Monday, January 25, 2010

Old Enough to Know Better

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

I was at the mall the other day and overheard a mother tell her 2-3 year old: "Stop doing that! You're old enough to know better than that!"

I have no idea what the little guy was doing to prompt that maternal outburst, but it caught my attention for a couple of reasons: I have often felt just the exact same way as that other mom; I have actually said this on a very few occasions; it's related to the brain development stuff I've been thinking about since the PD workshop the other day.

Old Enough to Know Better (aka, You Know Better Than That) is one of those common parental phrases that I deliberately set out never to use when I became a Mommy, just like Because I Said So.

Old Enough to Know Better is kind of a silly thing to say to a child when you think about it. It presupposes a number of things, namely a mature brain and that a child's goals are the same as the parent's. It also presupposes that a child cares in some way about "acting his age," as if there is some magical 7 quality that 7 year olds ought to care about, or a 12-ish quality, or a 14-ish quality. It's especially funny when you think about saying this to a child who probably does not yet have any real idea about what age they are, let alone what age they ought to be acting just like!

Here's another reason it's silly--adults don't always follow this advice either. One too many brownies? An extra glass of wine? Staying up way too late when there's a big meeting at work, or three talkative children first thing in the morning? And speaking of work--have you ever seen a grownup human being throw a big ranting fit in a meeting or in front of a client? (I have.) Now we grownups are most definitely Old Enough to Know Better, yet we never admonish each other in this way. Why do we expect children to do things that many adults don't seem to be able to do?

Yes, it's silly--and I've said it. : /

  • Don't you already know how to do that?
  • What were you thinking?
  • You're too old to act like that.

I always correct myself though. Usually with an "I'm sorry. Let me try to say what I mean in a different way. How about 'I have a problem with X. What can we do to solve it?' " In other words, I redirect my focus away from the Child who is Old Enough to Know Better and back toward the problem and problem-solving. Self-redirection. I like that.

When it comes to making mistakes or behaving irrationally, children are not culpable for this behavior in the same way adults are. So as not to be misunderstood--if a child does something outside of a limit, he should be redirected back within the limit, or involved in problem-solving.

But I need to remember that A.) they simply don't have mature brains, B.) they are allowed to explore the limits (aka, "testing")--in fact, it's developmentally normal and necessary, C.) they are separate human beings and often different people have different ideas about when/how/what/where certain things ought to be done.

I'm guilty of wanting to "check off" their accomplishments on a big list in my head. Walking: Check. Talking: Check. Writing Letters: Check. Doing Own Laundry: Check. Potty Training: Check.

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who has found that this list-checking doesn't work. Each of my children as toddlers would amass a large vocabulary all at once--and seem to forget how to climb the stairs or do some other physical activity involving gross motor skills. They'd learn to jump--and suddenly don't have as much to say. They'd be potty-trained--and suddenly feel the need to vie for Mom's attention because of the new baby. They'd show me that they can control their bodies (hitting or shrieking in inappropriate situations)--and suddenly they'd just start hitting out of anger.

And then I'd have to Parent that particular limit All. Over. Again. Sheesh. What a pain! I thought he'd already got control of himself! Why this hitting again? She was using the potty perfectly for months! WTH?

This is where I get caught up in the "He's doing this TO me." trap. I'm so frustrated at having to address this issue again, and I take it personally and become angry and then things like "You're old enough to know better than that!" slip out of my mouth. Then I self-redirect into focusing on problem-solving and/or setting and enforcing limits.

(This self-redirection is really REALLY hard to do when I'm extra tired, or sick, or pregnant, or PMS-ing or crazy busy--in other words, when I'm more focused on something else going on with me. Has anyone else noticed that?)

I work hard to keep in the forefront of my consciousness that I need to expect reasonable things from my kids, in accordance with their development--and that it's normal for kids to test limits and for them to backslide. That is the reality of children, and as such, the reality of parenting. Parenting is a process that must be done over and over and over and over until your brain melts they leave home. It takes a looooooooong time--about 18 years if I understand it correctly. (I think it takes even longer than that for the brain to fully mature--into the early 20s.)

Yes, it's certainly frustrating to have to handle an issue that I've already "checked off." But when I remember that it's my own fault for thinking it could be "checked off" in the first place, then I can handle the situation--well, if not with grace and aplomb, then at least in a better and more constructive frame of mind. In considering this more, the only thing I can come up with that has been safe to mentally "check off" on my list is clothing sizes. I can confidently declare that Morgan will never be a 3T again. I cannot confidently declare that she will use the potty today.

I've often fantasized about a magic pill or spell that would just take care of a certain problem already! Like in Harry Potter: Behavious Instantotem! Alas, magic isn't real. But there are many, many parenting techniques, so that's what I'm left with, and I have yet to discover any parenting technique--punitive or non-punitive--that doesn't require effort and repetition on the part of the parent. I have YEARNED for the perfect thing to say or do that would parent a problem right out of the kid instantly and permanently. Indeed, if someone could invent such a technique, they'd become overnight zillionaires. :o)

But the reality of kids just doesn't make this truly possible. Even for punitive parents, parenting is a long, drawn out, extremely repetitive process. To give a couple of personal examples: my husband and I were punished and hit as children--and we still tested limits and did things we were Old Enough to Know Better than to do. My husband would repeat the same transgressions over and over, knowing he'd be spanked. I was grounded and grounded and grounded--and I still did the same things for which I was grounded, only I became sneakier, so as not to be caught as often. (And being a teenager when this was going on, I usually made sure to accept my groundings with good graces and humility, providing my parents with the illusion that they were getting through to me, all the while thinking about the five other times they didn't know about for which I was not punished. How's that for sneaky?)

To sum up, I think I should focus more on acting my own age (!) and remembering that when I am tempted to say one of my kids is Old Enough to Know Better, that he's actually acting his age. :o)

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