I’ve talked before about the fact that when I tell people we homeschool, they often respond by saying, “Oh my gosh. You must be so patient. I could never spend that much time with my kids!” (I was recently telling someone about this, and when Maya heard it she said, “Wow, that’s kind of insulting to the kids.”) But I know what the parent who says that means. It has become the norm for parents, when they are with their children, to feel the need to spend every second of that time – no matter how much or how little – deferring to what the kids want or providing constant entertaining stimuli (I think they call it ‘quality time’). It’s exhausting. It makes the parent irritable (and I would argue, also the child). And it also teaches bad habits. But aren’t parents supposed to attend to the needs of their kids?
This is where that fine line comes in.
I don’t believe that children owe their parents anything. The parents chose (one hopes) to have the kids and not the other way around. Therefore acting like children are indentured servants because they’ve been ‘provided’ a home and food, etc. is just ridiculous.
On the other hand, I also believe that it is difficult to be a good person, let alone a good parent, when you become completely subservient to your childs’ every whim. Children learn much of their behavior by watching the people around them. Knowing that sometimes they must find something to do on their own because Mom (or Dad) is busy paying bills, or working out, or reading or whatever, is a good skill. In turn, it should mean that when the child is absorbed in a project, Mom and Dad will leave them alone until they are done or wish to stop.
Being respectful of others includes not always interrupting their conversation; not always expecting that they will stop whatever they are doing, no matter how insignificant it may seem, to attend to you on a moments’ notice.
Parents, I’m talking to you.
How is such respect learned? If a parent constantly interrupts their children – even if it is to ask them if they ‘need’ something – they are modeling the kind of behavior the child will replicate. If a parent expects the child to stop drawing or staring into space or playing a game because the parent thinks it is more important for them to do something else (usually eating, drinking or going to the bathroom – up to a certain age anyway) they are, again, modeling the disrespectful type of behavior their children will inevitably learn. Then, when the children have mastered the art of never being able to entertain themselves and constantly interrupting whenever anyone else is talking or working, the parent becomes a frazzled, impatient mess.
As life learners, I feel the ideal situation is one in which I provide my kids all that they need (or at least make it readily available) and then I live my life with them nearby. They can do their own things while I do mine. Sometimes we’ll intersect and other times not. I provide support when it is really needed and requested (and try to stay out of the way the rest of the time). Though we don’t always succeed in achieving this ideal, there is no doubt that we are all at our happiest on the days when we do. In fact, I find that when we have a string of days that require me to shuttle my kids around from one activity to another (because they are not yet able to do so alone), thereby canceling my ability to complete my own chores or projects, I am not much fun to be around.
Maybe the line is not so fine after all. Maybe it’s just a matter of remembering that your kids are capable of much more than you think, most of the time, and that they learn much of their behavior – both the good and especially the bad – from you. Provide them with their needs but don’t shove those needs down their throats. Respect them enough to leave them alone and they will learn to do the same.