Here’s a scenario you would have lived through as a parent:
Your friend has called to invite you over for a meal. “What will the little one eat?” they ask.
“She eats most things, but is particularly fond of spinach, beans and rice. She’s not very fond of meat,” you say.
At dinnertime, when you serve your child the spinach salad, rice and beans, she refuses to touch the food. “I don’t want it. I don’t like it.” Instead, she gorges on the shish kebabs served to the adults as starters.
You’re embarrassed, wondering what your friend thinks of you (you don’t even know what your 4-year old eats!), trying to avoid making eye contact with your friend (you’ve just ruined her appetizer course!).
“Ahem! I don’t know what happened to her! I mean, normally, she wouldn’t touch the kebabs…” you begin to apologize. Somehow, you struggle through the evening, wondering how she could have behaved in such an out-of-character fashion. Of course, you remember to give her a talking-to later on! 🙂
The next time someone asks you what she eats / doesn’t eat, you might remember this incident, and add a disclaimer right away. “Normally she’s fond of…, but on a given day, she might / might not eat anything.”
The same goes for gift ideas. “What would he like for his birthday?” people ask you.
“He loves Spiderman,” you say, “and collects Spidey merchandise and books.”
When it comes time to unwrap the gifts, your son, who forced you to buy 3 almost-identical blue Spiderman t-shirts last week and was bemoaning not having a red one, holds up the red Spidey tee he’s been gifted and says, “I HATE Spiderman tees!”
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to open the gift in front of the gift-giver, this is the time you want to be able to disappear at will. 🙂
Over time, you learn to be slightly less certain about your child’s likes and dislikes – at least in public. But in private, you’re still struggling.
“You LOVE eating boiled eggs – you’ve eaten them every day for years! I keep telling you to try eating an omelet or fried egg, but you never listen. And now you say you won’t eat boiled-egg sandwiches! We’ll be driving for the next 2 hours, and there’s no place to buy any food. This is all there is for lunch. I made it especially for you, because it’s your favorite kind of sandwich…”
Your child sits stony-faced, unmoved by your entreaties. He’s starving, sulky and blaming you for ‘not bringing any decent food along’. 🙂
No prizes for guessing: YOU are what’s wrong.
You treat your child as if he were the alphabet, or a sweater, or a door. Once you know your ABC, you know it forever, and it won’t change – at least, not in English, and not in the foreseeable future. 🙂 Once you buy a sweater and know how to care for it, you just go on caring for it in the way you know how, and it will keep behaving the same way. Once you have a door and know how to operate it, it will just keep opening and closing, bolting and unbolting, locking and unlocking in the same way (until it’s bolt/lock gets stuck – but that’s illness – , or its hinges get rusty – that’s aging).
But your child isn’t any of these things! Your child is a living, evolving being. He’s changing all the time – his body rhythms, ideas, moods, likes and dislikes. Why do you get stuck with thinking of your child one way and one way alone?
You have the luxury of changing your mind – you call it flexibility. But when your child does it, it becomes caprice?
Let’s face facts: you barely know yourself – why kid yourself that you know your child? And why do you want to know your child anyway? But knowing your child is not really the point, is it?
It is not as important to you that you know your child as it is that others should feel that you know your child. Why? So that they think of you as a good parent? Suppose they do think of you as a good parent. So what? And if they think of you as a bad parent; well, so what?
Like I’ve said so often before, it doesn’t really matter what others think of you as a parent (or even otherwise, most of the time, but that is a topic for another post!). Second, what they think of you depends upon how they’re feeling at that time. Lastly, most people are too preoccupied with themselves to really think about you. So your being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is just a dim sideline in someone else’s life.
And you’re twisting yourself into pretzels trying to get the ‘good’ parent tag! Ironic, innit? The only tag you need to think about is the one your child hangs on you, and even that you can happily ignore most of the time! 🙂
It doesn’t make you a better or more loving parent to ‘know’ your child better.
Sometimes, you know your child better than you want to know her (maybe she has a cruel streak, which you avoid acknowledging, even to yourself). At other times, you look at your child and wonder if you know anything at all about the person in front of you. (When your pacifist son gets in a fist fight, gives his friend a bloody nose and comes home thrilled with himself!)
You child just is who he is at that moment. And that is your magic opportunity!
If you can get out of the ‘knowing’-your-child trap, you can keep getting to know your child anew every day! You can enjoy being with the person your child is at that time, rather than trying to locate and have fun with the person she was yesterday, or a week ago, or a decade ago! This is one of the secrets to enjoying a great relationship with your child every day of your lives. 🙂