Friday, February 9, 2007

Teaching Self-Victimization

A few nights ago we all sat down to watch the US-Mexico soccer game. We crammed into Santos' room, since he is, after all, the only real fan of professional soccer in the house, and were introduced to the world sport that we, as Americans, really have no appreciation for or understanding of. I have to admit we may be missing out on something quite cool.

So we six sat...well, except our oldest, who has even less interest in soccer than your typical adult American. The rest of us engrossed as we were, we took little notice of his disinterest. I asked if he'd like to sit down, and he indicated that he the seat I was occupying.

Here is where the scene freezes, almost. My initial response was that no, I'm sitting in this chair. As he left the room dejected, I realized what he was truly after: attention.

His request wasn't meant to find a comfortable place for his rear end, but to get throw a minor wrench in the works and be noticed, and hopefully get someone interested in doing something else with him. I was the person he came to for this.

Now of all the good things I am, something I am not is a model parent. I really have no idea how to handle most of the more subtle aspects of parenting. My first reaction to this situation is that I do not allow this child to dictate my actions, and therefore if he wants to sit with us he will find another place to do so, and if he does not he will do something else in another room. My next reaction is that he is only eight years old, and is already lacking in proper confidence and means by which to express himself and his feelings (courtesy of his parents, who also lack these things in varying degrees), and did his very best to say what he needed to me, his father. So I sat in a quandary for a slice of a second.

I decided that offering him my seat would probably have the greater effect of showing him that I noticed and cared about his feelings, and possibly also of encouraging him to spend this time with us, which I knew, as bedtime was quickly approaching, would only amount to fifteen or twenty minutes total. The scene resumed, I made the offer (which was accepted) and I squeezed in next to my wife. In hindsight, I should have offered him my lap. I'll beat myself up about that later.

After a few moments, I realized that my plan had failed. I think he perceived my concern for his feelings, but that was only good enough for so long. Now he was in the chair he asked for (not because he wanted that chair, mind you) and he was stuck doing something he really didn't want to to. His plan had failed too--that is, his plan to get someone to spend time with him. So he started hemming and hawing, doing all the unconscious things we've taught him to do that trigger concern in other people, and prompt them to ask, "What's wrong, Anthony?" And so like Pavlov's dogs, we did.

"I'm bored!" he exclaimed with an agonized voice. Here the scene changed again, skewed by the lens of our frantic dysfunctional reaction to our son's alleged distress. Right away, my wife and I reacted. It's sad and comical, really. We concern ourselves with our child's welfare so deeply that we do not even want him to be bored. Intuitively, I know that letting him alone to deal with boredome will teach him to self-stimulate, solve problems, and ultimately think on his feet. But I am very well trained, and reacted immediately before even thinking.

My brain kicked in mid-consolation, as my mouth was offering him a list of things he could do rather than sit here in the room with us. "It's okay if he's bored, honey," I said, feeling almost guilty that despite all my ideas about coloring or finishing that chapter or turning on the other TV of having a snack, here I was abandoning my firstborn child in a desert of nondiscovery. And as terrible and rediculous as it felt before it came out, suddenly the scene changed back to a linear simplicity once spoken. The lense quickly dissipated in a giant sucking sound, and all was well again. Even Anthony. Although slightly distressed at having been given free reign over the last ten minutes of his night, he just got up and trotted out, and found something to do without a fuss, which, by the way, he was quite happily into by the time we asked him to brush teeth and say goodnight to everyone.

I don't honestly know how often these scenes occur in my house every day, but I'm willing to bet it's more than I could count on one hand. Obviously, I react...we all react...with subconsciously predicted precision each time. I don't really know if this is contributing to the self-victimization of my children, but I don't feel it's healthy. I do not want them growing up waiting for someone else to tell them what to do or how to handle conflict. I want them to know what they want, get it for its own sake, and be able to deal with problems as they come. I don't want them to isolate, but I want them to be independent. By the reactions I saw in myself and my son that night, what I'm really teaching him is if someone else doesn't provide a solution for you, you can blame your negative feelings, and the consequences of actions you take because of those feelings, on that person. And I am appalled at that.

I know my only way out is to learn better how to parent myself and transfer that to the parenting of my children. I'm as guilty as anyone of self-victimization, and I need to learn to recognize the signs and stop them before the automatic action-reaction machine kicks in. So I'll be working on that, and asking for help. And hopefully, as Mr. Woodlief points out so very eloquently in his SitG post More Light, I can overcome myself and teach my children to be better, more whole human beings than me.

By the way, the final score was US 1, Mexico 0. Viva Estados Unidos!

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