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Second Most Difficult Challenge as a Parent

Updated on April 2, 2011

Behind choosing your child’s educational path, helping your child deal with emotional pain has to be second. Married at eighteen and parents at nineteen, my husband and I are a decade ahead of our close friends, Caleb and Lisa. Caleb came to the cafeteria teachers’ table with a fresh new-parent story to share about his weekend. He was appalled with himself for having visualized the strangling of a two year old—not his, but Marcus, the toddler who pushed his son down during church playgroup. A minute into the dramatic telling of the story, I felt my sides bursting from laughter—I knew the feeling all too well.

People joke about parental instinct. They label their various levels of severity: Helicopter Parent, Soccer-Mom, PTA-Mom, G.I. Joe-Dad, etc. These labels find their way into our narratives as qualifying adjectives: “So, this G.I.-Joe Dad comes up, and he tells his son . . .”. The reality of the parental instinct ‘to protect,’ however, is no joke. The best advice I have is to wait at least until morning. We have all experienced moments of severe darkness. It’s midnight. You can’t sleep, and you feel like the walls of your existence are imploding inwardly upon you. You wake up. Let the dogs out—and the morning air hits you. It teases you onto the porch. You inhale and squint toward the light pinkening the clouds toward your east. Ahh . . . morning. Maybe not “all better,” but definitely better. Giving yourself a little time before acting upon your instinct is a huge challenge as a parent and a great lesson for your child.

The Sporting Side

One of the worst parent encounters I had as a middle school teacher originated not from the classroom, but from the unfortunate position I found myself in as an assistant coach. As is often the case in schools, I was asked to be an assistant soccer coach one season when the school’s Athletic Director was short on help. Begrudgingly having to admit I was familiar with the game and certainly familiar with the players, I agreed to stand in one season only.

Nearing the end of the first half, down 6-0, and feeling desperate because the Head Coach had a family emergency and couldn’t make it to the game, I made a switch in the line-up thinking I might strengthen our defense a little so we wouldn’t have to face the 10-0 mercy rule. One of our best offensive players was a pretty strong all-around player too, so I called to her, asking her to switch places with another girl and play defense. She shook her head no and continued playing on her own terms. This is middle school, remember? It happens. I felt I had no choice but to bench her. As soon as the half-time whistle blows, I look up from my clipboard and spot her—storming across the field. The angry Soccer-Mom. She let me have it—in front of her daughter, the rest of the girls, the few other parents who were hovering . . . . She didn’t ask my reasoning for the benching. She saw that we were down 6-0 and that her daughter, one of the team’s best players, was sitting dejectedly on the bench.

Harassment & Bullies

Whether inuendoed harassment from the opposite sex or outright bullying from your child’s same-gendered grouping, one day your child will come home having been a victim. It’s natural to want to immediately pick up the phone and begin calling. You want to call the school administrators, the teacher, the parents of the guilty party—you want to jump into action. Obviously, there are occasions where swift action might be most appropriate, but those are not the norm. Reacting on pure instinct and taking charge of the situation without talking it through with your child and giving it a little time does not do a darn good thing—or worse, teaches your child all the wrong things.

An example from my own life: When my now eighteen year old daughter was in eighth grade, the girls in her class began dividing themselves into classes. Girls who had spent the night in our home, whom I had taught and my husband had coached, began pecking at my daughter. It was analogous to a nest of Black Eagles. Black Eagles lay two eggs a cycle, four days apart. As soon as both are hatched, Cainism takes place with the slightly older chick triumphing over the other. The individual pecks made by the other girls toward my daughter were not significant enough in and of themselves to cause severe damage. The consistency of the pecking, however, became our primary concern.

Heartbreak Hotel

And of course, the day will come when you’ll have to watch your child suffer romantic heartbreak. Nothing in me drew out more severe physical reaction than did this. I not only visualized strangling, but pulverizing. I’m sure my husband visualized worse.

The hardest aspect of this challenge is that your child can be in tears or can be slamming things around and biting the heads off his or her other siblings. You’ll swoop in and offer your tidbit of parently comfort, and suddenly your a-second-ago-miserable child will be defending the imbecile who inflicted the wound. You may even become the enemy in your child’s tirade. You’ll hear how you always do this or always think that.

The Prophetic Lessons

Being a parent is hard. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. You will make mistakes. But harder than making mistakes, or even admitting those mistakes, will be watching your child make them. If you don’t gently let them fall, however, you’ll rob them of life’s most important lessons. My soccer player was robbed of the lesson that was forming in her as she was asked to sit on sidelines and watch her team suffer without her help. In the pecking act of girls being girls, we had to make sure our child didn’t end up an Abel but still encouraged her to face the difficulty of the situation. She had to define for herself the concept of friendship. Would she continue to put herself in the same nest? Our children need to fall in love with imbeciles. It’s true, and it’s aggravating and heart-wrenching to witness . . . but if they don’t, they’ll never recognize the strength within them to evaluate their mistakes and use them in making the life-changing decisions that will one day follow.

Brief Bio:

Jenn Gutiérrez holds an M.F.A in English and Writing. Previous work has appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The Writer’s Journal, The Acentos Review, Antique Children, and Verdad Magazine. Her 2005 debut collection of poems titled Weightless is available through most online book outlets. She is currently working on a doctoral degree in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Denver.

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