06 February 2008

Nature and nurture

I have thought a long time about this post and it will be a long post. Bear with me...

It all started 10 days ago with Ella saying: "Mum, when I'm as big as you, I'll give my dummy to Santa."

Hold on, rewind. It all started when Ella was a few weeks old and I gave her a dummy for the first time. I was in tears. Torn apart by guilt. In the months and years that followed it became clear to me that the disrupted sleep (because of losing the dummy or interference with her breathing), the endless searches to locate the lost dummy, the arguments over when it was appropriate to use the dummy (eg. NEVER when talking!) did vastly outweigh the initial benefits than the comfort the dummy seemed (s-e-e-m-e-d) to give that tiny little baby or the respite it may have given me.

About 8 months ago, I took it from her during the day (for the second time). Huge tantrums ensued, but she adapted totally to the dummy-free days within 48 hours. I did not have the heart to follow the same strategy for the dummy at night though.

In the lead up to Christmas, I started talking about putting the dummy under the christmas tree on christmas eve so Santa could give it to a poor baby who had no dummy and leave an extra special present for Ella in return. She clearly liked the idea of it, but bailed out at the last minute and I know when I've lost a battle and so didn't put any pressure on her.

A few weeks went by until, ten days ago, we had following conversation:

Ella - Mum, when I'm as big as you, I'll give my dummy to Santa.
Me - You don't have to wait until you're as big as me. You could do it when you're as big as [insert name of 4yo here]. In fact, you can do it whenever YOU choose. It'll be your choice.
Ella - I don't need my dummy anymore. I want to give it to Santa so he can give it the babies who have no dummy.

I must admit that I looked sceptical, but I happily participated in the rest of the conversation which mainly revolved about speculation on how many babies Santa had, where she should leave her dummy so he could find it, about calling Santa on the phone (letters to the North pole are so passé) and what she wanted him to leave as a present in return for her dummy: a new cat, because she already had two bears and only one cat, so the new cat would even the numbers.

She went to bed without a dummy for the first time in almost 3 years. She got up to ask me for another last cuddle about six times and I was unusually lenient because I realised how hard this was on her. She finally fell asleep and I cheered (quietly) and celebrated this milestone with a glass of red in front of the tele. She had a great night sleep.

In the morning we called Santa (Thanks C!), gave him instructions and by the time we came home that evening the dummy was gone (did you know the North pole is actually at the top shelf of my hallway cupboard?) and in its place was a brand new cuddly cat.

That night things started to get ugly. Even though (or because?) she would not admit that she was upset because she missed her dummy, there was lots of crying and lots of reassuring to be done, and I even had to resort to sitting with her in bed for a while, something I have always refused to do (and not only for selfless reasons!) in the past.

The following two nights were pretty much the same. Last Sunday things escalated and she cried in bed for over an hour while I went through the whole gamma of pity, guilt, frustration and anger. The image of the dummy in the hallway cupboard kept haunting me.

There were some (you know who you are!) who questioned how long it would take before she got the dummy back. I replied I am so not raising a quitter. If she hadn't made the decision herself, I wouldn't have been as tough. But she did and I had to make sure she persevered. We stick to our decisions and we do not give up when the going gets tough.

Fortunately after that Sunday night I suddenly realised that - again - I had forgotten one of the most important rules when dealing with toddlers: pre-warning! The next nights I made a point of preparing her well in advance for the inevitability of going to bed without a dummy, lavished praise onto her and she went to sleep without protesting or crying. I've been sneaking into her room every night since to watch her sleep without a dummy. It chokes me up. Not only because she looks so perfect, peacefully asleep with 'new cat' tightly clutched to her chest. But also because she did it! She showed real perseverance, bravery even and she's only three! And because I felt proud of myself for helping her through it too. For helping her do something that would allow her to be proud of herself and to gain confidence in her own strength.

It resulted in me thinking a lot about what parenting is really about for me.

And it made me think of one particular story of my own childhood. When I was about eleven I heard for the first time kids talk about how they asked their mum for something and she said no but they would "nag and nag and nag until she said yes". They were all laughing about it and exchanging ways to wear their mothers down and I just sat their with my jaw on the floor in shocked silence. The thought had never occurred to me that one could do this. And it only took me about thirty seconds to realise that the 'one' in this sentence did not include me. When my mum said no, it remained no always. The decision was set in concrete, never to be changed again. I also very quickly decided that my life was a whole lot simpler (even at that young age simplicity was a state I highly aspired to) than theirs. I did not waste my energy on nagging and begging. I could spend my energy on accepting the decision (which, mind you, was by no means always fair from where I stood) and move on to other things.

In hindsight it was also ironic that the kids that were so proud of their manipulation strategies were all rich kids. The offspring of lawyers and plastic surgeons. And they grew up begging for things and even feeling proud of doing so. I was the poor kid in school and I have never begged for anything in my life. But this is not the right time or place to launch into a discourse on good old-fashioned labour class values...

I remember these - and other - constants from my childhood very clearly. I don't think it's really possible to learn which values to pass on to your children from parenting books or documentaries. I believe we all dig into our histories and from there source the values and principles that we believe made us who we are. These principles and values echo through generations. The methods we use to teach our kids these values do change over generations, but the underlying principles don't.

The idea that by teaching my daughter perseverance, I also prepare her to pass this gift on to her children and their children and so on makes me grow silent. I feel like I am just a link in a chain and I feel a huge responsibility to not break that chain and at the same time I feel a relief that I am not doing this alone. I have my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents behind me on this.

1 comment:

Neet said...

That was a lovely post Lin. I agree with all your sentiments!! I can't remember ever whingeing about my parents decisions either... there was just that knowledge that that was that. The only time I can remember mum changing a decision was when I was about 9 and I had a logical discussion with her and convinced her of my point of view (and I still remember to this day how impressed I was that she was actually willing to come around to my point of view!) But it was a long way from nagging!
It's amazing how prevelant the 'wear them down' attitude is! I see it (and cop it) all day every day... and realise that the only reason kids do it to me is because their parents must give in to it at home. So I try to do my little bit for simplifying these childrens lives by not giving in to the nagging and tantrums!!
I think Ella's very lucky, and will turn out to be more calm and well balanced because of your approach!
(nice work on the dummy milestone too! :)