He is exactly 4 years and 11 months old, weighs 40 pounds, and is 45 inches tall.
And recently it occurred to me that this tiny little person is the human embodiment of the following major issues in my own life:
- An all-consuming, unconditional love for him, which comes with the resulting all-consuming fear of any danger ever befalling him.
- Coming into my life and changing everything, from big things like my career and relationships to little things like the type of restaurants I go to.
- Expectations that he will always behave perfectly, demonstrate good manners, and perform well academically, because failure to do so would reflect poorly on me as a mother.
- Pressures to feel him the right foods, not expose him to certain chemicals, and not poison him with too much screen-based media.
- A constant questioning of my worth and abilities as a mother, and as a human being overall.
Still, I think too often I fail to see him as a simple kid, rather than the embodiment of all the choices I have ever made in my life, past, present, and future. Like, the other day when he got in trouble at school, I immediately blamed myself. I thought of how much of a failure I was with discipline and sleep schedules and nutrition. I remembered back to my days as a teacher, and recalled that I sucked at discipline then, too. Geez, I have pretty much sucked at every job I've ever had, I thought.
Now, clearly I have some major issues when it comes to being overly critical of myself. But those are my issues, and I shouldn't transfer/project/whatever them onto my child. He is just a little boy, a boy who misbehaves sometimes because he is a child, and human.
So, in an attempt to slightly lessen the number of complexes I'm giving my child, I declared this past week Nathan Appreciation Week.
It is important to note that, while I did want Nathan Appreciation Week to have an overall positive connotation, appreciation isn't always exactly synonymous with liking. I mean, don't get me wrong, of course I like the kid, I mean geez. But I don't like dealing with him 100% of the time, and Nathan Appreciation Week was not about getting to a point where I like dealing with him 100% of the time. After all, there are many things I appreciate that I don't always like: Weight Watchers, spin classes, exercise in general, modern household appliances, antidepressants--just to name a few.
So while part of Nathan Appreciation Week was about showing the boy some love, part of it was just taking some time to slow down and figure out what makes him tick. (I mean, I did that to the best of my abilities. Nobody can figure out why kids do what they do some of the time.)
Oh and also, I didn't tell him about Nathan Appreciation Week, because I figured he would misconstrue the concept of appreciation and throw it back in my face when, say, I was telling him he couldn't stay up later to play a video game. I didn't even tell Bill about Nathan Appreciation Week, or anybody else until now.
A key feature of the week was that I made Nathan a simple little smiley face/sad face chart to take to school so he could get a daily behavior report from his teachers. Each day the teachers had to circle either a smiley face or sad face for two categories: Self-Control and Following Directions. The chart included associated Threats and Bribes (I mean, Consequences and Incentives): a single sad face meant time out and a TV ban for that day, and an entire week of smiley faces meant he would earn a super cool Imaginext dinosaur toy.
Well, the boy's school behavior was stellar all week. And I told him next week he could work toward an Imaginext ninja toy, but after that we have to put away the big guns because I can't afford to be bribing my kid to the tune of $40 a week.
Anyway, I think maybe getting a lot of positive reinforcement about his school behavior put him in an overall good mood at home. I also figured out that his negative school behavior seemed to be tied to sleeping in our bed at night. I usually let him fall asleep in our bed (although this week he went to bed on his own in his own room two whole times), and sometimes I am too tired myself to move him to his own bed and I just let him sleep with us. The family bed is trouble for all involved parties. I think we all get woken up several times a night, and while the adults can kind of keep it under control despite tiredness the next day, Nathan is much grouchier. I have not definitively proven the correlation between sleeping in our bed and negative behavior the following day, but I will say that the only night he slept in our bed was Wednesday, and Thursday was the only day he was completely intolerable to be around.
See, these observations are all part of appreciating him.
I've also observed that what he really wants me to do, more than anything, is pay attention to him. I do think the amount of attention we give our children is yet another one of those tricky balance issues: You want to show you love them, but you want them to be independent, too. Kids should learn to entertain themselves! Oh, but they grow up so fast; spend as much time with them as you can! If you don't read to him/interact with him/do some early academic development activities with him, he won't keep up with his peers on standardized tests! OMG I just want to drink my coffee and look at Facebook in peace!
Anyway, as I said, he really just wants me to play with him. I, on the other hand, consider myself a good mother if I arrange all kinds of fun activities/outings for him. While he's not opposed to fun activities/outings, he really just wants me to stay home and play with him.
So, on Sunday while he was at his class, I bought a book called Science in the Kitchen. (Shannon Ford Rule of Parenting #1: It's always good to throw money at the problem.) Then on Monday after preschool, we did a few experiments from the book. We learned that you can make oil and water mix by putting dishwashing soap in it. (Seriously, I never knew that.)
Then he mixed a bunch of other stuff together and made a big fat mess. But (*clenches teeth*) that's okay because we had fun, and it's all about appreciating him and his interests, right? RIGHT?
