She asked if I had tried taking my son on a walk in the countryside instead.
I was taken aback and didn’t know quite how to respond and blurted out that my wife and I had tried just about everything.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I was leading my son through Harvard Square to serve his parent-supervised community service – picking up trash – for chronic discouraging behavior he’s persisted in despite our countless attempts to convince him otherwise.
I won’t detail just what my 12-year-old has been doing because I don’t want to embarrass him. He’s a good, conscientious, beyond-his-years-wise 12-year-old of whom I’m proud and love, but who also has more maturing to do, which is why he was picking up trash.
He has made no mistake I didn’t make when I was his age, which gives me hope he can make it to the other side like I did, as well as having me cross my fingers, wanting him to benefit from the dumb luck I did until his maturity kicks in.
Frankly, I don’t know if this particular discipline will be the thing that gets through to him. We’ve tried a ton of things. We’ve tried the soft route and the hard route and the parenting-expert approved route and even the more traditional parenting one. We’ve tried calm and rational (and not so calm and rational) talks and explaining clearly why we were concerned about certain behavior, about where it could lead.
This latest attempt sprung from a new parenting approach we began a few weeks ago. It involves purposefully focusing on what our kids are doing well and emphasizing those things more than what they get wrong. Alongside that, though, chronic problems must be addressed as well, which is why we ended up walking up and down sidewalks that morning while my son stuffed trash into a white plastic bag and caught the eye of one particular older woman.
I spied her watching us and could tell she was chomping at the bit to say something. When we neared her, that’s when she asked if I thought this kind of discipline would work, and if I had tried to take him on a walk through the countryside to modify his behavior.
I tried to be polite then slowly felt myself getting angry as I spoke. I think she noticed and cut the conversation short.
“I know you just want the best for him,” she said and walked away.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure why I was getting angry and even told myself she was simply trying to be helpful.
But later, I couldn’t shake the anger, I think, because what she did is the sort of thing that makes parenting so much harder. It is a confusing, inexact science even in the best situations in the most stable households. A technique that reaches one of your kids doesn’t impress the other one. A technique that works at noon is ineffective by 3 p.m. and on Tuesdays for inexplicable reasons.
Prayer works sometimes, but often seems to have no effect. Doing what your parents did to you – or declaring to never do what they did – might work to get homework compliance but not when you are trying to help your kids shape social skills.
Then there are competing and contrasting parenting theories by some of the most learned men and women on the planet, none of which seems to work as smoothly or easily as some of the too-sure-experts make it seem.
As a parent, in your most honest moments, you know your best might not be enough, or come close to it, that there are no guarantees. But you try and try again because you don’t want to fail your children. And you fret about it in your quiet moments – every single day – only to have a strange woman look at you with judgmental eyes and dispense parenting advice not worth the breath she used to convey it.
Parents of young children are acutely aware of this and is why they often feel shell shocked and panicked when one of their kids has a temper tantrum in the middle of Wal-Mart or does something to generate a negative headline in the newspaper or has a cop escort them home, because the judgmental eyes of strangers will burn like fire, even if it is just imagined.
Parenting is hard enough without having to deal with that dreaded reality, particularly coming from people who know neither you nor your children nor what you face. They weren’t there, like you, when your kid took in his first breath or relief flooded his face when he found out you were about to save him from a life of hell by adopting him.
They don’t know about the prayers sent up and the parenting books read and the questions you’ve asked parents who seem to have it all together. They don’t know what you’ve tried or your kids’ temperament or triggers.
They won’t be there 5 minutes after they’ve dispensed their all-too-easy, know-it-all advice before walking out of your lives for good.
But your responsibility to usher your child into adulthood will remain.
And that’s no walk in the park – or countryside.