Saturday, November 12, 2005

Control

Isaac, as I've said before, was an incredibly easy baby. He rarely cried, slept all the time, and smiled and cooed at anyone he met. When we went out to eat at restaurants, strangers fawned over him. "What a sweetheart!", they'd say. "Is he always this good?" On his first 2 cross-country flights he cried for maybe a total of 5 minutes. "Brilliant parenting!" exclaimed our Australian twenty-something row-mate upon our arrival. Even our pediatrician routinely commented on what a sweet and happy little guy he was. "He won't be a war-monger, that much I can tell," he said at our 2 month check up in April 2003. "He brings back my faith in the world." Our pediatrician also said things like: "What a wonderful family. You two are great parents. Look how happy he is to have you two."

But you know what? I actually don't take credit for Isaac's behavior in those months. If anything, the months from 8 to, oh, now, have shown me that parenting had very little to do with it. Isaac was a good baby because Isaac was a good baby. Yes, Lance and I were pretty relaxed for new parents, but that's because Isaac was a good baby. Had he been a screamer, I'm sure I would have arrived at the pediatrician's office looking and acting much more harried. (Case in point: When Vivian was 6 weeks old, Isaac got sick and I had to take him in. I had to take them both in because I had no one to watch Vivian, and the appointment, with me trying to corral Isaac so the doctor could look in his ears but still keep Vivian from screaming, was, shall we say, a disaster. Not much encouragement from the doctor that day.)

Now that my kids are getting older, I know that I have more of an impact on their behavior. One of my jobs as a parent is to socialize these two, so they know how to navigate the world properly as adults. However, Isaac is not even three yet. Despite my best parenting intentions, he often behaves poorly in public. He may have a complete melt-down when I don't let him cross the street without holding my hand. He may scream like a banshee if I tell him we are not going to have an otter pop for lunch. He may knock over the salt shaker, drop the knives, spill the water, stare at our neighbors, and get food in his hair when we go out to eat. Vivian's behavior is often worse.

I do not believe this makes me a bad parent. My kids have bad days, I have bad days. Sometimes it works when we go out to eat, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes we don't even get in the door of the mall before we have to turn around and get back in the car because someone has thrown a fit.

A few nights ago, Lance took us all out to eat at Benihana. I love Benihana myself, even though I freely admit the food isn't great. I love the dipping sauces, and I would drink their salad dressing from a glass if they'd let me. Plus, call me immature, unsophisticated--whatever--I like watching the chef. We have only been to Benihana twice in the last 3 years: once when I was 6 months pregnant with Isaac and just beginning to be able to eat without vomiting, and once when Isaac was about 7 months old. This time would be different: 2 toddlers, lots of breakable dishes and hot surfaces.

Isaac and Vivian were complete angels.

They waited patiently for twenty minutes before we were seated. They smiled at the waitress, chef, and our dining partners. They didn't throw any utensils or spill their milk or freak out because there were no hotdogs on the menu. Vivian even ate something--a lot of rice.

Granted, just because the two monsters had lost their mojo for awhile did not mean that Lance and I enjoyed a leisurely meal. Anyone with toddlers knows that going to restaurants with kids is not exactly a relaxing proposition. We still had to keep an eagle eye out so that no one touched the grill, no one knocked over a plate, no one fell backwards from their chair. We had to distract, distract, distract when they began to get bored. Still, a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

"Your kids are so well-behaved," said the mother next to me, whose own 5 year old son was also in angel-mode. Part of it was the environment: there were lots of kids in there that night, and Isaac was mesmerized watching them. Of course the chef entertained us all. But part of it was just the night. The angels smiled on us, and everybody kept their cool.

Of course, we've had plenty other successful nights out, but we've had our share of catastrophes, too. I am quite sure the vast majority of parents can say the same thing.

I do not believe that by "practicing", you can teach your toddlers to be well-behaved in public, all the time. I think some kids are more suited to public places, and some parents are more suited to taking their kids out. Some children, like Isaac, are incredibly headstrong--which, combined with a short attention span, makes dining out difficult to say the least. Some children, like Vivian, are more mellow, less likely to get into trouble. Still others are very shy, or easily over-stimulated. Parents, on the other hand, can be patient or impatient, can deal well with chaos or require more order.

Many people today claim that parents do not discipline their kids enough. Kids run wild and ruin others' rights to a quiet evening. Of course, as a parent, you need to do what you can to "control" your kid. But I don't think the goal should be to have obedient little soldiers who do exactly what they are told, all the time, without question. Children should be allowed to be children, to a certain extent, and parents should be given a little slack. If someone's child is having a melt-down at Starbucks, this does not automatically mean the mother is incompetent or the child is out of control.

I guess what I'm saying is that the way a young child behaves in public is not always, or even usually, a reflection of the parent. Kids will be kids, and I don't feel especially proud of myself on the days that we have a good time out and about. I'm happier, yes, and more relaxed, but I don't kid myself that I had much to do with it. Similarly, when the kids turn into demon children, I don't beat myself up about it.

I just wish nobody else would.

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