Monday, August 27, 2018

The Parents We Would Have Been

Anyone who has known Eva and I for any length of time, or who has read this blog, knows that we don't have kids, that it wasn't for a lack of trying, and that we went through the nearly two-year long adoption process only to be told at the very end of it that "our house doesn't feel like a house with kids in it".

We were heartbroken, all the more so because we had done so much to ensure we met their requirements. We deliberately moved across the street from a school. We had our home inspected by the same person the agency used. We wanted siblings, which few want, and we wanted older children (4-7 was the range we were looking at), which almost nobody does. We were open to accepting children living with physical limitations, but were upfront about our unwillingness to accept kids living with mental illness, insofar as that could be determined.

It stands as the biggest rejection of our lives, all the more so because we still have no idea what "your house doesn't feel like a house with kids in it" even means, or what the real reason we were rejected was. "Our house doesn't feel like a house with kids in it"? That's because there aren't any kids here yet. I don't recall anyone telling us, at the beginning of this process oh so many moons ago, that we had to have kids to have kids.
Our parenting skills, our honesty, and a myriad of other personality traits were all praised to the high heavens for ten or fifteen minutes before he dropped that bomb on us. I had no response. Absolutely none.

I always wonder, when I tell this story, what people are really thinking, just like I wonder what Tom the Social Worker was thinking when, instead of children to enrich our lives, he gave us this story to tell. We must be monsters, I think. I wonder what kind of monsters people imagine we are.

Nobody has suggested we are monsters. On the contrary, I've heard dozens of stories involving Child and Family Services, every one of which casts THEM as monsters. I'm thoroughly convinced at this point that CAS has little to no idea of how to raise children, which is odd, since they pass themselves off as experts at it.

There were a couple of reasons to reject us, reasons besides the fact we didn't have kids already. I wouldn't have agreed with either of them, but the least Tom could have done was advance one or more of them:

Both Eva and I were corporeally punished (i.e., spanked) as children, and we made the colossal error in class of stating that we would use physical force on our children as an absolute last resort...if they were in danger and a swat would get their attention, or if they were beating each other or us. This was completely unacceptable and we were made to understand (or pretend we understood) it.

I'm consistently and strongly against hitting children. I scoff every time a parent defends the right to strike their child by saying "kids these days have no idea what consequences are". Wow...can we try to imagine some other ways we might discipline a child besides striking them? This isn't rocket surgery, and the fact so many parents immediately go for the belt or the fist or whatever really frightens me.
Bad parenting it definitely is, and in certain extremely limited circumstances it can be necessary parenting. They were trying to tell us that -- I am not making this up -- if one child was using a weapon against the other, or against us, we were forbidden to  physically  touch them. Riiiiiight.

Here's another reason we might have been rejected: both Eva and I come from the school of Tough Love. Eva has a doctorate from that school: it's given her more self-reliance and resilience than anyone I know. I only have a high school diploma, but the general principles are ones I understand and embrace. You are a parent. You are not the child's "friend". The child does not run your house, you and your co-parent do.

This, too, was problematic. We were given the following scenario during the classroom segment of the adoption process:

You are at work, and your child is on a field trip to Toronto (a little more than an hour east of us). You get a call from the teacher: your child has forgotten your lunch. What do you do?

Well, I remember Eva saying the first thing she would do is wonder why the teacher was calling her for something so stupid and easily solved. There were so many solutions near to hand, after all: cadge off classmates, borrow some money off the teacher, go without...

You could hear the gasp. GO WITHOUT?

No, no, NO...the ONLY acceptable answer is to get off your ass and deliver a lunch to your child.

I was flabbergasted and still am. Never mind that by the time you get to your child, lunchtime has long passed. The reason I'm flabbergasted is because that exact situation happened to me in, I think it would have been 1979.

I forgot my lunch. I had no friends to cadge off of, and I had too much shame to approach a teacher about it, and so I went without. It didn't kill me. And I never forgot my lunch again. Lots of other things, but never my lunch.

So many parents micromanage their children now, ensuring against every last possible source of failure or injury. Good intentions, meet the road to hell.

I've been over and over the epidemic of driving your kid to school. I was walking to school in grade four--it was exactly one mile each way--and I would have been doing it earlier but the school board wouldn't allow it. NOTHING HAS CHANGED since 1981. There were child molesters back then, too. There were bad drivers, there was rain and snow and ice and whatever else, and you learned to pay attention, know where the Block Parent houses were (is that even a thing anymore?)  and remember Stranger Danger.

But there's something even odder to me: waking your kid up for school.
I do not understand this. This is not a parent's job. This job belongs to an alarm clock. Does your child know how to tell time? Does he know how to set an alarm? And most importantly, does he understand the consequences of missing school? Good, you've done all you should. If your kid then decides he's going to ignore his alarm clock and sleep all through Wednesday morning, the consequences are his to endure and hopefully learn from.

This sounds so harsh to the modern ear, almost draconian, and to me it exemplifies my philosophy of parenting: firm, understood boundaries enclosing as wide an area as possible, including -- and this is as vital as it is forgotten -- the ability to fuck up.

Nobody learns much of any value from success unless failure precedes it, is my view.

A note on tenses. From here on out I'll be writing in the conditional..."our children would get" rather than the conditional perfect, "our children would have gotten". This is not because we still might have kids. It's just bloody easier to write.

Here's something even harsher. The child may believe her possessions are hers. Bzzzzt. We'd reserve the right to treat everything under our roof as ours.
This is not a right I would exercise often, or possibly at all. But if she wilfully destroyed something special of ours, I wouldn't hesitate to at least confiscate something of "hers".  But what if she bought it with her own money from a paying job? Yeah, that's how I buy my stuff, too.

