Expect to Be Embarrassed

At two, my son pronounced the “tr” sound as “f.” He also had a fondness for broadcasting every time he saw a passing truck. So pause to consider what this meant for my life. When I strolled him around our Brooklyn neighborhood, every time he’d see a truck he’d yell that he saw a big you-know-what, spreading his arms out to show how very big it was. Part of me really wanted him to be quiet—but admonishing him would have confused him and maybe hurt his feelings. And since I was pretending to care as much about backhoes as he did…I just did a lot of very loud enunciating, “Wow, that is a big TRuck!”

If you embarrass easily, parenthood can be excruciating. The only advice I can give is not to make matters worse by letting your offspring see your reaction. A young child doesn’t know from embarrassment, but is still likely to keep doing whatever is mortifying you just to hear your nervous giggle again-and again. So instead of trying to hush her up, try distraction or a quick, simple explanation. Say you’re on the checkout line at the supermarket and your two-year-old daughter suddenly asks, like my friend Georgia’s did, if you or various other members of the family have penises. The best strategy may be a quick, quiet explanation followed by a distraction (for once , you get to be grateful for the candy displays!). Sometimes, there’s no way out but to politely decline to answer and then explain the word “private” in full earshot of strangers. This may be greeted with great magnanimity by your offspring, or may result in her wailing at the top of her lungs. What can you do? Grin (or don’t grin) but bear it. She’s not intentionally trying to embarrass you. She’s just too young to realize that some things are not for public discussion and that, usually, conversations about private body parts fall into that category.

Also at the top of the list of life’s most embarrassing moments with little kids are those triggered by their guileless indiscretion when it comes to another person’s differences or unflattering appearance. A four-year-old may innocently ask Aunt Joan, “Why are you so fat?” or be fascinated by the tufts of hair growing out of Uncle Joe’s ears. Walking down the street he may point at a dwarf, laugh and say loudly, “Mommy, that man looks like a baby!” At a funeral, a three-year-old may walk up to the new widow and ask pointed questions about why her husband died and whether and when she’s going to get a new one. At four, my daughter was contemplating out loud whether she would want to marry her Daddy when she grew up. “What about marrying me?” her grandfather joked. She gave him a withering look and said, “No. You’ll be dead.”

Most adults make allowances for the utterings of children-they may chuckle and make reference to “out of the mouth of babes,” and all that. But some people  get offended. In such cases, you may need to remove a child who is unwittingly tormenting someone. Remind yourself that your child is not being intentionally hurtful. Explain to him or her why that man looks like a ”baby,” and emphasize that it’s not a good idea to talk in public about things you think are strange or ugly or funny about other people because that could hurt their feelings. But don’t expect to make much headway. Hurting somebody is too abstract a concept for most children in this age range to grasp. In the meantime, just be grateful for your children’s innocence and take solace in the knowledge that a decade or so from now, when adolescence hits, your mere existence will be excruciatingly embarrassing to them.

Should You Trust Your Instincts?

Mothers are not miraculously born the same day that babies are. Yet many women believe they are supposed to become overnight experts in getting their baby to eat and sleep, and to judge whether his cry means he’s hungry, drowsy, uncomfortable or deathly ill. And just where is this expertise supposed to derive from? “Trust your instincts” say many baby-care experts. But a lot of baby care doesn’t have anything to do with instinct! Take, for example, the notion that you should be able to recognize the difference between your baby’s cries. The venerable baby expert Penelope Leach even offered up a spectrograph chart that showed the difference in pitch between a baby’s pain cry, basic sobbing and mild, whiny wail. “Maybe you could not describe all these different cries in words. But you will know them apart when you hear them,” she wrote. Well, my natural mothering instinct failed me completely here. Was it my heart or my ears that were tone deaf? I wondered. Each time my first baby cried it sounded the same to me. I never knew what was wrong, so I comforted him by trial and error. If holding him didn’t work, I offered milk. If he wasn’t hungry I tried to burp him, or check his diaper, even take his temperature, or, finally, hand him to his father. I did finally figure out the differences between my son’s cries-but no thanks to me. It was thanks to my son who, after some months passed, began to issue distinctive cries depending on the problem. It didn’t take any natural instinct to tell that when he screeched he was in pain and when he whimpered he was bored. But until then I suffered miserably, believing that there was something “missing” in me because the language of cries didn’t come naturally.

