Children are to be seen, and not to be heard. It’s the phrase that defined the parenting philosophies of multiple generations of mothers and fathers. Simply put, children were expected to be as close to invisible as humanly possible. It didn’t mean that children were expected to simply be quiet; we were expected to be undemanding, passive, and malleable. We were the property of our parents, and in exchange for the gift of life, they were to be rewarded with complete and total control of our still-mostly-unlived lives.
For a period of time during my childhood, my mother, my brother, and I moved back in with my grandmother. Grandmama, which is what we still call her to this day, was born in the 1930s and raised by strict southern parents who made it clear that “if you don’t go to church, you don’t go anywhere. Period.” As a mother, and eventually a grandmother, Grandmama was very clearly a result of that strict parenting style.
I still remember some of her rules: You eat what she cooks, and you eat all of it. The first thing you do when you wake up is wash your face and hands. Leave the room when adults are speaking. And you better not jump down her stairs (I can’t even begin to tell you how many whoopings I got for violating this one). She loved us and took good care of us, but we were kids and we were to do as we were told.
She’d probably whoop me right now if she could see how much I’ve deviated from that age-old blueprint with my own son.
I think the biggest difference between our parenting styles is the fact that, from the day he become enough to form one, my son has been entitled to an opinion of his own. Don’t get me wrong, he’s only 5 and sometimes those opinions are utter nonsense, but he’s always allowed to voice them. For example, I remember the day that my son refused to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I had cut it the “wrong way.” As adults, we understand that a sandwich is a sandwich. No matter how it’s cut, all of that bread is going to make us fat and too much peanut butter will certainly give us constipation. But, to my highly emotional 5-year old, a sandwich without a diagonal cut is not a sandwich at all. It’s unacceptable. Inedible. Rectangular.
In moments like these, I always find myself lost in an inner monologue: “You’re the parent. You make the rules. Today you’re remaking a sandwich, and tomorrow he’s the only kindergartner with a tattoo. Draw the line, Justin. It’s time.” While it would make my dear grandmother incredibly proud, I know that ignoring his complaints would be compromising the personal parenting code that I’ve established for myself. So, instead, I listen.
Yeah, you read that right. I sit there and listen as my 5-year old son, who somehow ends up with half of the jelly smeared on his face, critiques my sandwich cutting technique. Go ahead, laugh. It doesn’t hurt me because I’m already dead inside. I listen (“what’s wrong with it, buddy?”), I make sure he knows that I understand where he’s coming from (“you’re right, this sandwich probably is the worst thing to ever happen to you”) and then I negotiate (“How about you just take a bite of it and see if you survive?”)
In the end, he always eats the sandwich, but I think the actual reward is something much more important than fulfilling my legal obligation to feed him. My gut tells me that an act as simple as hearing him out and validating his feelings will go a long way towards raising a young man that knows his autonomy should always be considered and his voice deserves to be heard.
…or maybe he needs to learn how to make his own stupid sandwich.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!