Guest Author - Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Whenever we get together with family and friends who have small kids I can’t help but to think to myself “I’m so glad we’re out of that stage!” I recall vividly eagerly awaiting the days for our children to finally be past that phase of the unexpected.
A few years ago, I thought I had finally arrived at that eagerly awaited moment. My kids seemed well past the chaos and impulsivity of their earlier years. It had been quite a while since we had to create a perimeter and monitor their every move, or worry about markers on walls or counters, painted hand prints on the floor, giving dolls or things other than paper haircuts with safety scissors, or sticking a small something into a body orifice. But almost as soon as we started believing our kids were “mature for their ages”, our 6 year old daughter did something that caused our little fantasy to slam hard against the reality that she still was a little girl: she gave herself a haircut.
This was one of those parenting moments that rendered me speechless. This was something that other people’s kids did – never mine! I will never forget that day. I walked into her room to kiss her good night and couldn’t help but notice she looked a bit different. I walked past the pile of hair on the floor next to the purple safety scissors a few times innocently thinking she gave another Barbie a haircut. While holding the evidence, I turned to her and said “Oh my god…why?” Her response: “my bangs were bugging me”. To add insult to injury, the next day her teachers and friends actually complimented her on her new haircut, not knowing she did it herself!
To try and reinforce to her that perhaps next time she should pause before she leaps, I came up with the crème de la crème of punishments: telling her dad who was not yet home. When she yelped: “You tell Daddy. It’s too hard!” I knew I had found her Achilles heel. So, I quietly dialed my husband’s cell and through a waterfall of tears she blurted out: “I gave myself a haircut and didn’t tell Mommy!”
To her surprise, while shocked (“I thought we were beyond this with her” was his comment later on), he was not mad and actually told her he was proud of her for being brave enough to tell him. Then he added that “scissor privileges were revoked until further notice – and maybe forever”. Gotta have that parental melodrama in there somewhere! Plus, to a 6 year old, one day seems like forever.
We learned two big lessons that haircutting day. First, kids are kids and will do dumb things at times. Second, not overreacting to the small things is likely the only way to get our kids to be brave enough to come to us with the big things. I can’t tell you how often I see kids terrified for turning to their parents. One little nine year old was frantic a few years ago at an after school ski program because she lost $3.00. “My mom will kill me!” was her comment. I remember another worried she painted her nails at a friend’s house. Those parents will find themselves with some sticky years if they don’t find a way to temper their expectations with the reality of their kids’ ages.
I view kids younger years as the minor leagues for the teenage and young adult times when the ante is up’d big time on the type of messes our kids will potentially get themselves into. This is a trust road that is not only a two way street but includes many speed bumps and pot holes. For our kids to trust us enough to come to us, we have to let them off the hook a bit when they do and remain calm and approachable.
The more age-appropriate we are with our expectations for our kids the easier it will be to ward off some chaos, and be more prepared for the unexpected. For example, you can talk to your 3 year old for hours about why marking walls with markers is not a good idea but they just won’t get it – not until they are older. So, put the markers away and supervise more closely next time the markers are out. And, just to be safe, invest in the washable kind.
So, next time your child does something that throws you for a loop, once you peel yourself off the ceiling and take a deep breathe, remind yourself that if it can happen on TV and to friends of yours with kids the same age, it can and will happen to you!
I guess I have to face the music that my hope that my kids will turn that corner on the chaos years is all one big fantasy. And, since I have not yet experienced the teenage years, I’m a bit worried about what tomorrow’s unexpected moment will be…but at least I know it’s coming.