Likewise, my child's right to privacy in his bedroom would be absolute...unless he had violated someone else's right to privacy or personal space  in some critical way, in which case he could expect to see his bedroom door removed for a while, among other things.

So these are all "shit hit the fan" scenarios. I can tell you some things (I hope) you find more positive.

Our children would get a thorough and comprehensive grounding in empathy by default, since Eva and I are both empathetic. Eva's approach to empathy is centred equally in reason and emotion, whereas mine is pure gut instinct. At every step, they'd've been asked to consider others, and the effect of their actions on others.
They'd be encouraged to share their feelings, including any concerns they had with how we behaved. We would likewise share ours.

All of this would be done within a context of, not "right" and "wrong",  but "what works" and "what doesn't", given the child's stated goals and intentions.

We would probe their dreams and aptitudes and support both in every way we could. Dreams can turn into realities, we would tell them, with focus and applied effort and enthusiasm.

I would sing. Little ditties. I would have an inexhaustible fount of Dad jokes. Eva would perpetuate "long cons"--parents, I'm sure you know what I mean here. We both would read to our kids--right up to the climax of the story, at which point we'd have to go off and iron the dishes or vacuum the cat. Ya gotta MAKE 'em wanna learn to read.

And we'd grow with them. That would be the part I'd most enjoy.

I've thought long and hard about some of the common parental questions. Before I give my answers to them, I'd like to stress that Eva and I would present a united front to our children at all times, which means I might yield to her ideas or she to mine, but they'd never be argued anywhere the children could hear us. I've seen too many cases of Bad Dad, Good Mom or vice-versa.

ALLOWANCES. I never had one, and I've come to believe that was a huge mistake on my parents' part. Their theory was a child shouldn't be paid for doing tasks around the house. Adults aren't...why should kids be? I'm very sympathetic to that, but at the same time, I believe they went too far the other way. I never saw my own money. It was all socked away for school: in the meantime, if I wanted something and could make a case for it, I'd get it. It wasn't exactly a lack of trust, just a "parents know best" attitude...and the upshot of it was that I had no idea how to handle money when it came time to.

Eva, meanwhile, was charged room and board starting when she got her first job. Trust me: her financial planning is exceptional.

I read something just recently I really like, about a mother who charged her kid "rent" as part of his allowance, starting at four years old. Not just rent, but also food and water. Here's how she worked that: she gave the child seven dollars a week in allowance, but then explained that grownups don't get to keep most of the money they get, and what four year old doesn't want to be a grownup? So she'd make him give her back $2 a week for shelter, $1 for food, and $1 for water, and the child got to keep the $3 left over, to save or spend as he wished. Obviously those numbers could be tweaked for age and preferences. I'd like to add in a dollar or two for charity somewhere. The kicker, of course, was that the "rent" and "food and water" money actually went into an account for the child's education...and he never knew that until he graduated high school.  Freaking brilliant.

There are all sorts of similar schemes...a simple one is the rule of thirds: one third charity, one third saving, one third mad money. I would have consulted with Eva and insisted on something along that line. Slight nod to my parents: it wouldn't have been tied directly to household tasks. We might have given a "bonus" bit of spending cash for something above and beyond, and probably deducted the spending part of the allowance for jobs left undone, but I certainly would never assign a dollar value to regular chores.

RELIGION, OR LACK THEREOF. Completely up to the child. If they showed interest in a particular faith early, I would encourage their investigation. Regardless, they would het a crash course in world religions, including humanism, and their spiritual side would be nurtured along with the rest of them.

Under no circumstances would I permit something formal like a baptism before the child was of an age to understand its implications.

SIBLING RIVALRY. I'd have to leave this one up to Eva. She's the one with the brother. I've never in my life understood how this works or why it even exists. When your brother punches you, it doesn't feel any different from when your enemy at school punches you. It may even hurt worse, because at least you know that punching is something enemies do. What's more, your brother KNOWS punching you is wrong, because if your enemy does it, that same brother will beat the shit of out her. But it's perfectly okay for HIM to punch you?

The reaction I get to this mirrors the one I get to saying that bodies mean next to nothing to me. If pressed, people invariably grant that I'm right...but it takes a whole lot of pressing and then they go right back to behaving like bodies are all that matter and brothers have every right to beat up their sisters.

SCREEN TIME. This would be a sticking point in our house, not because Eva would be over-eager to press a cell phone into the clutching fingers of our six year old, but because I would insist on including television in the category "screens".
Eva grew up with a television basically surgically implanted. I was pulled away from my room and my beloved books for "family time", which involved our family sitting on the couch staring at the television, not interacting at all. As a result, I can take or leave TV. Mostly leave. Eva reacts to the TV going out the same way I do to the internet going down (well, it's the same thing now, isn't it?)

I'm not going to pretend one screen is much better than the other. Both are time sinks, both encourage tunnel vision, both apply glue to your ass and the seat. It'd be like the smoker parent telling his kid don't ever become me.

One of the many ways Eva would have made a kick-ass mother: you can't shock her and you sure as hell can't fool her. One of her first jobs was helping to run a camp for troubled youth. Some of her charges were pretty hard core criminals, masters at not just pushing boundaries but smashing them to smithereens. Spend a summer with the likes of that and nothing a child does can faze you overmuch.

There's no doubt I would have had to sand Eva's rough edges down a bit, same as she would have had to roughen and toughen me up a bit. But I think between the two of us, we'd have done a hell of a job raising children into adults who could think for themselves while thinking of others. Who could continually strive to be the next best versions of that grandest vision ever THEY had -- not we, but THEY -- about who they are.

And who would make our house feel like a house with kids in it.

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