Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What a Coconut Bear Cake Taught Me About Parenting

When my first child was three years old, we threw him a little party at a Gymboree-type establishment run by our babysitter. My husband and I decided to make a cake for the party. The cake we chose wasn't your garden-variety cake. No, we were aiming high. We baked one small oval and one large oval, and with those parts put together a teddy bear cake. He had a marshmallow nose and a crooked, impish grin courtesy of an artistically positioned Twizzler. His eyes were brown M&Ms. Most adorable was his fur, which looked like real fur thanks to the coconut we mixed into the frosting. He was spectacular, and we stayed up until 1:30am the night before the party finishing him. My husband would later joke about that bear, how he nearly cost us our marriage, so much did we argue over his preparation.

At the party the bear occupied pride of place at the table, and parents dropping off children and gifts oohed and aahed over him. But then we'd made him for the parents all along (not that we were able to articulate that truth only three years into parenting). When it came time to cut into the bear, I found myself hesitating. He was just so perfect. But cut into him I did, and I served out pieces of cake to the ten or so children in attendance.

Only one child took more than a bite of cake. The kids hated the coconut frosting. They grimaced and gagged, and some even spit it out. Horrified, I took a bite of my own son's slice. I thought it tasted better than fine, but I like coconut, and I've long outgrown the texture aversions common to preschoolers.

So there you have it: one of our most concerted attempts to be 'good' parents completely backfired. Parenting is not always, or even usually, in our control. Nor should it be. It's a messy, chaotic process that involves our children as much as it does us. We must provide certain basics - food, shelter, opportunities for intellectual, social, and emotional growth - but beyond those, it is our children's job to grow themselves as much as, if not more than, it is ours to 'parent.' I could cite example after example of similar backfires or contradictions in my own parenting history - my first child, born in stressful circumstances and with an anxious and depressed mom, is my calm, confident son, and my second child, born when I was at my most relaxed, is my anxious son. Why? Because there are two people in the parenting equation: parent, and child.

So when we treat parenting as something that rises and sets on us alone - as we do (case in point being a protracted thread on Facebook just this morning initiated by me over frustration and guilt about my kids' excessive screen time during the summer) - we are overemphasizing our role in transforming our progeny from squalling newborns into productive, functioning adults. And that does them a disservice, our failing to acknowledge how hard they themselves are working to grow.

Whatever stereotypes people may hold about parents of kids raised in the seventies, it is at least fair to say that those parents did not preoccupy themselves with parenting the way that we parents do in 2013, and by and large we all ended up as productive, functioning adults, didn't we? Let's cut ourselves some slack, and yes, let's cut our children some slack, too. If we can avoid micromanaging our kids as if they are just another of our projects, the success or failure of which rests wholly on our parental shoulders, they will be better for it. And so will we.

As for my concerns about my kids' screen time, I was reminded by a friend that as children we all watched plenty of TV in the summertime. I know I did. (Today I watch fairly little TV.) And somehow, despite all those episodes of All My Children (some seen, I might add, while I spooned bite after bite of Haagen Dazs' chocolate chocolate chip ice cream into my mouth: the sugar, the fat!), I earned a PhD and am a reasonably productive, functioning adult.

And guess what? When our second son turned three years old, we celebrated the occasion with a party, at which we served... a store-bought cake. All the little guest-tyrants devoured their slices and clamored for seconds.


ozma said...

Great story about the cake. I have bunches of stories like that where I thought I was doing this magnificent thing (sometimes prompted by baby books or whatnot) and it went horribly awry.

I often think about the 70s raising style and how I smoked my first cigarette at 6, was smoking regularly by 7th grade, got blind drunk for the first time at 12. Adults were right there. Did they not notice? Of course we all smoked pot shortly thereafter.

All my friends had sex by age 13 or thereabouts (with older boys). I didn't do that though.

Don't even get my started on shoplifting. I was amazingly good at it.

But that's more about oversight, I guess?

There were some drawbacks to the relaxed parenting is my only point. Or risks.

Most things turned out OK except the smoking since I became a smoker. I was a heavy drinker and drug user also for a while but nothing extremely terrible came of that. It would have been nice though to have avoided it.

But I agree we are too risk averse now. We are control freaks. Then we take everything on ourselves. I do that constantly and obsessively and it is very bad. I don't know how not to do it. It could be some hypervigilant compensation because although I guess you could say I'm a productive adult, many people in my cohort-siblings, cousins, others-- are not and I don't feel sure how to prevent that from going wrong with my kid. I don't know exactly what wasn't done. So that's partly why I am this way. Things simply went horribly wrong for a bunch of people I grew up with.

I know I can't control all of it but I can't stop myself from trying.

Nicole said...

Oh god, yes. My kids and video games. They love their video games and I worry they are going to be those adult gamers that have no relationships and just play video games all day. That seems unlikely, I mean, they will probably turn into functioning adults but...well...I worry.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

Our generation treats parenting like a mathematical formula. Control the variables and you'll control the result. It's the Big Lie, and it hurts kids and parents.