Now, there's only so much at-home time I can stand, so I decided to make Tuesday our outing day. At this point I think one "big ticket outing" (term I made up) per week is about what we can handle, and Tuesdays are our emptiest days.
This past Tuesday's outing was to somewhere we'd never been before, an indoor playground called Little Monkey Bizness. The place had always looked interesting to me, but I had shied away from it because it's about 30 minutes away. Instead, I have been choosing closer indoor play destinations, like McDonald's and mall playgrounds. But you should only eat McDonald's occasionally, and the mall usually involves excess spending. Plus, really, Little Monkey Bizness was only about 5 minutes more driving time than the good mall, and when you factor in parking it's probably about a wash.
Also Little Monkey Bizness was really low-key for me (parents can just sit in the coffee bar area and take advantage of free Wi-Fi), the parking was super convenient, and the place was clean and wholesome and didn't involve greasy food and/or the deforestation of the rainforest. Also I consider $6.50 (normally $7.50 but I had a coupon) a really good deal for 3 hours of solid, energy-burning playtime.
Here are some photos:
I think in this one, the boy actually does look like a caged monkey.
This one cracked me up because he was playing with some other kids and yelled, "Get him! He's the one you're after!" I have no idea what media-based entity he learned that from.
Also, the place had an art room. Most of the drawings on that paper are stencil-based.
Wednesday Nathan was buoyed by another good report from school, and then we just hung out and did errands and went to the gym.
As I said, Thursday was a rough day. As I also said, I think maybe he was grouchy because of a rough night's sleep in our bed the previous night. But I also wonder if maybe Thursdays are just rough in general, like because he's just starting to feel the strain of the week. Whatever the reason, I made the decision that Nathan was not suitable to attend library drop-in story hour, although we did have to slog through the rest of the day going to the gym and to Nathan's not-optional-because-it's-too-expensive science class.
Again, sometimes liking and appreciating do not overlap.
On Friday I went to Nathan's preschool to help with their cooking project. We had a little talk in advance about how Just because your mom is there, doesn't mean you can start acting all weird.
Here is what I "appreciated" about Nathan at school:
- He does not like any activity that involves singing or accompanying hand motions.
- He likes to chime in a lot and say "That's not real!" (about events in songs or stories).
- He likes to play alone mostly, but flits in and out of groups during recess, the same as all the other kids.
With candy cane, cookies, and Hershey's Kiss on the side. SUGAR!
After school it was time to go to Target and purchase the hard-earned Behavior Chart Dinosaur. We also got to take advantage of the tiny warm-up in weather and go to the park. Then I made two pies, and Nathan helped me make a tiny individual cherry one just for him.
I should also note that it was on Friday when I realized that I, personally, was starting to lose it. I was so tired of meeting Nathan's near-constant needs that I felt like if I heard the word Mom (stretched out so it's a whiny five syllables: "Mo-o-o-aww-umh"), I was gonna punch a hole through the wall.
And then on Saturday we went to family swim at the gym! I consider family swim to be a near-perfect winter activity. It burns off a lot of energy. It's super exciting to children. It's close-by and doesn't involve any sort of major production. It's free with the price of my gym membership. And the post-swim shower substitutes for a bath that day!
Also, I think maybe family swim might be the perfect combination of the fun outing I want and the constant maternal attention Nathan wants. I have to pay attention to him the whole time, what with him being in water and all.
The hyper-vigilance required for pool-based activities makes it hard to take pictures, but I quickly snapped a couple right at the beginning when nobody else was there and the lifeguard could focus on Nathan.
All in all, I think Nathan Appreciation Week was a really positive experience. It was really good to step back and observe him, and to realize that, when I detatch him from my issues, he's really just being a kid. Every little thing he does, good or bad, may not be as high-stakes as I make it out to be. He's just being a kid.
I realize now that when I was a teacher, I had a hard time accepting kids' misbehavior as kids just being kids, too. Every kid who misbehaved was another poor reflection on me, and was likely to get me in trouble with the parents and/or the principal, not to mention a major setback in my efforts to get them to perform well on The Test. I wasn't conditioned to see kids as just being kids, with individual moods and personality quirks. I needed them to behave, all of them, at all times.
I'd like to think that now that I'm a parent and I'm just responsible for one child, I'd be able to step back and get to know that child more on an individual level. And while of course I do think I know that kid pretty well, I still think there's a lot of pressure to get every kid to meet the same benchmarks and milestones at the same time.
And it would be fun to say I'm going to go all rogue and ignore societal expectations, to just say my kid will get there when he gets there, but I also believe we have to conform to the norms and expectations of the particular place and time in which we live. If the local public school system says he should be meeting Benchmarks X, Y, and Z at such-and-such a point in time, I will worry if and when he is not.
Still, I do think it's important to take a step back sometimes and re-examine the way I think. It's good to slow down and observe, and appreciate, my kid. I'll never be able to observe him completely objectively, but I think Nathan Appreciation Week helped me curtail my subjectivity at least to the point that every reaction I have to his behavior is not filtered through all my own weird emotional issues. And I think that small step is something to appreciate.