I was a young mom of three small children, sometimes overwhelmed and always worried. Would the aunts and uncles leave the house on Christmas and say, “God, those kids are brats?” Would you grow up to be polite, friendly, and considerate human beings? As a stay-at-home mom, my street cred depended on it so with every gift received, with every piece of birthday cake cut for you, with every kindness offered to you, I demanded a show of gratitude.
“What do you say?”
You dutifully said, “Thank you,” and kissed the grandma, the uncle, even the relative who was almost a stranger to you. And the people said, “Isn’t that sweet?” If you looked uncomfortable with the exchange, I simply chalked it up to awkwardness. They will learn, I told myself, just as I did. Old aunties might smell funny and pinch your cheeks and ask you questions that are way too personal and completely out of line, but that’s just the way it is. Tell them thank you and give them a hug like you mean it. And you did, every time.
Now you are adults, and you are polite, friendly and considerate, so the observer might say the goal was achieved. But I know that you would have become those things anyway, because you are pretty amazing people despite your parents’ feeble parenting strategies. And because we are polite, friendly, and considerate people, and you would have eventually learned from our example. That’s what children do, after all. Hitting you over the head with it time and time again wasn’t necessary, and certainly wasn’t helpful.
Every time I uttered, “What do you say?” I sucked some of the joy out of the room. Of course, I didn’t see it that way then. I was teaching you the right way to do it, stepping in between you and the giver to impose my own rules on your relationship because I didn’t trust you to manage that connection on your own. I was too afraid to trust you, too worried to give you control over your own social interactions and too concerned with appearances to let you stumble and fall.
I read all the parenting books. I knew that no child comes out of the womb with an understanding of social graces, so I was completely forgiving when any other young child I knew messed up, threw a tantrum, or behaved like an ogre. But not you three, not my children. You see, the stakes were higher, and honest, unaffected love was too hard for me to muster as a mother, so I asked you to bear the burden of my insecurities and you did it so beautifully. How silly we adults are when we expect our children to act like grown-ups so we don’t have to. It would have been so easy for me to simply say “thank you,” modeling for you how we express gratitude with our voices, knowing that you would have come to it in your own time, in your own authentic way.
I’m sorry that I made you say thank you. I appreciate it every time you say it now, because I hope you really mean it. I know I do. Thank you for teaching me.
Mary O’Connell was founding director of LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukie, Wisconsin and now works as Training Coordinator for LifeWays North America; she is also on the LifeWays Board and runs Paradise Farm near Milwaukee.