On this going-nowhere-journey of sheltering in place, just when I think I’ve found the right formula for getting my family through this time and our system is seemingly running smoothly, I am painfully reminded that it’s not running nearly as well as I think. Case in point, an experience with my 9 year old last week where I was jolted into awareness that it’s lovely to have rules and clear expectations around school work and technology, but I can’t assume things will stay on track. Any system I create as a parent requires regular maintenance to make sure things are actually running as I imagine. Shocking announcement, they’re usually not.
The rule for our nine-year-old around technology during the school week, while sheltering in place, is that before he can have an hour of screen time, all of his classes and video assignments must be completed, his homework must be done, his bed must be made, his lunch eaten, clean clothes put on, teeth brushed (which doesn’t always happen in the morning), laundry folded and put away. Sounds like I’m really winning this pandemic thing, right? Not so fast…
So here’s what happened on Monday afternoon. My son came to me, iPad in hands, and expectantly requested to have his screen time. I asked if he had completed all of his assignments for school, he said: “Yes, except for a science assignment due Wednesday.” My parenting alarm bells went off when I heard that sentence. Any statement from my children that contains the phrase “except for” is a red alert warning that there is a problem to follow, and it turned out I was right to be concerned. The science assignment that he told me was due Wednesday, had actually been due the previous Friday, and not only that, before the actual due date, my son took matters into his own hands and emailed his science teacher to ask if “he HAD to do the assignment” to which she responded, inconveniently for him, “yes.” (I couldn’t help but be impressed by his gall to email a teacher to ask if he HAD to complete an assignment.) He then proceeded to ignore her email, play hours of electronics all weekend and fail to do the assignment until that very moment when I indicated that it had been due four days prior. At which point, my son started crying with large, gulping sobs because he knew what was coming next — his screen time for that day was taken away.
Rather than rip his iPad out of his hands, throw it to the floor and stomp on it until it shattered into 1,000 pieces like I wanted to, I took a couple of deep breaths to help calm my fury. (FYI deep breaths help solve about 90% of the world’s problems.) I then hugged him tightly to help him reset from his total meltdown and provide him with the opportunity to get snot all over my shirt. Also, hugging prevented him from seeing my face filled with alternating expressions of silent rage and silent laughter at the absurdity of the series of events. The few moments I took to hold him allowed me to gain some space from my own anger as well and realize a couple of things. One, I could tell from the email exchange with his teacher that he tried to get out of doing the assignment not because he was being naughty, but because he wasn’t sure how to go about the work. He was avoiding it and putting it off in the hopes that it would go away. Boy could I relate to that feeling — my life is filled with too-many-to-count experiences of: maybe if I wait long enough, this problem will just disappear? Two, when my son was found out, he was deeply ashamed that he hadn’t done the assignment, triggering lies and tears. As his parent, I needed to remember that his lying about the fictional due date wasn’t a sign that he was a terrible child, but rather a sign that he felt terrible about having messed up and couldn’t find a way out of his mistake.
Once those realizations gave me some much needed perspective, I was able to take constructive action. First, I committed not to cave on taking away his screen time, even though his loud, messy crying broke my heart a little. Second, I needed to help him pull together a game plan to get out of this mess. I knew that investing a few minutes with him now, as annoyed as I was, would pay off in the end. I had him talk me through his approach to the long-neglected science assignment. Surprisingly, my son had a good sense of what he needed to do and basically I just needed to sit and work next to him while he completed the assignment. It turned out he needed a chance to talk things out and he needed some company, but he didn’t actually need my help.
This whole experience with my kid was an important reminder that having the best of intentions around parenting and technology is wonderful, but inevitably things will go wrong, our kids will mess up, we will lose our patience, there will be shouting and tears and all of that is totally fine. I had built a system for my kids, but I wasn’t maintaining it and he wasn’t developmentally able to maintain the system on his own. By not providing regular maintenance, I was also leaving my kid to dangle in the air, write shocking (yet admirably ballsy) emails to his teachers and land himself in a shame and avoidance spiral.
After a I stopped blaming myself for failing my kid, I started to think about where this particular incident falls within the pantheon of pandemic parenting. What I recognized was this: as a parent, after putting the rules in place, I am often so relieved to be able to move onto another responsibility, that I fail to revisit what I have built, leaving the system vulnerable to the elements of human nature. The hard work of parenting comes not in setting up the system, but in doing the boring and mundane work of maintaining the system: reviewing homework assignments, sitting at the kitchen table while projects are built, making sure work get turned in. More than that, in this strange time, we are human beings functioning day to day under a constant cloud of stress and so our systems will be even more imperfect and likely to break down than under ordinary circumstances. We are all making things up as we go along — parents and kids –improvising the best we can, somedays to just survive and other days to find some meaning and joy amongst this weird time. In normal life, I work hard to give my kids and myself permission to regularly screw up, and in quarantine life, we all get double allowances for screw ups. Frankly, if a late science assignment is the worst thing to come out of this experience, I will count myself extremely lucky. So please excuse me while I go ask my kid what homework is due tomorrow…
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