Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Immersion Test

Sunny and sixties with a westerly breeze of 10-15 knots at the beach: a perfect day to fly a kite. In some recess of my brain I was aware that, if the kids let go, we were going to watch helplessly as the kite sailed for Portugal. Perhaps that is why, when I heard Wallace shrieking "Help! Help!" in panic, I took off downwind before I saw the spool scuttling down the sand. It reached the water's edge before I did, outpacing me into knee-deep surf, but I dove and caught it as it slowed in the waves. Take that, David Hasselhoff.
Lysander has it under control in this one, although I had to run for it on his watch, too.
Loss of a ten dollar kite is not typically the sort of incentive that finds me fully-dressed in fifty-seven degree water, but I knew how devastated my son would be to watch from the beach as the kite cantered away for the distant horizon. Is he likely to learn the hard way to accept loss? Yep, but I want him to know that I will throw myself between him and that heartache if I can; there will be plenty of times when I can't.

Wallace is almost seven. He had his first real haircut just last fall; he went with his Nana on a salon-and-ice cream date. His thick, curly hair had gotten to a length and tangle that irritated him to the point of overcoming his aversion to change or having anyone touch his hair. Plus, he loves chatting with stylists:).
From this
To this!
 For several years, I've been enduring comments and innuendos from family about the inappropriate length of his hair. It's his hair; as I've said many times, if a man isn't in charge of his own hair, what is he in charge of? Backseat parenting is a popular national pastime, and the hair fixation hasn't concerned me overmuch.

Sometimes, though, it would be addressed to him or in his presence, which hurt his feelings and had the potential to damage relationships. (If someone you loved made regular negative comments about your appearance, mightn't you stop feeling so warmly towards them when you reached a stage of your emotional development where you realized you were not obligated to endure belittling and insults?) He feels confident about himself, but no one likes to be henpecked.

On those occasions, I would come to his defense. Whether he has waist-length dreadlocks or a high-and-tight isn't particularly important to me, but protecting him in his choices and self-expression, especially during this period when his sense of self-awareness is developing rapidly, is. Is he likely to have social crises at some point, doubts about his appearance and concern for how others judge him? Most likely, but I want to do everything in my power to build a foundation for his sense of self-worth that will allow him to transcend pettiness in himself and others, and to own his choices.

I could end this post here, but there is one more child I want to tell you about. She had a normal, middle-class upbringing in the benevolent dictatorship of a loving household, with all the usual "gentle" tools of behavior-modification; rewards and time-outs and the like. Her best interests, as defined by the values of her guardians, were the central concern. I guess that sort of approach is intended to produce "well-adjusted" children.

There are some flaws in this strategy, unfortunately. What if the child is developing her own values and priorities, and they don't match exactly? What if she has an innate skepticism of authority and an intuitive compulsion to push to the boundary, and regularly finds herself in situations where authority, invalid and abused, is based on a lack of meaningful alternatives? What if she is made to participate in the ritual public humiliation and social stratification of competitive sports, which she hates, mocked by teachers and classmates for her curiosity and achievements, trapped in classrooms at the mercy of peers whose capacity for cruelty and torment is the stuff of Hollywood screenwriting (where it is often resolved with extravagant fantasies of revenge)? How much energy is wasted in the constant rebuilding and refining of armor against these incursions, rather than in more fulfilling pursuits?

I was fortunate. I finally sought and attracted a community of people that were relentlessly forgiving as I faced my own capacity for cruelty and insecurity, and as I wrestled with my own authority. I have no regrets; had I not had these experiences, I might not have become as sensitive to the work of compassion and love, of forgiving and needing forgiveness, to the true nature of optimism, to the many guises of force.

I recognize that the gift of consciousness can be baffling and burdensome, and that growing is painful at times, but I don't see any reason to make it extra difficult. The best I can do for my kids is to be honest with myself and with them, and try to make space for them to find places in themselves that I can't anticipate. I can learn to meet them where they are, without judgment, and in so doing learn to meet the world the same way. Sometimes that means jumping in unprepared.

The water didn't really feel that cold; it reminded me of surfing.

If you would like to comment on your own coming-of-age challenges, and how they have shaped your choices as an adult, I would love to hear them!