My refrigerator looks like a museum of abstract art. I can barely find the handle sometimes, since it’s obscured by artwork, permission slips, and weekly spelling words. In the middle of this melange of mixed-media is a laminated chart. It has columns and rows of numbers, adding up both horizontally and vertically. It looks like an A+ math test; I wish it were the mark of achievement. And in some ways, it is.
It’s a behavior chart for my daughter Cricket, one in which she has target points for each part of the day, adding up to a possible 10. Her goals for the week are at the top. At any time from age 3 to the present (age 8)—her goals have been “I did not whine, backtalk, throw items, say hurtful things, sass, yell, ignore or spit.”
I often remove this chart before having visitors because it looks kind of mean that we rate Cricket’s day. I don’t always have the energy to explain it, or prove how much Cricket loves and learns from this chart. Sometimes I look at it and wince, being reminded of a really bad day.
But looking it everyday is as important to my development as it is to Cricket’s. When I grab the blue wet-erase marker to write her score, I am reminded of my faulty thinking that Cricket would be my version of a perfect child.
The first time Cricket disobeyed me, I was filled with disbelief. Seriously? I tell Cricket not to crawl into the kitchen while I’m cooking and she does it anyway? She won’t scurry to the closet and grab her coat as soon as I ask? Are you kidding me?
These things absolutely floored me. Crazy as it may sound, I assumed she’d listen the first time. I assumed a lot of things: She’d be sweet and well behaved; she would love to dress in gauzy dresses, and have tea-parties and cuddle and have the best table manners.
Well…no. Except for the sweet and cuddly part, Cricket is none of these things. She lives life at the top of her lungs, passionate about everything she does, especially showing her dismay when things don’t go her way.
I used to look at this chart and think to myself, “I cannot believe I have a child who hits and throws things. I don’t deserve this.” Of course these things are unacceptable and she does need to have consequences for her behavior. And she’s learning—faster than I have. Now when I look at this chart I think about how silly it was for me to ever think I could change her natural temperament.
But how did I get there? How do you let go of old ideals, and parent the child in front of you versus the one you thought you’d be raising?
Well, I can offer you my process. At first I tried to change Cricket’s temperament—which proved to be entirely fruitless and caused more upheaval than her original behavior. Then I took a look at why I was doing this, which tore open some childhood wounds that had turned me into such a controlling person. I allowed myself to go through a little grieving period, saying a goodbye of sorts to the child I assumed I’d have. Lastly, I forgave myself for acting like a monster for trying to change her. Most importantly, I apologized to Cricket, in ways she could understand.
This process might sound easy, but it took a long time. It was anything but smooth sailing. These steps often wound themselves around each other causing me to start again at the very beginning. But, I did it because I needed to and wanted to.
And here’s the real gem in all of this: I would not be who I am now, if I didn’t have such a strong-willed, passionate child. She was brought into my life to test me and challenge everything I thought I knew about, well, just about everything.
My example of the child I thought I would have happens to be about behavior. But really, this is about challenging our view that we cannot control who our kids will be. My chart is my visual reminder. What’s yours? Is it the untouched art supplies reminding you that your child does not have your creative flair? Is it your old lacrosse stick that you couldn’t wait to use with your child who has zero athletic ability or inclination? Whatever it is, I suggest you keep it around, once you’ve let go of trying to fight the unfightable.
I hope this helps at least one of you. I hope you realize that it is okay—important even—to acknowledge that you had different expectations for your children. Most importantly, I hope it helps you to chart a course to acceptance, forgiveness and renewal.