends when explaining why I wouldn't be joining them at some event I really wanted to go to.  "I hate my mother!" was a common refrain from me and I'm sure she overheard it on occasion.  (I wouldn't dare say it to her face!)  However, she was more than willing to let me hate her. I see now that, as a parent, she knew she had to make unpopular decisions on my behalf.

Today the lines seemed to be blurred as to who's the parent and who's the child.  And, while today's parents tend to shy away from the heavy-handed (no pun intended) discipline of yesteryear, we do wonder just how many time-outs it's going to take to make our child behave.  And, if we are truthful, many times we wonder just who does have control - the children or the parents?  Is parental authority a thing of the past?

Today in many homes it is the youngsters who dictate everything from what time dinner is served to the family buying habits.  The kids decide which TV programs are watched and what time they'll go to bed.   They eat and drink what they want, decide which clothes they'll wear, and, talk to adults as if they are the lowest forms of life on earth.

All the while, we overwhelmed, harried parents struggle with raising independent, freethinking kids who have some moral fiber.

We patiently listen while our kids come up with ridiculous explanations for their behavior: "I left the milk out last night Mom because I knew we'd use it in the morning."

We support them as they try new activities doomed to failure. "Hey Dad, I've got some new audio tapes and will be fluent in Spanish by next week." 

And, we represent them to teachers, coaches, and other authority figures: "I know he hasn't turned in any homework...but really, he did do it...that must count for something?"

At the same time, we try to teach our children the right things: "Remember to say please and thank-you, always do your best, listen to your teacher, and, by the way, please don't plan a terrorist attack on your school!"  

We strive to be better than our parents at child rearing.  We don't ever want to be accused of acting like our Moms or sounding like our Dads.  Yet in the back of our minds we sometimes wonder: "Did they actually know what they were doing back then?  And, heaven forbid, were they better at parenting than we are?"