Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Battle-choosing Algorithm

A few days ago, K commented in a discussion following my post about Teddy's prayer that she needed to "work up a battle-choosing algorithm". That lovely turn of phrase has stuck with me, and I have some notions about what battles we choose to engage in with our kids. When some variables are at play, the battle must be fought; others, not so much. Here's a first crack at my list:

Variables that cause me to fight
Safety - Where the safety of my children or other people is involved, the battle is on. This is why we're taught not to run with scissors, put coins in our mouths, cross the street without looking and talk to strangers. If my kids are doing something dangerous, they'll hear about it from me and my wife in a loud way. Paige has this intense way of getting in their faces when the situation demands it that is, ahem, memorable. We live in the city, and our neighborhood has shortish blocks, and we
go for walks/bike rides. Because we started teaching them when they were very young, our boys do not run out in the street. They stop at the corner and wait for us and occasionally look both ways.

Courtesy - I fight for courtesy. This is probably not that unusual among parents (he said, broad brush in hand). If children are not taught to say "please" and "thank you" by their parents, who will teach them? So, our kids do not get a drink or a snack if they whine "I'm thirsty! or shout "Pretzels!" They do those things,
but then we slow them down and make sure they ask appropriately. Some might think we shouldn't let them ask wrong and then immediately ask right and get what they want. That they should have to work on asking right the first time in order to get what they want. What do you think?
These fights extend from the home to the public sphere. I was very impressed a few years ago when Paige knew that our then-five-year-old was going to meet her co-workers. She instructed him on three things: make eye contact, shake hands confidently and say a greeting ("hello" or "how are you" or j
ust answering questions he was asked). And guess what: when she provided a five-year-old with those few instructions, he was capable of following them, and he wowed the group.

Recurring Situations - If an issue comes up that I think is going to come up again, I'm much more prone to fight. This can be a behavior like whining, which can drive a harried parent to drink. It also comes up in chore responsibilities. When Charlie started Kindergarten, we started expecting him to make his bed. For a five-year-old, getting up, getting dressed, making your bed and eating breakfast to be ready for school is quite something. Especially for Charlie because he had been cared for by hi
s grandmother (thanks, once again, Popo!) at our house for much of his pre-K time. They were sometimes getting out to do fun things, but they also hung out close to home many days as well. Anyway, Kindergarten mornings were marked by whichever of us was in charge of get ready duty (we alternated) riding Charlie to make his bed, et. al. Now, in second grade, it's automatic. Well, pretty much.

Variables with which I don't engage
Balanced meals
- We're fans of Penelope Leach's Your Baby and Child. A few simple paragraphs in the Toddler chapter section on Eating and Growing cemented that fandom. First, she states the problem:
"After being bombarded with detailed advice about feeding a baby, parents who seek help at the toddler stage usually find themselves put off by the magical phrase 'a good mixed diet.' When they inquire what such a diet consists of they are told to 'give plent of meat and fish; eggs; cheese; milk and fresh green vegetables....' Realizing that their toddler dislikes and refuses almost every one of those items, they wnder whether their child can be eating properly."
Then she lets us off the hook as long as we're not feeding our kids prepared food crap, which fills the belly but does not supply nutrients.

"A mixed diet is one which contains some of each of a wide variety of foods, eaten in different combinations, every day. Its virtue lies in the fact that a person who eats it will quite certainly get everything his body requires under all circumstances. If what you need is not in one food, it will be in another....So if your child does eat a good mixed diet, you do not have to worry about his meals at all. You need not even try tow ork out what you child needs or is getting because day by day and week by week the two are certain to match up." (emphasis in last sentence added)
In other words, your child's body will cry out for the mix of nutrients that it needs, an
d his tastes for foods will depend on what his body needs at the time. This became clear to us the night that toddler Charlie ate five bowls of black beans. A little protein deficient today, tiger? Leach goes on to say that the balance is different for each person and that figuring out the nutrient content in the servings of fresh foods we make at home is terribly difficult.

