For an essay on going off script there are going to be a lot of pop culture references here. Clearly I have work to do. But let’s start with Daniel Tiger. Daniel Tiger. Shudder. I’ve seen my share of PBS kids shows in the last 7 years. Actually more than my share, I need to work on cutting down TV time. That’s a story for another day. I’ve seen my share and Daniel Tiger is currently holding steady as The Worst drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through. I could go on at great length as to the things I can’t stand about it, number one probably being the cat character who blurts out “meow meow” at the end of every sentence. I feel myself bracing for it whenever she speaks. One of the more important reasons is summed up by Gussy. “I don’t need a show to teach me to do these things.” He’s offended that he’s being talked down to. He’s five mind you and it’s that clear to him the makers of Daniel Tiger are underestimating his intelligence. Unfortunately, our little three year old lady is not offended. She looooves Daniel, so when she gets to pick a show the rest of us must suffer through. It’s my brother in law who put his finger on the other important disagreement I have with this show. The adult characters are completely unnatural. It’s like they are reading a script provided them by the family therapist. “I hear and acknowledge your feelings Daniel, and they are valid. Let’s talk about it.” Their tones of voice are also carefully modulated to receive the Good Parenting seal of approval. Guess what Daniel Tiger, I’m on to you and I’m with my son. I don’t need a show to teach me to do these things.
Daniel Tiger and co., talk shows and sitcoms, blogs, books, experts all these people teaching us how to do what, for the most part, comes naturally. I was reminded of all this recently while reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
Somehow we need to get back to being ourselves, throwing away the script.
We’re all so stressed out trying to be what we’re supposed to be, worried we’ll fall short. No, not just worried, certain that we are falling short, because this ideal is a composite of all possible talents and virtues. In fact some of the qualities are contradictory. Don’t over praise your child. Don’t criticize your child. Ok soooo am I allowed to talk to them at all? This Perfect Parent can’t be real so we all come up short. So what exactly are we supposed to be? What do we really owe our kids? I think it’s pretty simple. We owe them a genuine parent. To break down that genuine one step further I’d say we owe them truth and love.
I’ve read we shouldn’t tell our daughters they are beautiful in case they learn to believe looks are what matters. Nonsense. If their Daddy looks at them and says “You are the most beautiful little girl in the world” all they are learning is that they are the delight of their father. This is a better lesson than hearing their father read out the latest Best Body Image Fortifying quote from Motivational Speaking 101. It’s a genuine feeling that bursts forth from him because he loves his daughters. Don’t tell me they can’t tell the difference.
I’ve heard we shouldn’t praise their work when it’s not very good. But if I’m genuinely thrilled by these guys:
I’m by golly going to say it’s amazing.
I’ve also heard I shouldn’t criticize their work. But if I know they can do better than a stick figure I’m going to say so. Because I believe they deserve my honest opinion. And I’ll certainly criticize their poor behaviour because they deserve to know the truth even when the truth hurts.
So much for anybody telling me what to say to my children. Now for advice on how to say it. I’ll say it my way thanks very much. Because my kids deserve to know ME. My kids deserve the parent they actually have, to be genuine with them, to reveal themselves to them. They don’t want a robot Mom, they want me. Now at the same time sure, I have to temper this openness. When I’m genuinely losing my temper or being irritable for no good reason I need to get control of myself and behave. Again that’s where the love comes in. Still, even this can be done with honesty. “Guys, I’m feeling grouchy today. I need a break. Go play down the hall for a few minutes.” or “Sorry I lost my temper. I need to work on that.” My Mum once comforted me after I yelled at the kids once, that it’s not entirely a bad thing for children to learn that you can only push a grown up so far before they too lose their cool.
As for what to do with my children? Do I have to make gourmet meals for them every day? No. Though some parents might. I owe them nutritious food. Do I owe them a fabulous craft corner? No. Though some parents might. But I probably owe them a box of crayons, some paper and some lessons in doodling. I owe them reading lots of books and having wide ranging discussions on the drive to choir and swimming. I owe them hikes outside and going to look at the little critters they find. I owe them backyard campouts. I owe them music. I owe them family prayer. I think for now at least I owe them home schooling. I owe them these things because these are my talents, my loves, my gifts, my strengths and my blessings. Each parent owes their children a different set of things. Mike owes them afternoons tinkering with tools. He owes them fishing trips and guitar concerts. He owes them math lessons and mind boggling discussions of physics.
Kids can smell a fake. They don’t want to be underestimated and talked down to anymore than we do. What they expect from us is love and honesty. So what do you owe your kids? The best of yourself, whatever that looks like. And sure, they deserve a parent who is always trying to be an even better version of themselves, but they don’t need somebody else’s parent. They deserve a genuine relationship with the one they’ve got.