The idea for this column came about when I emailed my good friend, Jon Maksik, recounting a moment of parental failing (see below). My self-inflicted wound from the experience was still fresh and, as always, his response—two parts seasoned-dad and one part seasoned headmaster with an acetate overlay of laser-like shrink—had just the right effect. Turns out, if you get the right kind of advice, it’s possible to be wrong and learn from your flubs without getting on the guilt train. “Dr. Maksik”, as we called him when he served as director of upper school at my high school 24 years ago, gets kids. And better yet, he gets how sometimes we parents, despite our best efforts, don’t get our own kids. Each week we will post Dr. Maksik’s response to one of your questions. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I was making an 8-pointed transforming Ninja star with my son this morning. We were both learning it at the same time from a you-tube video (a very patient guy named “Rob” of “Rob’s World”). It started out well enough, until we realized that in my haste to skip through the post-it note tutorial, that we ended up with the stick on the wrong side of the component sticky note parts, thereby impeding their movement and defeating the whole purpose of their transformability. As I tried to “help” him break down the steps, it just got worse. Needless to say, there was frustration (on both our parts), and tears (on my son’s part). I am still hung over from it and that was three hours ago. Despite my best intentions, he came away feeling like he failed, that I had made him feel like he had failed. Why is the “teaching” moment between mother and son so hard sometimes?
A: Whether it’s an ill-constructed Ninja star, a pristine sugar cube castle, or second grade homework, mothers who “help” their sons tread a dangerous road. This is true for the most fortunate of reasons: mothers and sons adore one another, and in the most primal way. You, mom, want that Ninja star to shine for your little boy and he wants you there to make it so.
But. It’s his Ninja star, not yours. And he’s in second grade (let’s say), so if he builds it on his own, it’s likely that one or another of the plastic pieces will break, be lost—or not even exist—and that the final product won’t spin with the same glory depicted on the box. Which is where you come in.
You look at the box, you read the almost indecipherable instructions and you begin by “suggesting” that he attach Part A (“See, sweetheart, this is Part A.”) to Part B. And, on you go, shuffling through the apparently dozens of parts spread out on the floor in front of you. Somewhere along the way he gets restless and/or loses his concentration and you keep attaching parts to other parts. Until (1) the star is finished or (2) you make a small construction mistake and have to un-attach some parts and begin again. In either case, chances are that what began as “fun,” a joint mother/son project, has turned into something that is neither fun nor joint.
In the case of #1, the perfect mommy constructed star is yours, not his. In the case of #2, it’s likely that reconstruction didn’t work and both of you are disappointed and annoyed. One or both of you may even be in tears.
I repeat: it’s his star, not yours. If you are building it together, build it together. No adult shortcuts allowed. An imperfect star that you constructed together is worth far more than a perfect star that you did on your own while he watched. Remember, it’s a toy. What counts is that you did it together.
Should it be that tensions boil over into tears and anger, don’t despair. This is excellent practice for future incarnations of the episode as boyhood glides swiftly towards adolescence. Right now, he’s a little kid; in a few minutes he won’t remember a thing and might even be playing with the ill-fated star. (As he gets older, his memory gets longer, but that’s another column.) You, on the other hand, are wracked with remorse, certain that you have damaged irrevocably the relationship you hold dearest in the world. You’ll bake cookies; you’ll buy a new star; you’ll make it up to him…
But your goal is not to relieve your own guilt is it? No more than the point of the original exercise was to build a Ninja star. This is about you and your son—how he sees you, how he sees himself in your eyes, how the two of you are in the world. Apologize. Tell him you screwed up, that you’re sorry you rushed, that sometimes you do that. Tell him to let you know when and if he’d like to try another star—or even a rocket ship. He needs to know you’re not perfect and needs to hear you say so. You’ll feel better and, if possible, he’ll love you even more.
And remember, algebra homework is only a few years away. You need to be ready.
Photo: Charles Gullung