Monday, December 22, 2008

Lies I tell my kids

Here's the problem with being a mom: that personal endeavors always end up falling off the radar. I will try to get back to blogging more in the new year. For now, this is an old post but a seasonally-relevant one that I wrote last year. It floated back into my consciousness when I took my son to see Santa here in Shanghai and he asked if he could speak to Santa in Korean, because I, like a complete idiot, had told him that Santa can speak all languages. If the jig isn't up now it will be soon.

Original post here.

“Dear Santa,” W wrote, “Please eat some milk and cookies. I need to check that you are here. Love, W.”

Holidays and lying go together like cookies and milk. While W hasn’t yet figured out that Santa has the same terrible penmanship as his mother, I have begun to spend a lot of time covering for mythical creatures. I do my best to explain Santa’s omniscience and his ability to break into our chimney-less apartment, and the morning after being a tooth fairy delinquent I claim, rather guiltily, that sometimes the tooth fairy has too many teeth to collect in one night so sometimes she takes two to retrieve a tooth.

I agree with Katrina Kenison that children need secret places and an atmosphere of enchantment, that fostering spaces of magic in their lives shapes their attitudes towards the world as well their sense of the possibilities of transformation. As W becomes exponentially smarter and more aware of the world I have become more and more conscious of the interpretive work that I do, not just to create these spaces of magic around him, but to make the world comprehensible and palatable, to forestall or counterbalance what I imagine to be the primary threats to the kids’ security and well-being, and to engineer them into the kind of people I want them to be.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. But my guilty conscience says, Shut Up You Big Liar.

If anyone is to blame for all this lying it is my friend Diana who has (whether she knows it or not) been my primary parenting role model. Trying to inoculate her daughters against the diseases of poor self image and body loathing she is careful to tell them that they look “fancy” rather than “pretty” during dress-up because she doesn’t want them to think beauty requires addition or modification. And really, as someone who could once use the term “discourse” with ease, shouldn’t I approach parenting this way?

Lie #1. “You can be a Jedi knight when you grow up.”

I’m pretty sure this began with a distracted, thoughtless response while making dinner or reading But my son became so enamored with the idea I felt (what a rookie mistake) I couldn’t back down until I realized one day that I had indirectly confirmed the reality of the whole Star Wars story-line.

But once I embraced the possibilities of the Jedi I found the figure to be extremely useful. A Jedi is learned but in touch with his emotions, he trains his mind and his body, he knows how to balance individual desire with social responsibility. Now I can say, “You’d better sit and concentrate on those math problems, a Jedi needs to know how to focus his mind” and “You have to go to your swim class, a good Jedi has a strong body as well as a strong mind.” For him, the Jedi is a heroic being who looks cool with a sword but for me the Jedi is a common reference point which allows me to parse the meanings of heroism and integrity. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am by the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Is the profession as important as the kind of person you become? W’s friends spend their days going from English hakwon to piano lessons to their math tutor, without much time to play and generally few siblings. When, I wonder, do they learn how to get along with other people? Isn’t that a skill one needs to practice every day, along with the reading and the multiplication tables? The Jedi is a convenient package of profession and role model, skilled at fighting and diplomacy, and that’s all right with me.

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2. “Uncle's brain is sick and that’s why he sometimes says mean things or has bad behavior. Because his brain is sick you may not open the door to him or be alone with him.” This is one of the cases when my incomplete explanation caused further anxiety, necessitating the addendum, “But it is not a disease you can catch.”

There’s a kind of architecture to my parenting. I establish for the kids, through repetition and ritual, essential truths and categories: Mommy will always come back, This is the place where you are safe, I will always love you. This is good behavior and that is bad behavior. You are good, but sometimes good kids have bad behavior. You can choose how you want to behave. If you have bad behavior you have to take a time out, but when you’re ready to have good behavior you may come and play again. Even though you didn’t mean to hurt him you still have to take responsibility for it, try to help him feel better, and say you’re sorry. Eight years of work have gone into establishing family as a place of safety and love, teaching W the difference between good and bad behavior and between essence and behavior, and helping him understand choice and responsibility.

How do I teach the kids to have a relationship with a person who is not a stranger yet can’t be trusted? How do I explain a loved one exhibiting bad, even violent behavior? How do I teach my kids to love someone but keep him at a distance? How can I explain to them the extreme unfairness of a world that renders someone with the utmost talent and intelligence unable to relate to or communicate with the people close to him? My available explanatory universe gives me the vocabulary of psychology, of disease, of religious possession or chemical alteration. My efforts at translating these terms into ones the kids understand have been limited. With effort I can find enough critical distance to say, “This is as much as I will allow you to hurt me.” But distance comes from experience, and they have none. The architecture I have built begins to wobble, and I add buttresses (you can’t catch this disease) and columns (he will not hurt you) and fire doors (let’s make some hot chocolate!). I wonder if I spend all this effort fortifying my simplified explanations because the adult ones offer little hope. I would rather spend my time in the kids’ world.

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3. All I needed to know I learned from The Sound of Music.

Whenever my older son begins to express reservations about moving I refer him to the scene in The Sound of Music when Maria leaves the abbey. Maria sings, “What will this day be like? I wonder. What will the future be? It could be so exciting, to be out in the world, to be free! My heart should be wildly rejoicing. Oh what’s the matter with me?” Maria is afraid of change, as most people are, fluctuating between excitement and fear. She is nervous, she runs through scenarios in her head, then she starts to imagine great things and get more and more excited, “I have confidence in sunshine! I have confidence in rain! I have confidence that spring will come again and besides which you see I have confidence in me!” That, I tell my kids, is what we do. We are scared, yes, but we do things anyway because they’re the right things to do. And of course she falls in love with Captain von Trapp and they escape from the Nazis and my point is perfectly made (if not completely sold on my audience).

I love the physicality of this scene, the way Maria runs along the road swinging her arms with the wild confidence of someone who is deeply in denial. Suddenly she comes upon the von Trapp manse and stops in horror — surely this couldn’t be — after all those years cloistered with old women and farm animals — but yes, it is — ! Maria runs to the door and rings the bell before she can change her mind.

And if that sales pitch doesn’t work I refer W to the map of the world on our wall and ask him to compare the size of China to Korea. “Do you know how many zeros are in one billion?” He is usually impressed by that. Size matters.

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4. "When you woke up in the middle of the night? Mommy and Daddy were 'stretching.'”