Earlier this week, I was talking to Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the author of “Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust” and one of my favorite people to talk parent-stuff with. He was cheerfully sharing one of his favorite metaphors for raising kids: the puzzle.
“You set up the borders—the edges,” he said. “Then they fill in the middle.” In his version, the edges are our boundaries, the health-and-safety-and-morality limits parent create to guide our children as they grow.
I like his version, but lately, I’ve been reminded that too many of us tend to set up a different kind of puzzle border around our kids, and even ourselves. Those edges say things like “can’t get along with her sister” and “doesn’t like to read” and “won’t try new things.”
We’re pretty savvy about labels, as parents. We know better than to do the whole “responsible one” or “athletic one” thing. But these other ways we think about our children can be just as limiting, and they’re insidious. We don’t even know we’re thinking of those puzzle pieces as edges. They’re just pieces we’ve put together that encourage us to constantly intervene between siblings, not bother to help a child choose a book for a long car ride and keep our menus and restaurant choices limited.
We talk about those edges: “they fight all the time” “she’s so picky” and with every word, we make them a bigger part of our family story. We make decisions based on the edges we think we see, and sometimes our words and decisions can box our children in.
Because I’ve been writing about food, I’ve been thinking about my own history as a “selective eater.” I was your basic white food kid. I didn’t eat a vegetable voluntarily until after college. My parents tolerated me. They let me pick my way around plates and menus. They teased me a little, but for the most part, they left well enough alone. At home, they’d work with me, but they didn’t warn friends’ parents, or let me eat cereal for a holiday dinner at my grandmother’s house. They didn’t change travel plans or pack me special foods.
That left me to find my own way through that part of the puzzle. Out in the world, I was free to make my own requests, or decide to try to be a little less conspicuous—which sometimes meant I’d just push the tomato sauce to the side of the ravioli instead of insisting on plain, and even eat a few bites of the less upsetting parts of a salad. If I did expand my palate a little, my parents didn’t fuss. If I didn’t, they didn’t fuss about that, either.
Eventually, I was able to evolve past the borders I’d built for myself around food in part because my parents didn’t reinforce those edges. I’m not proposing this as a miracle cure for picky eating (it took me well through my twenties). Instead, it’s a reminder of all the little limits that already exist in our thinking about our children—things that keep us from more than just offering them a bite of our fish taco. We ‘re gatekeepers for a lot of things for our kids, especially when they’re young—activities, summer programs, sports, books and magazines, even music. If we chose not to put something front of them, they might never see it at all. And when we get attached to the ways their behaviors make our lives harder, we don’t leave them room to move on.
I’ve been doing this myself lately. Two of my children have been struggling to get along, and instead of letting them find their way through it, I’ve been making it worse by talking about it, complaining about it, and announcing my expectation that they’ll screw things up just about every time we leave the house. Their very public fights have made me so angry that I can’t seem to get past them myself. I don’t want them to forget what they did, because I don’t want them to repeat it—and, if I’m honest, because I’m still mad. I need to let all of us let it go.
Every time we force our expectations on our kids, we’re pounding a few faux edges onto their puzzles.
Children change. Adults change. People change. We’re awfully big puzzles. It takes a long time to turn over all our pieces, let alone figure out where they really go. I still like Dr. Ginsberg’s metaphor. I’m just trying to be sure to remember that in a really tricky puzzle, sometimes what feels like a flat piece still connects to something more.
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