Jul 20, 2012

Bluffers two-step

“I have such doubts!” was the final line in John Shanley's Pulitzer winning play ‘Doubt’. In the movie adaptation, Meryl Streep’s entire wimple clad being shook with remorse as this confession exploded out of her. If only everyone could find such clear expression and catharsis (and a multi $$ movie deal).

Lets admit it: a halfway sensible person second-guesses themselves at least once every day and five times on a Sunday. That's about right when we have sense enough to know that there is so much that we don’t know. Yet the unwritten coda of social interaction and the prevalent culture of confidence requires that we stay firm in our pronouncements even when we suspect they are half-baked at best and plain wrong at worst. And correctly so, I think. If you’re like me, admitting that there are so many alternate possibilities can paralyze you into indecision. Better to stick with your decision, bluff it out and hope that your self confidence and the faith you inspire fools your audience. I think of it as the ‘Bluffers two-step’ where you step outside your bounds of certainty, make defiant eye-contact with the rest of the world, then take the second step forward into your newly created certainly. This is how illusions are created and sold and entire populations dance along to tunes that they know to be off beat. As long as you’re not trying to pull off something ridiculously wrong, it becomes self-fulfilling: off-beat becomes the new beat and if we all dance to it, the world keeps spinning without anyone flying off it.

There are few better staging grounds for this kind of self-fulfilling bravado than parenting a young child. I'll admit that upper management 'brain storming sessions' are also pretty potent.
Case in point, last night I unwisely decided to teach my 5.5 year old double digit addition at 7:30 pm (AKA bedtime), at the fag end of a long and blisteringly hot day at camp. Since he’s watching his favorite movie (‘The Lion King’ these days) in 11 minute sections every night, “what better way to teach addition?” I thought. Especially as he’s been pleading to learn Kumon math (I’ve NO idea why). When he lost focus for the 8th time in the space of 2 minutes I pulled out my most severe threat - "Do I need to pull your ear?”.

The Ear Pull requires a quick ‘aside’.
Oyon had a short stint with Kumon reading in the recent past (topic for another post) that involved doing nightly homework worth about 30-40 minutes. That is a LONG time to sit still and focus after a long day of 'behaving' at daycare. It doesn't help that for most of his waking hours he is busy roaming inside his significantly active imagination, making up stories, enacting dramas and otherwise being a 5 year old. So in a chapter of inglorious parenting, I had resorted to the 'Ear Pull' as a way to get his wandering mind (and eyes and brain and limbs) to attend to the task on hand so that everyone could get on with their lives. It was a gentle tug, tested on myself,  that induced nothing more than mild and momentary discomfort that redirects his attention. I abandoned it as a regular tool after observing that every day he was acting out right around the 10 minute mark and realizing that 10 minutes was probably his max focus ability at this point. The ear pulling was hurting his feelings, giving me terrible guilt and incidentally, doing absolutely nothing for his focus. I closed that shameful chapter on the high note of restricting homework to 5 pages (but only after my husband pointed that out as the obvious solution). I also offered rewards/bribes for focusing well (that goes into a whole other chapter on Shameful Parenting. Surely you didn’t think there was just one of those?). But I still reserved the ‘Ear Pull’ in my toolbox of 'Measures of the Last Resort'. It nestled snugly in between ‘No TV tomorrow’ and ‘No car or plane toys for 2 days’.

Short on energy and patience as I was last night, out it came at the aforementioned ill-judged moment. As expected, he didn’t pay heed to a duly issued warning and I implemented said Ear Pull. The broken hearted sobbing that then ensued wreaked such havoc on me that I’d have given Streep a run for her money in the ‘doubt’ department. He did momentarily lose some sympathy by angrily shouting ‘I’m going to tell on you to Baba!’ but regained (and doubled it) by following up with a disbelieving ‘That hurt! YOU hurt me!’. Oh my goodness. No one should be the cause of such a look of disbelief and disappointment in their child's eyes!
But how to work my way out of this one now? A complete recant (that my heart wanted) would undermine all future authority. Staying the course (that my mind wanted) risked eroding a little boy’s faith in his mamma.

So of course, I executed the Bluffers Two-step. I asked 'Did I give you warnings? Did I say that if you didn’t focus I’d have to do an Ear Pull?'
One set of leaking eyes, trembling mouth, tear tracked grimy cheeks and curly head nodded an affirmative to both.
First step forward taken: I’d announced that I was right in my choice.
Then I cupped his face in my hands, made nose-to nose contact and said softly “I’m very sorry I hurt you. I love you even when you’re naughty.”
The second step of the dance was complete. The self-fulfilling part came through next as instantly mollified by my apology, he dashed away his tears to say: “I’m sorry too Mamma. I’m going to listen next time. And d’you know what? Now I won’t tell on you. I’ll only tell Baba that you’re the bestest Mamma in the world

That I  did not deserve to live, was the thought of that moment.
As putridly sappy as his Hallmark card words sounds, it isn't meant as a hearts and roses moment. I neither feel absolved by his undeserved kudos nor believe for a second he really learnt anything from this (except hopefully that no one is above a good apology). This is how unflinching a child's faith in his parents are: faith that they will always love him, protect him, be fair to him. How easily this can be shattered and regained is scary. And the power of apology...man! An apology will get him to back down and fess up and renew faith. Not to mention, it lets Mamma atone for a misjudged move while sticking to her stance.

I gave him an extra guilt induced 5 mins of the movie, though he doesn’t know it (and won’t until he cracks double-digit addition!). And in case my husband’s reading this, “We’re out of Glen Fidditch: I drank the last of it in a toast to the Bluffers Two-step”.

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