These are letters to Jack, my son, and my daughter, Audrey. You have given me the gift of motherhood. This is just a little gift back. I want to share my experiences with you of your childhood from my perspective of watching you grow - of being your Mom.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Process


Interestingly enough, just yesterday I was asked by a co-worker to read his term paper in his Child Psychology class.

Eons ago (12 years ago – good lord) I got my undergraduate degree in Psychology. At the time, I had lofty ideas about becoming a guidance counselor at a grade school or high school. Turns out that you need to have your Masters in order to get a job like that, especially in the public school system. I wasn’t that ambitious at the time or committed to the idea, so I didn’t pursue it.

Anyway, my co-worker must have thought that I would be a good reference point because of my degree and so I read his paper. It had an interesting effect on me. It was written in professional language and obviously by someone that didn’t have kids himself, because it was much more black and white, do things this way and not this way - than a parent could probably produce.

But it got me thinking from the perspective of a parent about acting out and what triggers it. Why some children act out more than others and what social and environmental factors might contribute to that….

I think I gave my co-worker far more feedback than he was prepared for because he kept saying “well….yeah, but I can’t have a paper that’s a thousand pages long, Bridget….”

The paper specifically was focused on teenage rebellion and acting out and how inevitable it is.

I started to think about the first flaw in the logic of the paper right there. That rebellion and acting out is confined to the teen years and not slowly developing over the course of a child's development just as everything else evolves through this process, too. The child that refuses to eat BECAUSE it’s dinner time and then cries like he’s starving for a snack when it’s time to go to sleep. Is that child not demonstrating rebellion and acting out at the age of two that will eventually evolve into the child trying to sneak out of the house at night while the parents are asleep?

Is it inevitable? Or not? What drives a child to act out? Is it possible that this is a way of communicating to us as parents that we are not doing something completely right? Maybe we aren’t hearing something that the child is trying to communicate - whether that message is they feel they are prepared to be treated with more trust and given more freedom of choice than we are allowing? Maybe the message is that they desperately want some more clear lines of direction, more obvious rules that they can adhere to than have been provided up to that point?

This was the first thing that jumped out at me from the pages of my co-workers paper.

I also thought about myself and how, to this day, I’ll be struck by an urge to do something that I know is wrong and may not be able to resist it. The urge to blog when I’m being paid to work, taking a long lunch so I can socialize a little longer on the clock, exercising during work hours, taking an extra sandwich (or two or three) when catered meals are offered at work meetings. Hey – it’s not that I’m out to screw my place of employment, but instead shows that this and home are pretty much the two places that I spend my time and acting out at home only screws myself….

Why admit to this? Well, just like the kid that acts out in the above ways, it doesn’t give me a good feeling. I’m not proud of it, but I get this general desire to push the limits, to see how far I can go. I get a little rush when I get away with it and yet, I know how crazy it is to take stupid chances because if they DO go wrong…. The consequences would hardly be worth it. But I often can’t stop myself every once in a while from taking the chance. It’s like I have to shake things up or I’ll explode.

So does this point to a genetic makeup thing or is it environmental? Is it a combo and what combo would that be?

I see your Daddy usually acts out by being offensive about something. Making off color jokes or being inappropriate when it would be least acceptable. Luckily for me, I find this very amusing so I am entertained when he does this.

How much of acting out springs from boredom? Or pressure – from family and friends? Work? Self imposed expectations that we may or may not be conscious of?

I went to elementary, grade school and high school in Catholic parochial school and then in an all girls Catholic High School. Religion was taught, taught again and then – taught some more.

I don’t think anyone can deny that there is a lot of guilt tied to religion – even those that practice it regularly and find comfort in it.

I personally felt a lot of pressure in the moral messages of what makes a good person. To be good all the time was incredibly hard for me. I tried very hard to be good all through my youth and high school years, so much so that I didn’t really let myself try things that my peers were trying. They in turn decided I was weird. And I really, really was. I had the absolute worst case of People Pleasing Disease that I’ve ever witnessed (and I’m not cured by any means today). I would sit in Church and half expect that the Jesus statue would come alive and lift me up for my goodness and I would ascend into heaven right there in front of everyone. Normal, right?

Then there were the peers of mine that could have fallen into the bucket of the “Opposite Problem”. There were too many pressures for them to be “A” students, good kids. So much so that they knew they couldn’t possibly live up to all that was expected of them so they went to the other extreme of throwing in the towel, accepting that they were “Bad” kids and trying EVERYTHING! Stuff that would make you look at them and want to reach out and pinch them just to make sure you’re really still seeing them because the very fact that they survived what they tried is astounding in and of itself.

I think of the Amish and how they accept the idea of the teenage rebellion so completely that they have Rumspringa where they will have their teenage children go out into the world on their own to experience life and make a final decision in a matter of months or a few years at most as to whether they choose to come back to the family and commit themselves to being Amish for the rest of their lives or instead leave their family and loved ones, never to be able to return again - and forever find their way living in the outside world after growing up in such seclusion. Can you even imagine that kind of pressure?

Or being from a family of achievers? I recently read an article about family members of Albert Einstein and how incredibly hard it is to grow up in the shadow of greatness like that. The expectations that people have of members of the Einstein family. "Oh, you're an Einstein? Related to ALBERT Einstein?!?" What can that sort of pressure do to a person? You certainly wouldn’t feel like you could be WRONG. Good lord.

So – rebellion and acting out…. I think they ARE inevitable because in our daily search to discover who we are and how we fit – we feel the need to test boundaries. We push limits to see how we will be accepted by those we love. In testing those boundaries of love and trust, we see how incredibly strong those bonds are as we push and pull and go to the extremes or find ways of coping with the highs and lows as well as the tediousness and boredom of the mundane everyday. These acts of rebellion - acting out - teach us who we are and who we love and what makes them amazing and incredible to us.

I just think there are just so many contributing factors – they can be religion, family expectations, your own expectations, your overreaching goals and dreams, the picture that society paints of the perfect people and perfect lives that aren’t achieveable - that we'll never be able to pinpoint just WHERE that drive originates.

And the perfect people and perfect lives that we desire and want that we hear about in the media? They are complete fantasy. Those stories are airbrushed, cleaned up of what makes them real which is why the are “perfect”. It amazes me that no one sees how detrimental it is to portray things as better than they are. It sets an unrealistic expectation for the rest of us struggling to find happiness and defining it by unrealistic standards. Nothing “perfect” is achieveable. You can get as close to perfection as you allow yourself to be completely happy with what you have in your own mind. Perfection is a decision, a perception and those that can find that in their own lives and situations are the ones that will be truly happy.



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