I now know that mommy magic doesn’t get sprinkled on you the first time your baby lies curled up in your arms. Motherhood is natural, but that doesn’t make it simple. Just ask any new nursing mother whose baby doesn’t seem to know how to latch on.  Breastfeeding is a natural food-delivery system with so many design flaws that it has spawned a whole industry of leagues and lactation consultants to help new mothers. Eventually, most women (and babies) do make it work.. But the way you learn is by trial and error and by tapping into the knowledge of more experienced hands- whether your mother, in-law, friend, neighbor, lactation expert etc. You don’t learn just by staring deeply at your baby and going with how you feel.

Even if you buy the notion that parenthood is very much a trust-your-gut sort of enterprise, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your particular instincts are trustworthy. We all know people whose instincts routinely fail them. There are women who always end up with the wrong man, bad haircut, lousy job. Stocks tank as soon as they buy them. We’ve all had days when we would have benefited from listening closely to our instinct and then proceeding to do the exact opposite. Instinct may tell you that your child is fine even though she’s spiking a 107 fever. She’s better off if you call the doctor. Instinct may tell you that he’ll be too scared if you let him ride the carousel. But if all of the other kids are going and he’s crying because you won’t let him, forget your instincts and let him go.

Mothers are often counseled to trust their intuitions because parenthood does go more smoothly if you have a modicum of self-confidence and a belief in yourself. But knowledge figures into the equation, too, and that only comes with time and experience. What almost always does come naturally to new mothers and fathers is a profound, protective, everlasting love for the child. But it can take time and education for that natural force to be channeled the right way.

Don’t Judge Other Parents by Their Kids

At times you will be sorely tempted. There’s the child who acts outrageously at a birthday party. He grabs and pushes and won’t sit still. When his mom reprimands him he throws a mega-tantrum. Tsk-tsk, you think, beaming at your own child, so daintily licking the chocolate frosting off of her fork. But you can’t really make assumptions about how wise and loving another child’s parents are based on that child’s behavior. Kids get to be who they are- and act the way they act on any given day-via a complex equation that combines their parent’s guidance with a host of other variables including what (if anything) they ate for breakfast that morning , how long they slept last night, the condition of their gums and, most of all, their fundamental temperament. Some little kids are wild, some restrained, some are shy, some more daring. Research shows that these differences often come down to brain chemistry rather than their parents’ skills at teaching them manners and setting limits. A parent’s job is to accept a child’s fundamental personality in ways that keep the child safe and teach him to value himself and others.

I was once at a pizza place when two four-year-olds discovered the restaurant’s light switch and began to flick it on and off.  Both of them were there with their fathers, who immediately got up and hauled the rascals back to their table with a stern warning to leave the light switch alone or risk heading home without pizza.  One boy slumped in his chair at the reprimand, but the other jumped up and made another quick dash for the light switch. The repeat offender soon found himself being carried out of the restaurant by his father.  Why did one child exhibit self-control while the other one did not?  I have no idea—but I can’t point a finger at his Dad, who responded responsibly to his son’s behavior. Some kids just have to learn the hard way—and that makes life tougher for their parents, too.

Don’t Compete Over Your Kids

Lucy crowed when her six-week-old, Sammy, swatted at the plastic ladybug that dangled from his crib. True, the ladybug had been attached to his crib for the express purpose of getting him to swat at it. But the baby books said he wasn’t scheduled to start thwacking for another month or so. Lucy announced this miracle to all of the women in her new mothers group. Then, at 4 1/2 months Sammy exhibited another sign of wondrous precocity: He sat up. Another announcement to her mother’s group. Fast forward to twenty months. “When I grow up I’m going to be a firefighter,” Sammy proclaimed. “What amazing verbal skills!” his mother proclaimed to the group.

