My teenage daughter is volunteering at a children's art camp this summer.
There is one little girl who wears 8 rubber bands on her left wrist. When she drinks a bottle of water, she moves one rubber band from the left wrist to her right. Her goal, she informed my daughter, is to drink all 8. Her mom says it is very important.
The majority of the children - age 6 to 10 - say they are vegetarians. Their snacks are carefully restricted, and so (it seems) are their lives. Most of them leave art camp to rush over to another pre-scheduled summer activity.
Something about this parenting style makes me nervous.
Rubber bands. Eight glasses of water?
Why do these children sound like a group of 40-something women doing power yoga? Why are they worried about fluid intake and calories?
As a mom of one, I can only claim so much parental experience. But I do have some. And, I know that one lesson I have learned the hard way is to set aside the whole parenting-I-must-do-everything-perfectly attitude. The guilt trip for you and for your child needs to stop.
When my daughter was an infant, I started reading parenting books. I was in a mad frenzy to do everything right. I wanted straight As in mama-hood. And my attitude was causing a series of emotional breakdowns along the way.
I remember the night I tried "tough love" in letting my daughter go to sleep on her own. I had her door closed, and I sat outside, the wood pressing into my spine, the carpet scratchy on my bare legs, and tears running down my cheeks. My daughter was wailing in the closed bedroom.
Finally my husband came out - "What are you doing?"
"We have to do this," I sobbed.
"Why?" he said.
"Because, the books say she has to learn to comfort herself," I explained.
And he said to me, "That's ridiculous." And it was.
But sleeping on her own was just one of my parental worries that spurred me on to craziness. Daily I would Google my concerns: Why was she crying all the time? When should I switch to formula? How could I get her to pee in an actual potty? Was it a sign of dismal parenting that she thought Barney was a real person and had all the words to Elmo videos memorized. And on, and on, and on my neurotic parenting went. I my effort to be a good parent, I was making myself miserable.
And then someone (older and wise) said to me, "You know what. All kids learn to pee in a potty eventually. And no child I have ever met is still drinking formula at age 18."
They were so right. So I stopped (mostly). I tried to quit beating myself up. I tried to stop worrying if nap time didn't happen on schedule or I didn't have the most perfectly balanced meal. I remembered how I would play outside in my pajamas as a kid - catching fireflies and scabbing my knees. I remembered sparklers and kick the can and a million other little joys that have nothing to do with wise parenting or safety concerns.
Messy parenting is freeing.
My daughter is 17 now. She is not perfect. She is quirky and has her struggles. But she has amazed me as well and far exceeded my expectations. She is strong and brilliant and beautiful and creative and sleeps through the night (sometimes). So there are a few things I know now that I wish I had realized then.
1) I am not mess-free - and neither is my child. We don't fit every other person's prediction of how life should look or be. God made us individually. As a parent, I need some grace and flexibility - and so does my child.
2) Your child is not you. Resist the urge to put 40-year-old or 30-year-old or 20-year-old concerns onto an 8-year-old. They don't need to lose a few pounds or worry about their cholesterol. They don't struggle with self esteem. They are little. They are wonderful. They need to be crazy and goofy and full of mischief.
3) These moments with your kids are fleeting. Enjoy them, and try to take a deep breath before you let stress and worry kick in. Take time to just be with your child. Pull them out of some scheduled activities and let them have down time. Take off those rubber bands and let them drink water straight out of a germy fountain. Mix it with brightly colored Kool Aid - even the kind with real sugar.
4) When you start to freak out and think you're aren't doing something right, that you must have missed that secret session of "How to Be a Mom," stop yourself and say with me, "It will be okay. They will be okay." (Breathe deeply and repeat as needed.)
Sure there will be trials. Yes, you will have anxious, crazy, messy moments, but in the meantime you should actually smile and breathe deeply and enjoy your little one. Because nothing you do or don't do will prevent difficult times, your own parental failures, or unexpected disasters.
And, through each moment, both good and bad, I have found that loving and living fully and imperfectly is better than any prescribed idea of what parenting should look like.
By letting them be kids, we become better moms.