Saturday, April 18, 2015

Shoe Polish

We are going to a cocktail party tonight. I realize there are many people for whom cocktail parties are a special treat, but I am not one of those people. Small talk, fancy clothes, and uncomfortable shoes are not my idea of a good time.

But I'm beginning to warm to the idea of dressing up. It's been a while. I decided that I couldn't possibly tolerate standing in pumps, so I think I've put together an outfit with my high-heeled tall boots. I bought these boots many moons ago--pre-motherhood--and they were quite a fashion stretch for me at the time.

They probably are out of date now. I had to remove a substantial layer of dust when I found the boots in my closet today.

The years have not been kind to my boots. They were so scuffed that I really didn't think I could wear them for dress-up. I started to rethink the whole thing before realizing I could polish them.

I knew I had shoe polish somewhere. I knew where I used to keep it, before I realized it was used so infrequently (never) that it should be somewhere less accessible. Four closets later, I found the less accessible place.

I can't remember the last time I polished shoes. I haven't worn dress shoes regularly in more than fifteen years--business casual took care of that before motherhood did. To be honest, it wasn't like I did a lot of shoe polishing back in the day either. I often could find a guy in my office building I could pay to do it for me. I wasn't sure if I remembered how.

The saddle soap was so old that the can had rusted shut, so I settled for wiping off the layer of dust and dove into the task at hand. As soon as I smelled the polish and held the brush in my hand, I was transported to the day that my dad taught me how to polish shoes, and it all came rushing back to me.

My dad and I sat on the red barstools at the work table in his basement workshop. I was in high school. As with most of the things my parents taught me, I'm sure I saw no reason why I'd ever need to know what he was showing me. Despite this, I must have paid attention.

The how-to video buried in my mental archives was clear as day and better than any YouTube video. I could see my dad holding a pair of dress shoes, teaching me step-by-step how to do this boring (but grown-up) task.

My fifteen-year-old boots now look like new, and I did it myself. With dad's help.

This undoubtably will be more satisfying than the cocktail party.

Lest my mom feel left out, I feel exactly the same way whenever I iron a shirt. We usually send them to the cleaners, but I starch and iron in a pinch. The smell of starch reminds me of my mom's kitchen, and I vividly remember the high school day she taught my friend and me to iron. 

I don't remember much about that trip to Disney World, but I remember how to iron and polish shoes. It's the little things that stick with you for the long run.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Expectations: Intentional and Otherwise

Although we may not always be conscious of it, most parents know that our expectations affect our children's behavior. Parents of toddlers quickly realize that the worst possible reaction to a fall is to gasp and show concern. Better to pretend you didn't notice and see if the child will dust himself off and keep playing.

I've been more aware of the expectations I convey to my children since listening to a fascinating podcast on This American Life, titled "Batman." The episode was the premier of the new NPR podcast Invisibilia, which I highly recommend, and the question it posed was: "Can other people's expectations of you alter what you can do physically?" It sounds preposterous, but the conclusion was a definitive "yes."

The podcast features a blind man, Daniel Kish, whose mother never told him that "blind people can't do that." If he wanted to do something, she let him try. He climbed fences and trees, walked to school alone, and even learned to ride a bike. As an adult, Kish takes long, unguided hikes in the woods, and he's trying to give other blind people this type of independence by teaching them his method, echolocation.

As a teacher, Kish has found the greatest hurdle to a blind child's independence to be her family's love. Parents love their child, fear she will get hurt, and limit what she tries. If the child doesn't try, she can never learn. If that child is blind, she remains physically dependent on others.

The podcast focuses specifically on Kish's story and blindness, but I found its applicability to parenting to be obvious. It made me consider what cues I'm giving my children about my expectations for them.

My husband and I are very clear about certain expectations for our children. From behavior to chores to school work, we are explicit about what we expect.

Do I set other expectations unintentionally? I forced myself to consider whether I limit what my children can achieve through my own expectations. Do I sometimes hold them back because of my own urge to protect them?

Of course I do.

I realized that I should let my son ride his bike farther away from our house than I do. And I should allow him to wander from home alone. My fear for his physical safety is disproportionate to the likely risk, so I've given him a little more free rein. (For my own peace of mind, I send him with my iPhone so that he can call home and I can surreptitiously track his whereabouts. Baby steps.)

When I was honest with myself, I acknowledged that my husband and I were not helping to improve our son's perception that he's "not good at sports." When he waffled about whether to try something new, we never said, "I think you can do it." Instead, we said it would be fun to be with friends or healthy to be active.

I've changed that message. This month, my son surprised us by enthusiastically signing up for track and field.

My daughter is a strong, independent child. This made her a difficult toddler and will make her a horrible teenager, but they are qualities that will serve her well in life. I've always made it clear to her that she is smart, strong, and can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

I recently found myself in the unusual position of conveying a different kind of expectation. I told my daughter that she could not solve a problem on her own. I told her that she not only shouldn't try, but probably wouldn't succeed if she did.

Another child has been acting out on the playground, and my daughter's anxiety about it caused her to become physically ill for weeks. Now that the situation is being closely monitored, I reassured my daughter that she has nothing to worry about. She is safe. I emphasized that, should she see anything inappropriate, she should not try to solve the problem herself; she should tell a teacher.

Her reaction surprised me. She told me she likes to be "independent." She likes solving her own problems. She doesn't want teachers intervening and doing it for her.

If only it always worked that way.

Even fierce people need help sometimes. And some problems can't be solved by sheer will.

I told her that she can't fix another child's problem. Kindness helps, but it likely is not enough in this situation. This child's behavior is beyond my daughter's control, and perhaps even beyond his own control. It's more than she can or should handle, which is why she must tell a teacher.

I've emphasized strength and independence for so long that it's going to take a while for my child to understand that I expect her to be vulnerable and I expect her to ask for help. I expect her to be human.

I hope she quickly internalizes that it's not a weakness, but a strength, to ask for help. That too will serve her well in life.

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The "Batman" podcast can be found at This American Life. I highly recommend it. I listened to it a second time with my kids, who were as fascinated by the story as I was, without drawing all the parenting connections that I did.