If you have a friend like Lucy who is constantly, annoyingly bragging about her kids and leaves you wondering whether yours are suffering from serious developmental delays, realize a few things: First, she’s probably exaggerating. Hyperbole is the world’s most underreported epidemic and proud parents are particularly susceptible.  Second, she may be bragging to compensate for feeling really bad about something in her life-or about her kid. Ellen worries that her older son is still engaging in parallel play when many of the other boys his age are running around exchanging secret handshakes and pretending to be pirates. So she starts bragging about what a computer whiz he is-already adding and subtracting computer-generated bunnies like a first grader! She doesn’t mean to be insufferable to her friends. She’s just worried about her child, and probably needlessly. Over time she’ll calm down.

But there are some mothers who keep careful score because they are incorrigibly competitive people. A person who tends to see the world as divided into winners and losers is going to work very hard to make sure that her child is perceived as a winner, even at your child’s expense. The best course of action is to avoid her, and when that’s not possible, ignore her braying. She hasn’t yet learned that it is not worth keeping score because you can never win. There will always be someone who can one-up you. Your child walked at nine months? Your neighbor has a nephew who walked at seven. Your child could read “See the cat” on his fourth birthday? Someone else’s could read the Hollywood Reporter. Your daughter just got into Harvard Law School? Congratulations, your neighbor’s kid is going to Harvard Law and getting an MBA at the same time. Your child is probably never going to be President of the United States. Or win a Nobel prize. Or an Oscar. But somebody else’s will. So do yourself a favor and come to terms with it now.


You Don’t Have to Be Perfect

Ever get that nagging feeling that you’re bungling this whole parenting thing- or are about to? You’re right! Any definition of parenting should include some mention of the fact that it is an impossible job. Most parents feel that a child’s failures could have been avoided if only they had parented differently. If one day your beloved Richie blows up the playground or hacks his way into the Pentagon, thus upsetting national security, deep down you won’t be blaming Richie, but yourself. If your child “fails” in a far less glorious fashion—by not ending up with the highly happy and productive life you dream of– you will push rewind and carefully analyze every second of your interaction with your offspring to determine where you went wrong as a parent. All of this is a destructive and pathetic waste of time, but parents tend to do it anyway.

To help you avoid this dead-end, here are two important secrets about being a parent. The first is that from the moment of birth you fail your child. You don’t always know why he is crying. When he’s a toddler, you are sitting on a playground bench trading childbirth war stories with the other new moms. You hear, “Is this your child?” and look up to see your tearful two-year-old in the grip of a good Samaritan who found him wandering and crying out for you. As if that’s not bad enough, when he goes to preschool you pick him up so late one day that his teacher has already left and he’s been bequeathed to the office secretary who is teaching him how to illegally download music.

When you fail your child he may look up at you with j’accuse written all over his face. And he has every right to be upset. But the second secret of parenting is that what matters most is what happens after you screw up. Children don’t just learn about you and the world when you do things right. They learn at least as much from studying what happens when things go wrong. They learn when you pick up your crying baby, hold your terrified toddler, hug and apologize to your preschooler.

There are developmental psychologists who spend their days analyzing videotapes of mothers and babies. They watch closely to see what happens when the baby is disappointed by Mom because, say, he smiles and she doesn’t notice and smile back. Often he will fret or cry to get her attention. It’s good news for the baby’s future if the mom then smiles or coos or somehow tells the baby that everything is ok. Misconstruing or just missing each other’s needs and then repairing the “miss” is the standard dance that occurs between all humans who love each other. It is a constant and endless process. This doesn’t mean that all you have to say is “sorry” and you get to write off a horrible mistake. You certainly can screw up children by being an awful parent. But you can’t ruin them by being an imperfect one.