November 19, 2015

Atheist Mama: Parenting fails

It's been a bad parenting week.

Usually, it's pretty tempting to only count my hits and leave out the misses--especially when blogging. It's even easy: you guys aren't here to see what's going on every single day, so I can focus on those parts that make it seem like we've got this together. And I'm not going to kid, it's tempting. SO TEMPTING.

But I feel like my failures are pretty important too. The point of this column is to explore how atheism has changed my parenting, and how I'm overcoming some of the programming of my past. It's not always a smooth journey. There's tears, there's fighting, there's moments when I slip backwards, into old habits, into ill-considered parenting behaviors.

And this week, for some reason, it's felt like I've had a couple thousand of those moments. That's an exaggeration, but it's how it's felt. #AllFeelingsAreValid


Sunday saw us trying to scramble to finish up Big A's science project. We'd been working on it off and on for a few weeks, but this was the last real piece: the diorama.

There's something you have to understand: I have hated dioramas since the fourth grade. I was a perfectionist. I was in the Gifted and Talented program, and one of the assignments was to create a diorama of the environment for a toy dinosaur we picked from a box.

It was awful. I had an image in my head, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get the diorama to look like it. Apparently, it was traumatic, because even reading the word "diorama" on my kid's instruction sheet made me want to hide under the covers and not come out. It's weird the things that stick with you, isn't it?

My perfectionism is one of those things that religion exacerbated for me. The constant knowledge that I was a corrupt, broken creature incapable of perfection just made me try harder--in everything. Coming to terms with that (indeed, I did so with a Christian therapist, even) really helped me overcome my own demons, so to speak.

But alas, the beast reared its head Sunday--not over the diorama itself (that's my kid's job) but over this lovely image I had in my head of us working together to come up with something awesome. Instead, we both wound up stressed and in tears and my spouse stepped in to say, "I think you both need a break."

I didn't manage my emotions well. I wasn't in touch with my internal barometer enough to say, "Oh, look at that pressure, it's time to take some time off." And worst of all--I wasn't modeling that ability for my stressed out kiddo. That's a skill you learn, it's not one you're necessarily born with, and I missed a golden opportunity to show him how to do it. That's a parenting fail.

I'm also doing a trial and error process with Little A, my younger son, that's leaving me stressed and tired and really, really, REALLY frustrated.

He's a sweet kid--aren't most kids, anyway?--but he's having trouble with his behavior. With Big A, my response to most of his behaviors would have been spanking. That was entirely permissible in my belief system, and it was a tool I relied on. I used to tell myself it was okay, because we were doing it different. We only allowed spanking for the Four D's: disobedience, disrespect, dangerous (to self or others), and in every case, the action had to be deliberate. We didn't spank in anger, or with objects. We did three open-handed smacks and that was it.

Being a skeptic, one of the topics I looked at pretty early on was spanking, and I found that research didn't support the idea that spanking creates more moral. Indeed, I found research to suggest that spanking diverted resources from the parts of our brain that allow moral and other reasoning to take place. That seemed counterproductive.

I've said before that I consider those days to be my "lazy parenting days" and I feel that doubly as I try to jump through hoops to find ways to teach him moral reasoning but also overcome what is a very strong personality. He's tenacious, determined and ambitious. He refuses, much of the time, to accept no for an answer. And for my part, I don't want to stamp those qualities out--to me, they are great qualities if I can only figure out how to trip the switch and make them work for us instead of against us. He's a pretty empathetic dude, and I'm trying to use that to channel it, but it doesn't work as well or as effectively or reliably as I'd like for it to.

So far, my strategy (which has been adjust A LOT over the past few weeks) looks a little something like this:


  • Clear expectations set
  • Following a schedule (must have set time for snacks)
  • Dialoguing
  • Making sure to spend time just the two of us working on stuff or playing during the day
  • Incorporating him into my activities around the house
  • Monitoring the tone of my voice and modeling conflict resolution

I'm trying--I really am--but this week in particular it's felt like so many misses that there have been moments I've thought, "Maybe I should just give up and go back to the old ways that worked for Big A--he's a pretty well-adjusted kid."

But I don't want to give up. And when I look at Big A, there's definitely damage we are undoing as we go along that debates that "well-adjusted" idea in some respects.

Anyway, I'll keep fighting...er, parenting. I'll try to stay positive and upbeat and keep pushing and guiding. It's been a long week, but I'm resisting the urge to wallow in my current discouragement. Setbacks just mean that I need to look at what's working and what's not, and adjust as necessary.

In a lot of ways, it's not unlike the scientific method. I've made observations, I made hypotheses, some worked, some didn't, now I need to reincorporate that data and generate a new model to test. Then, I'll head back to the drawing board and do it all again.

And really...what else is parenting, anyway? Every day's a new day and a new opportunity to try something different.

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