Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I Don't Care

Any time you take on something new, it takes a while but eventually you develop a certain style or approach to it. This is no less true for something as involved and important as parenting. So ten and a half months into my stint as a dad, I think I've decided what my parenting style is. My parenting style is that I don't care.

Please don't misunderstand. I care deeply about my daughter, and about how I do as her dad. And what I'm about to say I say somewhat jokingly and somewhat for dramatic effect. But what I mean by "I don't care" is that, like much of my approach to the rest of my life, I'm hyper-rational about my performance as a parent. So I don't let "care" enter into what I think is right and wrong to do as a parent.

Let me give you a real-life example. This weekend, I took Jada to the park in the morning. Shortly after we arrived, so did a mom and daughter. This mom was one of those friendly types, the kind I like to call "shiny and happy." The two of them were near the swings, and Jada, who was partaking of her snacks in one hand and her water in another, decided she wanted to swing too. So she ambled toward the swings. I followed, explaining to her that she could snack and she could swing, but she couldn't do both. When she arrived at an open swing, I plopped her in, wrested her snacks and water from her vise-like grip on them, put them away in the stroller, and returned to push her. Of course, as soon as I had taken her snacks and water from her, she began to howl, increasing in volume as I walked them away from her to the stroller, and increasing still more upon my return. While I was returning, Shiny Happy Mom said something comforting to Jada, along the lines of "I'm sure you'll get to your snacks later."

Now, see, this is what I mean by "I don't care." I didn't care at the time that my daughter was crying in front of Shiny Happy Mom. I didn't care that Shiny Happy Mom was being "nicer" to Jada than I was. I didn't even really care that Jada was hopping mad at me. Because I had made up in my mind, as Amy and I have discussed this, that we are going to hold the line on snacking on the run, and make it clear to Jada that when you eat, you do it at the dinner table or on the bench, not on the floor or while you're swinging. And so the fact that Jada was unhappy with me, livid with me, screaming her lungs out at me, wasn't as important to me as that here was one more reinforcement that you don't eat and play at the same time.

Amy's much, much more compassionate than me, but she's good at holding the line, too. Both of us have some professional experience working with kids -- me running a youth entrepreneurship program and she as head nurse at a residential program for troubled girls -- so we understand that the way to love a kid isn't always to be nice to them and isn't usually to be their friend and certainly isn't often about doing stuff that'll make them like you. It's not so much about tough love -- because that's not our style either -- as much as it is being comfortable with doing what's right for a kid at the time and not caving in to doing what's preferred by the kid at the time.

Don't get me wrong -- Jada crying at night because she doesn't think she's ready for bed is still a heart-tugger. We're not totally cold-blooded. (Well, Amy isn't; me, I might be.) But we're finding our style as parents, and part of what's working is not caring. We care about Jada, and we care that she's unhappy; but we don't care about what others think when we're holding the line on something with her, and we don't care about whether or not Jada likes us in that moment.
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