That means that at our house, no one sits at the table for hours until the last scrap is eaten. Pretty early on, it becomes the young eater's decision whether he wants to eat dinner or not; the corollary is that only boys who eat dinner get dessert. In the toddler years, the dessert threshold was sometimes lowered to tasting. We currently have a toddler who t
astes nearly everything and a second-grader eating most meals, many with gusto.

My embarrassment vector <> my child's embarrassment vector
- I have a low tolerance for embarrassment. I will have succeeded as a dad if my kids have a higher tolerance for it. So far, so good. These boys are at home in the world and comfortable in their own skin. I don't want to talk them out of that refreshing approach to life. Case in point, when Charlie went to the eye doctor recently, they dilated his eyes. At the end of the appointment, when I told them he didn't have sunglasses with him, they gave him the disposable plastic/paper wraparound geezer model to w
ear. It happened that our house was between the doctor's office and his school (schematic at right). When I asked C if he wanted me to stop at home and get his own sunglasses before dropping him at school, he said "Nah, I'll wear these." So, I let him. He got some ribbing on the bus after school, but was pretty well unfazed. So why should I fight?

This couldn't possibly be a comprehensive list, but it does capture the first several factors that go into my personal battle-choosing algorithm. The other thing that I always bear in mind is that my child's ability to battle resembles fireworks and mine resembles a fire in a fireplace. By that I mean that my children's battle ability and tactics can best be described as spectacular but brief. Mine - while less interesting to watch - will always last longer. I can listen to a boy cries until he's ready to comply. When I can listen no longer, I don't give in; I send him to his room. Not as a punishment, just to cry it out. It's a good reminder to him and to me that I'm the parent. Deep down, kids want to know that.

Thanks again, K, for the stimulating comment.


AzureSong said...

Perhaps this goes without saying, but...

Hitting - battle (you hit, you sit).

Accidents - no battle (e.g., knocking over a full glass of milk. Unless of course they were violating some other rule like throwing a ball in the house.)

K said...

Wow, I feel so special!

Plus, great post. I especially like the fireworks/fireplace analogy. I think that on the whole my husband and I are a little more lenient with our son than we should be. Still, there have been occasions when he appears to be really seriously gearing up for major resistance on a non-negotiable point, and when he sees that I'm simply not going to give in, he backs down in a way that's almost comically sudden.

Marcia said...

Found the link on your Facebook page--I liked this post so much I went to the trouble of creating a Google Account just so I could say so. As a calculus teacher I love the way you quantified the variables. (: As a mom of four, every day I really need to choose carefully what I might fight about each day. One that is more and more going in the not-worth-fighting category is 'are you using your time productively or wasting it'? Yes, I'd like my older kids to use their spare time to compose music or read great classics of literature. However, once their chores are done, as long as safety, courtesy, etc are being respected, life is a lot easier if I let it be their call. My 9 year old has recently discovered with much enthusiasm his dad's "Far Side" Gary Larson anthologies. Glad to hear you and Paige are doing well!

JFo said...


Thanks again for the thoughtful comment that launched this thread.


It may go without saying that hitting is worth a battle and accidents aren't, but it does sometimes take some analysis to figure out that line. And we do require apologies for accidentally hurting someone: "If I stepped on your foot by accident, wouldn't you expect me to say sorry anyway?"


This may be too late to tell you this, but you can comment anonymously or without an account here. I'm flattered that you went to to trouble to create an account to comment.

That's interesting about the productive leisure thing. A few responses: with a 7-year-old being the oldest, we're not at the point where we sweat what he's reading as long as he's reading. It's amazing how engrossed he gets when he finds a book that suits him. He's torn through Encyclopedia Brown and really likes the Bone graphic novels. On the other hand, he's just rejected EB White's Trumpet of the Swan. Oh well.

Secondly, I just talked to a friend who's a campus minister, and she said her college students don't really know how to relax. They feel like their leisure must be productive. That means that they don't just hang out with each other in an open-ended way. She concludes that the big, sad upshot is that they don't know how to live in community with each other. Now, I worked too hard in college, but I also did a fair share of hanging out, and it's shocking and sad to think about college students not doing that. What other stage in life is more conducive to hanging out? This just presents more evidence that not sweating what your kids do with their downtime sounds like the best parenting. I'll keep an eye out for that one in our house.

Hooray for comments!