Friday, September 30, 2011

Raising the Children ALL WRONG

or, parenting differently than your parents. I imagine most of us have at least some experience with this - after all, we all probably do some things like our parents did and some things differently. And then you throw a spouse into the mix, with their own parents and ideas.

And then you make the spouse from a different country from yours, and you get a treasure trove of potential parenting differences.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Slovak and I are actually on the same page when it comes to parenting - and most other things. It's part of our cross-cultural magic. :) But as I've mentioned before, we are both so far out of our own cultures that we could almost miss in the middle. Neither of us feels bound by tradition and we're both pretty comfortable finding our own path. Being a bit different.

OK, I admit it. We love it. It's why we make a point of speaking Czech in central Arkansas - just to see people try not to stare...

But - we are the multicultural black sheep of two very monocultural families, and THERE is where the "raising the children ALL WRONG" title comes from!

You might expect we would have met opposition to raising our children with more than one language, but in fact that is one of the few areas we HAVEN'T heard criticism about. Everyone in our families thinks it's just great that our kids speak / will speak two or more languages. How fun! How useful! I think both sides know how they'd feel if THEIR language was the one being left out, so they're grateful we're keeping both languages covered.

(In fact, my mother once complained something about raising her granddaughter too far away from her - a legitimate complaint which I acknowledge - and I responded, "Be glad I'm making sure she speaks English." That put things in perspective.)

That said, our respective families DO find the reality of our bilingual family a little disconcerting, but they aren't opposed. And comments along the lines of "It's so strange to hear K speaking a language I don't understand, wow" I can handle.

Oh no, bilingualism isn't the issue. It's everything ELSE we do...which sometimes feels like EVERYTHING else we do. It never fails to crack me up, though, that while our families both disagree with (the details of) how we're raising K, they disagree in diametrically opposed ways.

For example, the Slovak's mother walks into a room and closes the window because are we TRYING to kill the baby? My mother walks into a room, opens the window, and goes to the other room to open another window to get a nice cross-breeze for that baby.

We put a sweater on the baby, and the Slovak's mother wants us to put on another layer and two hats. We put a sweater on the baby, and my mother says, "Get that sweater off that baby! It's not that cold!"

The Slovak's mother was disturbed that we wouldn't give our baby tea in a bottle. My mother was disturbed we wouldn't give her juice or formula in a bottle. (We exclusively breastfed.) The baby foods we eventually did use were also completely inappropriate.

His mother probably thinks we're too laid-back. My mother probably thinks we're too strict.

And so on, down the list of just about every area of child-rearing you can think of. Whenever either side gets too worked up about something, I point out that the OTHER side wants us to do it the opposite way, so if they're equally dissatisfied we consider it a parenting win. And the truth is that we DO do some things the way our parents do, it's just that the things we do differently make a much bigger impression. Due to being, you know, different.

At this point, four years in and having developed a bit thicker skin, it's actually kind of funny. When we were first starting out, though, it was incredibly stressful - we were just finding our balance as parents, making decisions like how to feed the baby and how to dress her, and a stream of criticism from the elder generation was less than helpful in boosting our confidence. Over time, though, we did find that balance, learn to trust our instincts - that often told us to do things a third way that neither of us learned at home - and developed the ability to smile pleasantly and do just as we like...

Some of the differences between our parents' styles and ours are cultural - tea for babies is Slovak, juice and rice cereal are American. Staying home from school for three weeks with a cold is Slovak, toughing it out and getting everyone else at school sick is American. And some are generational - the Slovak's parents are two years younger than my grandparents on one side (they started late, mine started early). In some very real ways my mother-in-law is closer to my grandmother (and her generation) in opinions than to my mother (and her generation) - much less than to me. The Slovak's mother raised him much the same as she was raised herself, meaning to make her really happy I'd theoretically have to adopt the habits of Slovak families in the 1940's. My mother is more flexible in her ideas, but there are clear areas where she thinks we're doing things strangely.

I think a lot of the resistance to our ALL WRONG approach to parenting is emotional - but that's not the way I raised you! What's wrong with how I raised you?? Anything you do differently can be construed as implied criticism of your own parents, which is then hurtful to them, even though so often the reason is much more simple: we live in another culture now and we're doing it their way, or that doesn't seem to work for my child's (or my) personality, or my spouse doesn't want us to do that. Any number of neutral reasons you might choose to do things differently.

And then the implied criticism actually IS sometimes the case - there are several areas where the Slovak and I are deliberately departing from our own upbringing, and while we don't throw it in our parents' faces, if they pressed the issue we'd have to say we simply disagree with their approach and want to try something differently. Different rules, different priorities, different disciplinary tactics. A different understanding of how children tick.

As a frivolous example, the Slovak and I both have clear memories of complaining that our heads hurt as children and being told, "No it doesn't. Children don't get headaches." And then being confused and annoyed because IT'S MY HEAD AND IT HURTS. So now we make a point that in OUR family, ANY member is allowed to get a headache at any age.

I remember the comment, sometime in the last year or two, "You probably think you're going to raise that girl without making any mistakes because you're such better parents than us, don't you?" My instant response was that NO, we don't think we're so much better parents, and we don't think we're going to avoid all mistakes. We just expect them to be our OWN mistakes, not a repetition of past generations. We're trying to learn from the past.

For instance, I grew up on stories of newbie mistakes my mother made with me as her firstborn, like the bees buzzing around my head because she stuck a hairbow to my head with honey, or not knowing she should be washing in the baby fat creases until she noticed horrible gunk in the crease of my neck when I was a few months old. So when I had a baby, I never put honey on her head and I made sure we washed her neck. What I didn't think of, though, was scrubbing DILIGENTLY behind her ears, until we noticed gunk behind there (we'd been just wiping without looking). And nobody told me that when potty-training, if you put a small child on the time-out spot and say DON'T GET UP, she WON'T. Even if she SHOULD. And you have a damp spot where she obediently went pee-pee right where you put her...

See, my daughter will probably know that story and not make that mistake. She'll make her own mistakes while looking back and being horrified at mine. Just as it should be.

And yet - somehow - with all this potential for hostility and culturally-, linguistically- and generationally-based disagreements, we have actually come to a fairly peaceful place. A place in which, despite thinking we do things ALL WRONG, both sides of our family tell us that we are doing a good job raising their grandchild (soon to be -ren) and admire the results of our parenting: K. If we can raise a girl that (confident, bright, sweet, kind - grandparents are biased...), then maybe there is something to what we're doing. At the very least it hasn't ruined her.

I think I've got this on my mind since within the next couple of weeks we'll be starting over with a newborn, and I wonder how much of the same ground we'll revisit with our parents - and if we'll deal with it better this time around. I think we will. Last time we were still learning what kind of parents we are. Now we know and will be prepared to defend those choices or adapt them to fit our new baby's needs.

Because sometimes being all wrong is just right. :)


  1. Oh how I relate to this! My mother-in-law thinks it crazy that we use a carseat for my kids and won't take 2 lap kids in a car with 5 seatbelts. She thinks I am a food despot because I don't like the kids to have hard candy and no candy before meals.
    My own mother thinks breastfeeding is obscene and cloth diapers are for environmental nutjobs. But mostly she thinks living away from her, and raising her grandkids in another country is evil. Sound familiar?
    I like that you are making your own mistakes. We are too. Probably it's all wrong but if my kids hate it they can have their own kids to mess up and start the circle all over again!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad not to be the only crazy daughter-in-law (or daughter) around. :) And I'm totally looking forward to finding out what my own children talk about on the therapist's couch in twenty years...I'm sure it'll be something good.



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