Sunday, April 8, 2007

Turtles and Parenting

This is going to be a slightly different style entry, so please bear with us.

A few days ago, Andy read an interesting blog entry and passed it on to Heather. The first part of the entry talks about box turtles, and doggone it if it didn't bring back happy memories of Forest. (Forest was Heather's pet box turtle for a decade, starting in college when he wasn't technically allowed to be living in the dorm.) This charming little tortoise was a persistent if unsuccessful escape artist, and we hope he's behaving himself for his friend Onah who has been his primary person for going on two years now...

At any rate, the blog entry in question uses the escape tactics of box turtles to demonstrate how people aren't good at detecting change that happens slowly. You can keep an eye on a box turtle for only so long, and then the little bugger manages to make it out of sight when you least expect it. This sort of thing is also a problem for systems that are meant to be automated with humans for backup. We expect the automated system to keep functioning, and as a result we simply cannot pay attention well enough to catch the anomalies.

All of a sudden, this seemed like parenting! There is so much repetition involved in raising kids that time can feel distorted. When babies are little and parents are sleep-deprived, it's really helpful that babies seem to be engineered to have simple (if omnipresent) needs. Parents are necessary, of course, but babies seem to grow merrily along on their own program in spite of their parents, at least most of the time. It can seem like we're the equivalent of the computer backup system.

This feeling of being the backup for something that's going to happen anyway seems to hit stay-at-home parents particularly hard at one time or another. Days and tasks fall into monotony (feedings and diapers are just a jumping off point, really), and things unfold slowly. Before we know it, the box turtle has escaped the garden and we're left scratching our heads. Or your kid has a biting problem or bad manners or you and your spouse haven't had a date night in two months. Or all of those things. Do we really have such short attention spans?!

The key to all of this working out (at least on the parenting side) is perspective. With no hard numbers to prove any of this, it seems like the parents who actively enjoy watching things go well have a leg up on the ones who are constantly on the lookout for the next sign that doom is at hand. Maybe it's just more interesting to spot indicators that things are going well than to comb through all of that information and spot the anomalies.

One of the unspoken rules of parenting these days is that Good Parents worry about everything. Good Parents are aware of the dangers of the modern world and work tirelessly to shield their children accordingly. Good Parents stay awake nights worrying about which preschools might be right for their kids. Good Parents should be able to diagnose any medical problem at least as well as any doctor. And when we can't, we're Failures. And it all starts when the kiddoes are so young!

From a risk prevention perspective, this worry seems like the very worst approach possible. Poised for each and every disaster, it is possible to become too focused on some things and not enough on others. Constant worry can lead to exhaustion which leaves parents unavailable for the all-important job of averting system failures. Worry can also artificially limit coping mechanisms, which is something none of us really want to model for our kids. As a full-time strategy, worry is a loser.

On the other hand, there are parents who spend a lot of time being excited about the new things their kids learn to do. At some point in this interaction, any problems tend to make themselves noticeable. An observant parent on the lookout for fun and exciting things is also likely to recognize anomalies. All of this without constant fear and foreboding.

So, guilt-ridden parents of the world, rest assured that more worry and guilt will NOT make you a better parent. Follow that box turtle around the garden-it will be exciting for the both of you.

*This post was written after a moms' night out which involved appletinis. If it's incoherent, that's probably a good thing.

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