Monday, February 15, 2010

When your child surprises you (in a good way)

When Tim was an infant, the facilitator of the new parents’ group I attended gave me countless nuggets of wisdom about parenting, especially where babies were concerned.

But sometimes good advice about babies turns out to be good advice about kids in general. One that sticks in my mind is “Let your baby surprise you.” Don’t assume that things won’t go well, the facilitator, whose name was Robin, used to counsel us. Just because you’ve heard that it’s really hard to get a newborn to sleep alone in a crib doesn’t mean it will be for you. Put him to bed and see what happens. Just because you’ve heard breast-fed babies won’t take bottles doesn’t mean you’ll have a problem when you go back to work. Give it a chance. Let your baby surprise you.

The “baby” in question is eleven now, but sometimes when I remind myself of Robin’s soothing maxim, it still works. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened. Let your baby surprise you.

Tim has had a button aversion since he was in preschool – really, now that I think about it, since he could express preferences, so maybe it’s not something that developed but something he had in babyhood and just couldn’t explain to us. He despises wearing clothes with buttons. Zippers, too. And this poses a big problem when he’s required to dress up. Most of the time, he wears sweatpants with jerseys, t-shirts or sweatshirts. Fortunately for us, boys’ sweatpants have evolved now to the point where they don’t necessarily look like something strictly for gym class, with drawstring waist and puckered-elastic cuffs. Now there are sweatpants ideal for kids like Tim who won’t wear anything else. They come in dark colors, elastic hidden, and hang like regular pants. With a clean jersey or pullover sweater, Tim almost looks acceptably dressed these days.

But with the death of Rick’s 91-year-old grandfather last week, Tim was faced with having to attend his first wake and funeral. And I was not at all happy with the fact that along with the general sadness of losing a beloved family member, I knew I’d have to deal with the tantrum to end all tantrums when Tim found out he’d be expected to don zippered pants and a button-down shirt for the occasion.

But, to paraphrase Robin from the era of my life when Tim’s age was counted in weeks rather than years, my baby surprised me. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the shopping trip – in fact, he refused to try clothes on at the store, so I estimated and bought a couple of sizes, figuring I could return what didn’t fit – but when the time came to get ready for the wake, Tim donned his new attire.

And he didn’t complain, which is what surprised me even more. Not only did I not get the full-scale tantrum I anticipated; I didn’t even get much foot-dragging. Having learned a thing or two myself about adversarial parenting situations over the past eleven years, I told Tim to start dressing an hour before we needed to leave, knowing that needing to rush always makes tense situations escalate rapidly where children are concerned. With plenty of time to prepare, Tim put on his new clothes without a word of protest.

And I have to admit, I welled with pride to see him dressed so nattily. (Compared with his usual hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, an Oxford shirt and cords qualified as natty indeed.) Not only that, but as clichĂ© as it might sound, dressing like an adult really did seem to change his behavior. Once dressed, he was ready to go. He didn’t skirmish with his younger sister; he packed his overnight bag efficiently and helped carry things out to the car. He was dressed like an adult for once and, to my surprise, acted a little bit like one as well.

A couple of hours into the evening, he whispered to me, “Don’t expect me to dress like this all the time now!” No, I won’t. And, needless to say, I hope he doesn’t have to attend any more wakes any time soon. But he surprised me, and in doing so, he reminded me of exactly what Robin tried to tell me over eleven years ago: expect things to work out when it comes to parenting, because a lot of times, they do.

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