February 25, 2018

there's a problem

I'm a product of my generation.  So is he.

There's a generational cycle where parental rigidity and strictness give way to leniency, then over-protectiveness, then a freedom to experience natural consequences.  Then back to strictness, as a result of resentment toward the lack of structure in childhood.  It repeats; not necessarily in that order, but it cycles.

I think parents of my generation are firmly in a socialized over-protectiveness mode.  Our kids are paying for it in a way that I suspect is, in spite of the cyclical nature of parenting, unprecedented.

They can't solve problems worth a runny shit.

We played outdoors a lot, those of us who grew up in the strictness and leniency eras.  I tramped through copperhead-infested woods near my home and built a tree house because nobody pointed out that a nine-year-old couldn't do that.  We all rode bikes and jumped over creeks and handled our parents' power tools with a matter-of-fact quasi-respect.  If a problem came up, it never occurred to us to solicit parental assistance.  We built bridges and fixed our own flat bicycle tires and basketballs.  We hung upside down on monkey bars by our feet.  This playground (a new trend that I hope is a sign we're moving into a ground-breaking version of the next generation's parenting) would have been entertaining, but not all that different from our day-to-day doings.  We set fires and then considered coming up with a way to put them out.  Hammering nails and digging deep holes, crossing busy highways and climbing precariously weak-limbed trees, were standard fare.  We tended to our own and went home for lunch and supper.  Skinned knees earned an annoyed parent who reminded us where the ointment and bandages were located.

They certainly couldn't phone or text us.

My son recently rolled his eyes when I asked him to please, please begin using the facial acne wash that I had purchased for him months before.  He explained that he only washed his face in the shower and the bottle of wash wasn't in the shower.  I didn't have to count to ten; seven was sufficient.  It was one of my good days.  "Kid, the bottle is portable.  Why don't you pick it up and move it away from the sink and into the shower with you?"  A light bulb went off above his head that should never have had its filament disturbed.  "Oh yeah, I could!"

It had never occurred to him.

I don't think it's a case of the highly-intelligent absent-minded professor, either.  That comes out in the black and white shirts worn over navy blue shorts with orange piping.  His mind truly is elsewhere for most of any given day, but I didn't anticipate that the most basic of challenges would find him stymied and, often, defeated.

A voice calls out from upstairs:  "Hey Mom, I need help emptying this trash into the bag.  It takes four hands."

"No," I yell back.  "Lay the bag on the floor, insert the trash can on its side, then grab the bag while holding the plastic on either side and turn it upside down."

I tense and wait for the sound of discarded notebooks and outgrown socks and Popsicle sticks to crash together onto the floor, but he manages the task.  I want to rend my garments.  I should not have had to tell him this.

He was proud of himself afterward.  He was proud of himself the night he unboxed and assembled his Ikea kit nightstand with no assistance whatsoever, save for the instruction booklet.  That was a bright spot that left him glowing for days.  Novelty can do that.

He's nature-deprived and overly air-conditioned.  He hasn't had to think through many processes, at least not at home, because our parenting has unwittingly deprived him of the trouble in life needed to learn how to cope with the little things, then the not-so-little things.

My mantra now to him is, "Solve the problem."  He hates when I say this, but I've begun to refuse to help him.  If he's particularly frustrated, I use the Socratic method (P.J.'s idea) and make him think through it.  And I refuse to be the one to contact his teachers if there is an issue.  That's his problem.

He has to walk three blocks to his bus stop, now that he's in high school.  The first time it rained, he was at a loss.  The brand new, very expensive, high-quality rain jacket that I told him about the night before was hanging on its peg a few feet away, with an umbrella beneath it.  He texted me.

Another text:

What does he do?  My co-worker heard the dull "thud" when my forehead hit my desk.

It's too late to go back and provide him with a childhood rich in opportunities to problem-solve.  I'm scrambling now for ways to boot-camp his brain through when he encounters problems.  "Solve the problem.  What could you do?  What items do you own that could help?  What order should you do all that in?"  Think, kid.  Think.

He'll never build a tree house and I won't let him near a drill.  Boy Scouts did little to instill skills.  This is my fault, and I'm floundering now, grasping for remedial ideas.  I can't let him go out into the world when he can't figure out what to do once the toothpaste tube is empty, when time management and deadlines and budgeting are his and his alone to navigate.

He's lost in the woods.  There are wolves.  But we all found our way through them.  Will he?  This is a millennia-old parental worry, but the world is changed and these woods are unexplored and no longer have well-worn pathways.  And the worst thing we can do for our kids now is to hand them baskets of bread crumbs.

The only way out is through.

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