Becoming a Stricter Parent

On one of the first days of Middle School, my twin daughters did not return home. It was 5 pm. Then 6 pm. My attitude moved from mildly worried to wildly apoplectic.

I walked over to their school, wondering if they’d stayed after drama class for some show in the auditorium. The police officer at the front desk (yes, NYC public schools have cops at the entrance) told me that all the school kids were gone from the building.

It started to rain. I walked down Amsterdam Avenue peering into the Jewish Community Center, wondering if they’d stopped in the café there.

I called home. My son told me they hadn’t come home yet. My phone rang. It was the pastor from Rutgers Church. I do not remember why he called.

But I blurted out, “My girls are missing. I can’t talk. I have to find them. I’m sure they’re fine.”

“Strict yet loving,” he told me. “As a parent, you must be strict yet loving.” I loved that. I especially loved how he said it – with his Czechoslavakian accent.

I have the loving part down. The strict part? Not so much.

My phone sang. My son reported that the girls had wandered into the apartment, unaware that they were late. The girls had stopped at Cosi’s café with a new girlfriend, keeping her company until her mother came to pick her up.

I got them on the phone, “Thank God you’re safe. But you are not to stop anywhere but home after school. For any reason.  Without asking me. Got that?” They agreed.  “Okay, I’m stopping in at the JCC for the support group. I need it. You kids make me crazy.”

I aim for “strict, yet loving,” yet actually deliver “make you feel guilty yet loving.”

***

This post is partly a response to my previous post — about how I feel sorry for my kids so I let them off the hook in terms of chores. And then I feel resentful and exhausted because no one but me does any damn housework. i.e., just yesterday, I worked all day, hosted the kids at the cafeteria for lunch, then came home and worked all night, including packing their stuff for today’s 7-hour train ride to the Adirondacks. (Fun! http://mybeautifulnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/trains-are-better-than-planes/ ) Then last night at 11 pm, they wanted to wrestle on my bed, where I had finally settled in for ten minutes of Me Time with a book.

“I’m sorry I’m done for the day, my friend,” I told my littlest darling. “You are too. Go to bed.”

I suck at setting boundaries.

That reminds me — I have gotten into some conversations after that post on making my kids do more housework. I know I have to make them work harder around the house. It is not easy for me. I have to try. I have to be strict yet loving.

A Generation of Disconnected Kids

As I was leaving work tonite, I grabbed a book from my bookshelf to read on the bus ride home. I found these notes I had written about a year ago:

I give my kids what I wish I had when I was growing up — braces, nice sneakers, designer clothes. When one of my darlings walks by me and I’m reading the paper, I drop it, I snatch them close. I hug and kiss them.

If there’s a bagel that needs cutting, let me do it. I’d rather risk injury.

I feel sorry for them. Their dad is kind of sick. Their mom works a lot. But hey, wait! That’s me! I don’t think I should feel sorry for them. Why AM I the only one who sets the table and pours the milk into the cereal bowls?

I’m so tired that it’s easier for me to do what needs to be done than have them step up to the plate. I allow them to be dependent. They need to be more responsible.

Somewhere I got the idea that childhood should be soft and warm and adulthood hard and cold. It is wearying. I am getting tired.

The book that prompted these thoughts, where I found my handwritten notes, is Madeline Levine’s “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.”

Here are some quotes near my notes: “Both intrusion and overinvolvement prevent the development of the kinds of skills that children need to be successful: the ability to be a self-starter, the willingness to engage in trial-and-error learning, the ability to delay gratification… Warmth often slides into unhealthy dependency when we turn to our children for the loving connections missing in our adult relationships.”

Wow.

I think my kids are connected, happy and have aspirations towards responsibilty. But I have to nurture them and, at times, correct them.

If I give them warmth, which they need, it doesn’t mean I am sliding into unhealthy dependency. Nor does firm guidance mean I am lacking in love or warmth.

One startling premise of the book is that children of wealthy families are unhappier than children in poor families. Tough circumstances force family members to lean on one another, eat meals together and bond.

This book was a book club pick, although I never finished it and missed the discussion. Still, the premise bears discussing. Just today at work, my friend D. and I were talking about how difficult — and necessary — it is to let kids know your expectations of them. This helps them claim and feel proud of the ways that they have acted responsibly.

There is a happy and healthy middle ground between being your kid’s best friend and being the bad guy. I am finding that middle ground.