Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man were not a family, but they operated like one. I have been thinking about Oz lately, and his role as a parental figure to Dorothy and her misfit siblings, because (as is surely abundantly clear by now), I have some authority issues, and I sometimes feel frustrated by the part of parenting that requires an Oz-like sleight of hand.
For example: an educator I respect once pointed out to me that he always tells young children, “You need to put on your shoes,” rather than, “I need you to put on your shoes,” because altering the language to make the shoe-putting-on appear to be the child’s need, rather than his need, helps to ensure compliance. I realized when he told me this that this is exactly why I am more apt to say, “I need you to put on your shoes.” I hate conflating my need with my child’s need. I had enough of that in my own childhood.
And yet, as a parent, I need my children to do things: many, many things. I need them to do things that are annoying and hard, things like going to school and doing homework and putting on their shoes.
If you are an adult who unequivocally believes in the goodness and rightness of the things you are asking your children to do, then you probably are not doing what I am doing, which—although I can’t see it very well, and I like to think I am not doing it—is frequently communicating my own ambivalence about homework-doing and shoe-wearing, even as I am asking my children to do exactly those things.
Why be ambivalent about doing homework and putting on shoes? What do I think children should be doing? Well, I dunno… how about plotting to take over the world? That’s what they are going to be doing anyway, isn’t it?
But how, exactly, are children going to do that? One idea is that children will inherit “our” world, which we adults will pass the world onto them like an expensive vase we have somehow managed to carry without dropping, and they will receive it (when they turn 18? when we turn 80? When does the world turn from “ours” to “theirs”?) in a spirit of gratitude, with the goal of keeping it intact, as we have so kindly done for them.
This idea works if you believe the world is an expensive vase. Maybe you have a life where that is what your world is. I don’t know. I am a fairly optimistic, law-abiding, college-educated person living in one of the most amazing cities in one of the richest nations on the globe, and my view is that the world is a total fucking mess.
How are our kids going to inherit that? Will it be like being handed a vase? Or will it be more like being told you need to put on these crappy old winter boots right this second, goddammit, so we can get to school on time?
I don’t know. I don’t know what the world is. Let’s put aside the world for a second.
Here is a good question: how do you get your children to put on their shoes? How do you put on your big, flaming Oz pants, and get all Great and Powerful about your child needing to do X or Y, when doing X or Y seems like it might possibly be not all that important in the first place, although—heavy sigh—it still needs to be done?
I have been dealing with this situation, I see now, by crafting a sort of work-around, and that is that I basically come to my children in the spirit of begging their forgiveness, which I am pretty sure is recommended by exactly zero parenting books. I mean, I am not doing it literally, but I think this is more or less what I am communicating to them: yes, I realize it’s strange, but you have to eat food and sleep and brush your teeth, and yes, you will have eat food and sleep and brush your teeth and poop and pee until you die, and I don’t know why, but this is how it is. I don’t know why you are here—I know how, not why—and I don’t know why I am here either, and I don’t know when or how I am going to leave but I will, and you will, too, and in our time together in between my arriving and leaving, and your arriving and leaving, in this overlap that may be long or short, I don’t know, I don’t know what it is that is supposed to be happening, I am just making it up as best I can, and as I am making it up there are these structures here that you have to deal with, and I know they can be awful, but I have to deal with them, too, and I wish it were a choice, but it’s not. And we have made the best choices we could for you in this narrow range where we are able to operate, and you are actually amazingly lucky to be living how and where you are, even though you don’t think so. So this is the way it is, my loves. Now where are your goddamned shoes?
And I don’t tell them this at the time, but I am sure it’s in there, that Dorothy learned that her shoes could actually take her anywhere she wanted to go, and she could get there just by clicking her heels, and all she had ever needed to do from the beginning was look to herself for her power. This is ultimately what I want for my kids. I want them to know they will be OK if they dare, if they are brave, if they follow their hearts. I want them to know that this is exactly why we are here in the first place.
How do I get my children to do that?
I don’t know. I have a theory, though, which is that I should begin by being truthful, and that means that I acknowledge to my children that my power to force them to do things is a sham, that the only thing I can really control is myself and my words, that that’s the kind of wizard I am.
And then I tell them: you are bright and amazing and not lost and not lacking. You have many friends who love you. Your shoes are magic. Now, put them on. Put them on. Now. Goddammit.