“Quick question: is this break ever going to be over or what? Because I am about ready to lose it. Am I stuck in an alternative dimension? Has time stopped? Am I traveling backwards at the speed of light? Is school ever going to start again? Are my kids ever going back to their classrooms? Because--not to put too fine a point on it--my oldest kid is driving me three flavors of bananas. My ninth grader loves his English teacher. But my ninth grader does not show me any love whatever. Indeed, he treats me like a borrowed mule. He does everything his teacher tells him? He does nothing that I tell him. He respects his teacher? He doesn’t respect anyone who lives in this house. If he likes his teacher so much, can he go live with her? Like, now? Because I have about had it. Honestly. All he does here at home is make our lives an unrelenting stream of despair. He doesn’t speak; the sporadic monosyllabic grunts are unproductive. He doesn’t spend any time with his two younger siblings, except to make them unhappy. Recently, he condescended to agree to take out the trash as soon as he 1) finishes texting his friend and 2) a lasting peace is achieved in the Middle East.
“We have a no screens policy in the house. This is not rocket surgery. No video games on school nights, a one-hour limit on the weekends. What part of “one hour” is hard to understand? Winter break is a vacation so I get it. An hour a day is fine. But I feel like I am defending the Maginot Line. ‘Please. One more level?’ is all my eldest ever says. No, that’s not true. He also asks if he can go to his dad’s house. Which would be fine. Except that his dad is four months behind on the minuscule support he’s supposed to provide. Except that his dad leaves the kids unsupervised. Except that his dad lets him play violent video games ten hours a day. Except that my son somehow tested positive for THC when he’d been at his dad’s house for the weekend. When he was four years old. So no, dad’s house is not an option.
“But I tell you, I’m about ready to fold. I’m tired when I come home from work. I pick up the kids from my mom’s and I just want to get dinner on and get off my feet. My mom is great but I can’t ask her to do more. She already helps out with groceries and childcare. She says she loves her grandkids, but I know she needs time to herself. If I were to let him play violent video games, at least he’d stop annoying me for several consecutive minutes. I can use the violent video games as carrots and sticks. I know he’ll behave if I offer him more time with his PlayStation. Living with my beliefs is brutal. I’m ready to give up.”
You may be wondering, Gentle Reader, when your intrepid author is going to tear into the single-mom quoted above. Aren’t I going to go thermo-nuclear and remind her that violent video games were responsible for the unpleasant excesses of the French Revolution? Aren't I going to tell her to suck it up, make it happen, rub some dirt in it, get back in the game, stop whining?
Nah. Let’s face it: Parenting is not for the faint of heart. Parenting at its best is hard work. If there are any shortcuts, those work-arounds have not come to my attention. Violent video games are as ubiquitous as they are insidious. I wish I had a perfect solution for this good woman in this tough spot. So, here is an alternative proposition. Stop reading advice columns that suggest you can have it all. "If you just talk to your kids, then everything will be exceedingly hunky and thoroughly dory." Talk to my kids? What a great idea! Thank you so much! I never would have thought of that! If only raising healthy kids in the unhealthy culture were so simple. "Take away the violent video games and then go on a primitive camping trip with the kids for two weeks." Great advice. And then I can spend the next two months looking for a job when I get back.
Parenting advice is frequently for movie families. In the movies, people fall in love. The camera pans. Half a century later, the progenitors sit contentedly watching as their grandchildren care for one another in front of the fireplace. In real life, the scenario is different--more frustration, fewer armchairs.
What about the people down the street? Don't they homeschool, cook healthy meals, bake pies, make rocking chairs, put the kids to bed at 8:30, make passionate love to one another, and are living happily ever after even as we speak? Like imaginary people everywhere, life is probably easier for these folks. After all, they have the advantage of a 29-hour day, two time machines, and unlimited clones to take over when they are pissy or exhausted.
You know that adolescent who says, “thank you mom for working so hard. I have prepared dinner for you having finished my homework. Please enjoy this refreshing beverage while I rub your feet”? Neither do I. Like shepherds, I hear about such children more often than I meet them.
In the real world, where so many of us live, raising kids is hard. Providing healthy meals is hard. Being a single parent is hard. Having a child with developmental disabilities is hard. Having a neuro-typical child under attack from process addictions is hard.
Maybe you’re doing the best you can. Maybe you’re doing pretty well. Maybe “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” were not “reality” TV shows. The kids on those shows were polite, well spoken, and decent. The kids on those shows were also thoroughly fictional.
What to do? Two steps. First, give yourself some credit. You’re very likely doing the best you can. Second, lower your expectations. That's right: just lower the bar. Let yourself up off the floor. You accept everybody else. Why not accept yourself? Are you a perfect parent? Nah. I’m sure you could come up with a number of examples of where, in retrospect, you might have made different choices. But you made each decision with love in your heart, the best interests of your child in your head, and your feet on the ground. You didn’t beat Eliud Kipchoge in the Berlin Marathon a few months ago, but then, neither did anyone else on the Planet Earth. He set a world record, covering 26.2 miles in two hours, one minute, and 39 seconds. But you didn’t strangle your ninth grader with your bare hands when he deliberately stole his little sister’s favorite stuffed animal and made her cry. Both accomplishments—shattering the world record in a brutal endurance event and not committing child-a-cide—are to be commended. We all do what we can.
And winter break is over in a few days. That ninth grader will go back to school where he is polite and well liked. And maybe the mom quoted in the first two paragraphs can accept that she's doing the best she can in difficult circumstances. Now that--accepting that you're flawed but pugnacious, bloodied but unbowed--might be the best advice you'll get today.