Ah, the joys of parenting. From the moment of birth, every new experience is a lesson for both the parent and the child. Starting with the first tentative step, followed by the first skinned knee, parenting is a series of ups and downs. You praise your children’s accomplishments, and you help them work through their disappointments, all the while trying to instill in them a set of morals that you believe will help them grow to be responsible, caring people. There will be moments of intense pride. Conversely, it’s inevitable that there will be periods they’ll stumble. Even good kids make bad decisions, but you hope that they’ll learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. Enter the teenaged years, and with gained independence comes greater accomplishments and, unfortunately, bigger mistakes.
Shelby is a good kid. She’s a bright child in every sense of the word. Her colorful clothing matches her sunny disposition. She’s smart, creative, and witty, and when she uses those traits in combination, she’s the Queen of One-liners, laced with a biting sarcasm that seems much beyond her thirteen years. Other times, she’s just plain goofy. She oozes enthusiasm for life with every bouncy step she takes. She is both my sweet angel, and my scary monster under the bridge.
Keith and I were so proud of her accomplishments during her Middle School Promotion back in June. In a sea of boys in shirts and ties their mothers laid out for them to wear, and girls decked out in sparkles and gold shoes worthy of high-school prom night, Shelby bounced up to receive her “President’s Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence,” given for maintaining an “A” average in every semester of all three years of middle school ... and she received it in her funky, spiked hair with the silly bow, a patterned peace sign dress, and black high-top Converse tennis shoes.
“How could you let her dress like that for graduation?!” my friend uttered. Huh? Part of being a parent, I believe, is teaching children that who they are is more important than how they look ... or how someone else thinks they should look. Conformity isn’t all it’s cracked up be. Do we really want our children to be die-cast Stepford cookie-cutter models of what we think of as the perfect child. I like her quirks and her Shelbyisms, and whatever phases of hair styles and clothing she goes through, I hope she never loses that in an effort to conform to somebody else’s standards. Even Keith, though proud of her academic achievement, was disappointed in the way she looked – I was disappointed in him for saying so. I saw it differently: I thought she looked exactly like Shelby – her appearance fit her personality to a tee, and I wouldn’t have expected it any other way. But it didn’t matter that I thought she looked cute; it wasn’t about what Keith or anybody else thought. It was her night to shine, and if she wanted to shine wearing high-top sneakers, that was her choice. I was as proud of her confidence in expressing her individuality, as I was in the award she earned.
And I was more disappointed in her for a choice she made later that month than I ever thought I could have imagined being. That she didn’t put herself, or anyone else in danger, or that on the grand scale of her life this would be a small pebble that doesn’t carry much over-all weight, doesn’t matter. There was no gray area in this choice; she knows right from wrong, and in this case, decided to do something without giving thought to the consequences.
What do you do when a child chooses wrong over right? Ground them? Does keeping them inside the house, barred from seeing friends and taking away phone, television and computer privileges, and giving them extra chores, teach them anything? In my experience, it does nothing but produce a moping, miserable child, who makes everyone else in the household miserable during the period of confinement. Keith, at times, would like to keep her locked inside the house, if for no other reason than to keep her protected and safe from the world outside.
Instead of grounding, I sentenced her to two weeks of community service, starting with taking fifty dollars of her own hard-earned babysitting money – a fortune for a thirteen year old – and donating it to a charity or organization of her own choosing. And she had to write a one-page essay on why she chose that particular organization.
The essay was the only part of her punishment she balked at. “An essay? Mom, it’s like you’re making me go to summer school.”
In one of those moments of stereotypical parental corniness seen through the eyes of a teenager, I replied, “It is summer school…and it’s called The School of Life.” (Even I rolled my eyes at that one.)
The essay was completed the next day. She chose to give her donation to The American Cancer Society, citing in the essay a long list of people in her life who’ve been affected by cancer, and her desire that a cure be found to help them. Sadly, shortly after, one of those on her list – her best friend’s father – passed away after a long battle with the disease. Writing the essay may have made her realize that no matter how bad she thinks she has it (having to actually write something during summer vacation – “OMG!!! The horror!!!”), there are people who have it much worse, and the harder lesson, that even as hope fades, we must continue to help however we can.
The community service part proved to be harder than I thought. Because of her age, many of the typical places where one might volunteer here in town – the Humane Society, the parks and recreation department, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Visitors Bureau – require an accompanying adult, and are open only during the day on weekdays, or on Saturdays. Keith and I both work during the times she could have volunteered at any of these places.
Instead, we spent time picking up trash on the Kal-Haven Trail, and after the weekend tourists went home leaving behind a beach littered with garbage, we cleaned up after them. I held the bag, and she did the dirty work. She dressed Quetta in a t-shirt she’d printed with “Donate to the Al-Van Humane Society.” Shannon pulled the wagon, and they went door-to-door collecting much needed cleaning supplies, blankets, towels, and office items for the shelter. These experiences may have reinforced the idea that we are all stewards of the earth and the creatures contained within.
Clothing, books, and odds and ends from her own room and closet were bagged and taken to Goodwill, so that people less fortunate than herself may benefit from things she often takes for granted.
The library was an exercise in tedium. She manned a table set up for the children’s summer reading program. The program participants she logged in during the evening hours where few and far between. The time she wasn’t manning the table, was spent “sight-reading” the shelves – books had to be put in alphabetical order according to authors. She didn’t like it – it was “bor-ring.” But not all jobs are exciting – some are tedious, but still must be done given the same attention to detail as tasks that are fun.
And she did get to have fun during this time. I put her and her friend to work serving lemonade and refreshments during the nursery’s annual “Art in the Arboretum” event. Afterward they cleaned up and put away chairs, loading them on a trailer attached to a John Deere Gator, and driving them back to the barn. She commented later that night, rating the various things during her community service time thus far, that this was by far the best (the library ranked worst).
Then came the highest ranking task on her list. Enlisting her friend’s help again, they painted the “band stand” in the children’s garden. She surprised me a bit with this project; I figured they’d use left-over paint from home, but she spent $70 of her own money buying rainbow colors for the railings, and black and white for a checker-board floor. (Look at them – punishment spent behind the bars of a rainbow-colored jail; I laughed when I took the picture thinking it so appropriate.)
They not only painted the structure – they painted their clothing, their legs, shoes, and anyone who happened to visit the children’s garden that day. Visitors are immortalized in brightly colored hand-prints on the beams of the structure.
When the last book was properly shelved, the last piece of trash picked up, the last chair folded, and the last paint brush cleaned, I wonder what, if anything, this has accomplished. Will she remember any of it years from now? Will it help her somehow, somewhere along the way? I’d like to think she gained more from the experience than she would have folding laundry and cleaning bathrooms at home. But I don’t know; parenting is as much a learning process as is growing from a child to an adult.
You give your children the tools you think they’ll need in life. They get your guidance, support, encouragement, and respect. There will be times you’ll be proud of how they put those tools to use. Sometimes even with the best of tools you can provide, they’ll struggle, and you’ll try to be there to help them figure it out. As a parent, you have to expect that on their walk through life, there will be a few minor splatters along the way. Even that’s okay – splatters add character; character builds strong individuals. And strong individuals have the confidence to wear paint-splattered tennis shoes when everyone else around them is wearing dress shoes. Shrug. Or something like that; I’m not sure exactly – in the job of parenting, I’m still learning.