With two quasi-grown teenagers and a pre-teen in my house, it’s easy to forget just how hard the early years of parenting were. Granted, if I did not have the ability to forget, not only would two of my kids not have been born, the only remaining one would have been raised by wolves. Or whatever wildlife was readily available. I wasn’t picky in those years.
Most of all, I often forget just how hard it was when my kids were between the ages of two and ten – a time when childhood is all about learning who you are and parenting is all about trying to shape that ever-shifting identity into one destined for greatness, or at the very least, one that does not go on to lead a prison gang.
These are the years that a good friend of mine calls “being in the trenches.”
The parenting trenches are a tough place. They include dinners out where smug, childless couples glare at your screaming three-year old when she no longer wants the plain pasta that you had to special order because she insisted that was the only thing she would eat. They contain judgmental stares from other parents at the pool when your kid is being “that kid” and won’t stop doing cannonballs even when you’ve told them to stop. They involve trips to the grocery store where you sheepishly hand the cashier an open pack of half-eaten cookies and ignore the five-year old smearing crumbs on the conveyor belt. And they definitely involve other parents at the park asking, “Should she be up there?” as your two-year old hangs from the top of the jungle gym – and all you can think is, “YOU try getting her down.”
These are also the years that we are hardest on ourselves. We are plagued by feelings of failure when our kids don’t automatically respond with appropriate social behavior. When we’re in the trenches, we question ourselves constantly. We compare our child’s behavior to other kids’ behavior in a desperate effort to gauge whether we’re doing this whole parenting thing right. We look to our surroundings to determine how our child should behave. And we turn to the “experts” time and again, hoping we’ll find the magic formula that will finally make sense.
Recently, I spent some time with my sisters and their toddlers and got a firsthand reminder of the trenches. During our visit, one of my sisters had a birthday party to attend with her four-year old and 18-month old boys. Before she even made it out of the house, the 18-month old was covered in toilet water because he had thrown his blanket in the toilet bowl, the four-year was chasing the dog, and my sister already looked like she could use a stiff drink. In the meantime, I was staying home with my other sister and her three-year old daughter who had been declared unfit for public interaction and was being forced against her (very strong) will to take a nap.
I’m pretty sure I was the only one not screaming at this point.
When my sister got home from the party, she informed us that her kids had been the only boys at a “Princess Party,” a fact that her older son had responded to by stealing all of the princesses’ tiaras and reducing a room full of little girls to tears. Needless to say, it had been a stressful afternoon, but something important had happened, too.
As she was simultaneously trying to smile at the other moms while pretending there wasn’t a four-year old brandishing a fairy princess wand as a sword in the background, something occurred to her. Here was a four-year old boy whose favorite activities involved anything to do with superhero action figures and/or sports being asked to quietly join in on a princess tea party. Naturally, he was disciplined for taking tiaras and the sword-wand was deemed unacceptable, but she also realized her son’s behavior in that moment was not an indication of his future success in life. He was just being a kid. In a moment, she went from being angry at him to recognizing him for who he was – an active four-year old who was still learning right from wrong.
This realization not only (most likely) saved my nephew’s life, but it also gave my sister a freedom that not many parents experience when they’re in the trenches. It helped her realize, sure, discipline is important and certain behaviors are unacceptable, but kids are kids and it’s not fair to put them in a box they may or may not fit into and expect them to get it right every time.
Sometimes we forget that when a four-year old boy is in a room full of tiaras, the only logical thing to do is collect them, forcibly or otherwise. We forget that the pool is one of the greatest joys of childhood and cannonballs are THE COOLEST. We forget that having to sit in an unfamiliar chair in a restaurant full of strangers is NOT where three-year-olds find their happy place. It is in these moments that kids just want to be kids.
Kids absolutely need need boundaries and discipline. Early childhood is a formative time and what we teach in the early years does determine our kids’ future behaviors. But chances are, your kids aren’t destined for juvie just because they can’t sit through a two-hour movie in a crowded theater or jump in a mud puddle immediately after you told them not to. So, be consistent and firm – but be forgiving of them, and yourself, as well.
The trenches don’t last forever. (SPOILER ALERT: The trenches turn into an abyss in the teen years, but I’ll save that for another day.) You’ll survive it, I promise. But in the meantime, it’s ok for kids to be kids. The best thing we can do for them, and ourselves, is understand their unique needs and personalities – and instead of being angry at them (or ourselves) when they don’t conform to a social space or setting, make adjustments, give them some grace, and most importantly, remember that parenting, just like childhood, is a process.
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