Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How to Ruin Your Kid's Childhood

Act #85:  Let your kid be himself.

Raising a boy in the United States of America comes with some pretty clear norms and expectations.  For the first five years of his life, I felt immense pressure for my son to fit in, to be all-American, to be just like his counterparts.  I never once asked myself, why should my child learn to swim?  Because a leading cause of male deaths is unintentional injury?  So is getting hit by a car or falling.  What would happen if my kindergartner grew up never knowing how to ride a bike?  He'd suffer greatly as an adult on his first day of work?  What if he didn't ever play on a team?  Would he never have other opportunities to learn values like cooperation, competition, and following rules?  So as my son turns 6 in a few months, I am giving him the gift of embracing the beautiful, unique soul that he is.  I'm allowing Jack to just be Jack.  I wish I came to this realization 6 years ago.  Here's how well I navigated the first five years of his life. 

Age 1 Expectation:  Learn to swim.
When my son was around 9 months old, we caved to the pressures that sounded something like this: Every child should know how to swim, so he doesn't drown.  So we signed up for a "mommy and me" class and all of us mothers who had just given birth were thrilled to put on a bathing suit in public.  Really. My son enjoyed himself just fine, but we didn't really return the following year for various reasons.  Lately, (my son is about to turn 6), when we go to hotels, people ask us if my son swam in the indoor pool.  During the summers, people say we should take him to the pool.  There's this expectation that swimming should be an integral part of a kid's childhood experience.  The thing is, much like me as a child, my son isn't really into the whole immersing yourself in water thing.  I was never afraid of the water, it just didn't appeal to me as much as some other activities.  

Age 2 Expectation:  Defend yourself!
For those of you with children, you will relate that this is the age that daycare kids hit, bite, push, and shove.  Being the passive soul that he is, my kid was never the giver, but always the receiver of these acts.  We always taught him to speak up and ways to stop someone from violating him, but that wasn't enough.  We often received feedback from his well-meaning teachers that he needed to learn to defend himself, that he shouldn't be so sensitive, and that he should be a bit more assertive and fight back.  I fought this hard.  While I certainly want to raise a "strong", confident child, I also resist the temptation to contribute to a culture that defines masculinity so narrowly and in only physical terms.  Instead of focusing on teaching our kids to fight back, shouldn't our efforts be placed on teaching our kids respectful boundaries and communication?

Age 3 Expectation:  Participate in team sports.
At his tender age, most boys in his kindergarten class have already taken part in soccer and t-ball.  We've offered this as an option for our son, but he has always adamantly insisted that he is not interested.  Knowing what I know about him, the idea of being on display for a cheering crowd or competing, push his comfort zone a bit. We took him to a karate class once and just as soon as the instructor told the kids to shout at the top of their lungs and break a board in half, my son was done.  The messages were contrary to the mild-mannered, peace-loving kid that he naturally is and it simply made no sense to him why he'd break a perfectly good board for sheer entertainment.  My son has however expressed an interest in one-on-one instruction that involves a martial art or learning to play a musical instrument (which we hope to allow him to pursue this year).

Age 4 Expectation:  Ride a bike.
We have tried and tried to get him to be interested in riding a bike.  We bribed him with a shiny red Power Rangers bike, that still sits untouched in our garage.  He loves being outdoors, running, chasing his parents, hitting the trails, but has absolutely no interest in riding a bike. This summer, look out for a near-new Power Ranger bike on your local Craigslist.

Age 5:  Go to summer camp.
Most camps require your child to be 6 years old or in first grade and I'm already feeling the pressure of making sure my son doesn't miss out on yet another formative childhood experience.  I've already researched Parks and Recreation schedules and Arts Council calendars in two different towns.  I have yet to find out if he will embrace the concept of summer camp.

So here I am, a mother of a kindergartner, who has failed miserably at meeting the expectations of raising a proper boy.  Yet I am so proud of my passive, free-spirit, non bike-riding, non-swimming old soul of a boy who naturally excels in math and science even though we've never once "worked with him" after school hours, who draws complex multi-colored battle scenes on long rolls of butcher paper, who would love to chase his mother in the backyard for hours, who counts to 10 in three different languages, who often ponders whether or not "life goes on" after someone dies, who loves "visiting cities, but living in a small town", who can create extravagant racing scenes for his Hot Wheels with Legos - complete with bridges and overpasses, and who at the end of the day, wants nothing more than to be surrounded by the love of his extended family.  And to be a kid.  After all, he's only 5.  Just be Jack.  We all should try that every once in a while.  What a beautiful, and richly diverse world this could be.


  1. Beautiful! Jack sounds perfect.

  2. Great read and advise. Jack sounds like the cool kid to me.

  3. Mae, I wanted to thank you for putting in writing many of my thoughts regarding my 3 year old son. I'm trying to observe him and see what interests him, naturally, so that I can provide an environment for that, but I will not push him into anything, especially into anything competitive. I really liked this post and I wanted to tell you that you are not alone in believing in these things.

    1. Nice to know there are other non-conformists trying to figure out this parenting thing too...thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cristina!