This balancing act takes on many different forms. You take your children out to play in the snow and then remind them to take off their wet boots by the door. You hand them a cookie but then insist they first say please. You encourage them to go swimming together but then make them wait to jump off the edge until you can catch them. Mothering is a natural interplay between “Let’s go explore this beautiful world together!” and “Let me tell you the rules along the way!”But sometimes this interplay is not so easy.
Kids are creatures of habit and repetition. Everyone knows that a consistent bedtime means less crankiness for both mom and children. But children are wildly curious, passionately distractible, delightfully spontaneous. Nowhere is this more typified than at bedtime. At our house, we have a strong bedtime routine. We clean up, take a bath, read stories, tuck in, sing a song, and bam! We’re done. But the kids are also at their most charmingly spontaneous at this time of day. “One more story?” “This is interesting. Can we see a picture of this online?” “One more kiss?” “I love this song, can you sing it please?” How can I say no to these cherubic requests? But how can I say yes when I’m so tired I feel like I might explode? And so I struggle to find the balance between giving us all the structure we need while letting us feel the freedom of following a whim. When I start to feel like a drill sergeant, I know I’ve toppled too far to one side. When I feel like a martyr or the Little Red Hen, I know it’s time move back to the middle of the wire.
The Second Act: Correcting children without controlling them.
Can we talk about boogers? My baby gets big ones. Green ones. Gross ones. To get them out would be impossible because my fingers are so much bigger than his tiny nostrils. But as I paw at them he cries and gets more and more upset until I finally stop and ask myself Why? Why am I doing this? I can understand why it hurts–imagine someone coming up to you and picking your nose with their elbow. You’d be mad, too! Sure, the boogers look gross, but if I can’t dislodge them with a reasonable amount of effort, why can’t I just let it go?
Why can’t I let anything go?
My daughter has a hard time picking out what to wear in the morning. For a while I tried to help her by picking out several different outfits and letting her choose one. But then I noticed that instead of giving her confidence, she was only learning that there’s something important (albeit mysterious) about matching her clothing. So while she now believes her clothing must match, she also believes that she has no idea how to do the matching.
But this morning I insisted that she do it, and so she did. Thoughtfully, painstakingly. Her outfit did match, but not superbly well. (The irony here is that I am a terrible dresser myself). I thought to myself, Oh, I’ll just point out that this other shirt would’ve worked a little bit better and why. She’ll appreciate the correction. But then I remembered that my son happily wears his rain boots everyday and he’s just fine. I realized that someone’s feelings of accomplishment are way more important than their fashion choices, and so I bit my tongue. Thank goodness!
Why can’t I bite my tongue more often? What is the line between helpful correction and harmful, purposeless bossiness? Obviously, boogers and first grade fashion are inconsequential examples, but the deeper question remains: How do I know when I’m crossing the line from loving correction to destructive control?
My motivation is my indicator. If I am doing it because I am afraid of what other people think,than I am usually leaning too far to the controlling side and am about to fall. But If I’m doing it because I think it will help my kids be happier (or kinder or wiser or safer) than I’m usually leaning toward the side of loving correction. I wish it were always that simple.
Third Act: Pushing and dragging or waiting and watching.
This act follows the last one closely. What makes this act so difficult is that it seems to change with every phase of development even though it’s really the same balancing act: Jumping in to help versus letting them figure it out on their own.
On the one side, you risk creating overly dependent children that lack self-confidence. You can also be tempted to push them to do things they aren’t really ready for because you’re afraid they aren’t developing according to your schedule. On the other side, you risk creating directionless children; children who aren’t challenged or taught and need an adult to help them navigate the waters of life.
How do you know when to give your children help and when to get out of their way? How do you know when they need a coach and not a cheerleader? How do you know when they need a push instead of a tight hug?I don’t have any easy answers here. Everyone has to find their own balance in this act. Maybe you’ll find yours by toppling a few times, but as you get back up you will eventually find it. And when you do, you’ll know. You’ll feel that stillness inside that tells you that what you are doing with your children is right.
As with all of the high wires of motherhood, we keep doing what any tightrope walker does: Open our arms wide, gaze forward, and keep our weight over our own two feet. When we feel ourselves falling to one side, we can right ourselves by focusing on the tightrope in front of us, breathe deeply, and take it one step at a time. And when we get it right? We are a thing of beauty.
QUESTION: When have you felt the stillness of balance?
CHALLENGE: Write about one of the tightropes you are currently walking with your child. What would happen if you did the opposite of what you are doing now?