My mom had some very interesting ideas about parenting. She was what I like to call an intentional parent. These days, I think it’s become more common for parents to have a deliberate strategy for raising their kids. But, in my mother’s time, and at the ripe old age of just 21, I doubt that was the case.
Nevertheless, my mother set two primary goals:
- To raise a curious child who questioned everything―even if it meant questioning her.
- To raise a child who understood and valued the importance of self-reliance and independence.
At almost 33 years old, the remnants of those building blocks are still the defining features of who I am. And, the second item on her list all started with her refusal to pick me up when I fell.
Baby Burger King Steps
I know what you’re thinking.
So, my mom was one of those New Age parents who believed babies should just cry it out in the other room. Parents who believe in the Cry It Out method claim it teaches their children to come to terms with their emotions and self-soothe. Other parents say that all it teaches is neglect, insecure attachment, and abandonment issues.
Which of those two parents is correct? Who’s to say? That is not the approach my mother took.
I did not walk until my very first birthday. I had a foot deformity that made walking difficult and which, ultimately, contributed to me being a chubby little thing. I was not overweight by any means, but I was no lightweight either.
So, what changed? The story goes that someone brought home Burger King. I loved paper bags, but it was on the other side of the room, so I got up and walked over to get it.
Baby Alex Goes a-Tumbling
After that, I started walking a little more and a little further, but I hated it. I almost always insisted on being carried, even after we resolved the deformity. One of the reasons I hated it was because it hurt when I fell. Mom said she felt sorry for me when I took a tumble because I was late to the walking game and just learning to fall at that age was rough.
Naturally, as soon as I hit the tiled floors or concrete ground I would start hollering. I mean, what else does one do in these situations when one has not yet learned to say complex words, like F**k!
Like most children, when I fell, I would instantly turn to look at the adult closest to me or the one I trusted most. I looked at mom. My eyes would well up, that mouth would open wide and I would throw that head back ready to scream. If I bawled loud enough, surely mommy would rescue me.
But, she didn’t.
Instead, she smiled.
The Lesson in a Smile
A smile is a powerful thing.
It is especially powerful when a baby looks to adults for confirmation that this sucks. When parents panic, that’s the confirmation a baby needs to start wailing.
So, you’re saying I have a reason to be concerned? Thank you, Mother. Now, please excuse me while I sing the song of my people.
But, a smile does not give that confirmation. It implies that everything is fine. It’s not so bad. When the smile wasn’t enough, she would encourage me, but she would not intervene and would not help. Eventually, I realized:
Wait a minute. The ouchies suck. Boy, do the ouchies suck! But, you mean, I can just … get up? And walk again? And, would you look at that? The ouchies hurt a little less every time. This isn’t so bad. I can do this. Pffffft. Fall again? I got this. I can just get up and keep walking.
Passing on the Lesson
One of the funny things about parenting is that your default setting as a parent tends to be how your parents parented you. Now, don’t bother getting on your soap box about me referring to my cat as my four-legged womb fruit. He is very much accepted as the first-born grandchild in the family. Get over it.
Now, in January of this year, I was camping in Arizona when we got hit with a wicked wind storm. It took out my ground tent and howled and hollered all night. It was my first time weathering a wind storm in the rooftop tent and I wasn’t sure how well it would hold up. To make matters worse, I had Shadow with me and he was panicking.
I’m not sure if all semi-feral cats do this, but before Shadow hits full panic mode, he looks at me, like a toddler, to gauge how I’m feeling. So, after his knee-jerk reaction, he looked at me for reassurance.
And I smiled.
That calmed him down enough to snuggle up with me. I pet him, gave him treats, and told him it was fine. I spoke calmly and soothingly. Within a few minutes, it had worked. He went to the window and looked outside with new eyes. Momma told him it was okay, so what scared him ten minutes ago now looked absolutely fascinating.
While Shadow spent the night mesmerized by the storm, I was under the covers thinking:
I sure hope this rooftop tent doesn’t cave in…
And he was none the wiser.
Over the past few years, several people have reached out to me and asked how I tamed my semi-feral cat enough to live the adventurous life we do. Until that moment in the tent, I don’t think I ever noticed the connection between how I trained my cat and how I was raised.
I have no desire to have children and my four-legged womb fruit is neutered. So, I’d like to pass the lesson on to people with kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, nieces, and nephews who want to teach them to get up and keep moving.
There are way too many coddled adults my age who never learned that lesson. They fold easily under pressure, never learned true independence, and prefer to wallow in the mud.
Please help the next generation to be stronger.
Apparently, all it takes is a smile.