“It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.”
~ Ann Landers
When our oldest child was heading off to college, I went with her to orientation at Iowa State University. Parents, and the young adults who were enrolled to start classes in the following weeks, were herded into a large room for a robust welcome and simple reassurances. Then the parents were dismissed. We weren’t dismissed for a leisurely stroll to the local barista for coffee, we were dismissed to another large room and intentionally separated from our offspring. As soon as we were assembled in the room, and the door was softly closed behind us, the moderator stood before us and made an announcement so bold and succinct, my mouth fell open and color flooded my face.
“Moms and dads,” he declared, “it’s time to stop manipulating the lives of your children.” Manipulating? That single word offended me to my core. I don’t manipulate, I guide my children. I suggest and advise, and discipline and redirect, willfully and skillfully. Or put more simply, I manipulate. Dang, I had never thought of it that way. I had spent the last 18 years (plus 9 months of gestation) protecting and nurturing a few cells that had attached to my womb, through the cycle of infant and toddler to teenager and now, young adult. I made sure she slept on her stomach in a crib protected by bumper pads because that’s what the experts told us to do. She was breast-fed and diaper-changed and bathed and lotioned according to the guidelines recommended in the 1980s. I made sure she didn’t suffer from a runny nose or endure a fever longer than 15 minutes without a visit to the doctor. I assured that neither of us slept through the night for the first 8 months of her life because if I couldn’t hear her breathe, I feared her lips were turning blue. She ate only Gerber baby food, spooned from a jar, after being nuked in a microwave, once her teeth began to sprout, because that was the way we did it back then; and her car seat was nothing more than a plastic bucket with grooves molded into the sides for the seat belt to slide through. Nothing held her in the seat except the weight of her blanket. A sudden stop would have catapulted baby and blanket into the front seat like Peeps from an Easter basket, but that’s exactly how we were sent home from the hospital after her birth.
Can you call it manipulation when you volunteer for field trips just to get a good feel for the characters in her class and then store their names in your momma-rolodex brain only to be retrieved when she talked about who she was befriending? What are curfews and chore schedules, and time-outs and groundings? Is that manipulation too? I think so. Because after a while she grew wise to my manipulation and began to rebel against the hold. The summer before her orientation at Iowa State, we could hardly be in the same room without clashing. I held on, trying to place her on the protected path that I had laid out for her. The path without obstacles or dangerous encounters; with soft buffers around the edges to keep her from harm. And she pushed against the boundaries and defied my parental warnings and suffered the punishments of her deeds because as she once told me in the heat of an argument in the last weeks before she went to college, “This is my role as a teenager.” Ugh. I tell myself that her ability to argue was a blessing that carried into her career as an attorney, but our clashes and push-backs were a good lesson for me. There came a point in time when I had to stop directing her life and allow her to live it. Her way. Her successes and her stumbles.
It’s the month of Mother’s Day but it might just as well be known as Recognition Day for Manipulators because if we’re doing our job, we are spending a lot of energy and brain power manipulating in the name of our children. But we have a choice in how we use our mothering skills for the greatest effect. We can direct a child through example and expectation; rewarding actions and punishing infractions, depending on the outcome we are working toward. We can continue to nourish and support our children for as long as we live, to the best of our ability through our love and our ability to listen without judgment or commentary. Or, we can manipulate the path they take by continuing to remove obstacles and grade the path no matter which direction they choose. When we manipulate the path, we don’t just nourish our kids, we provide the sun and the moon and the water and the garden, without ever expecting them to pull a weed or till the soil. We can support their endeavors with a hug and a prayer, or we can silently slip cash into the university kitty, to bump our “baby” into a spot at a prestigious college that they have neither pursued nor earned.
When we were raising our kids, I had a small plaque that sat on my nightstand so I could see it each night before I closed my eyes, and in the morning when I woke. It said, “Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.” It took a university administrator, who held me accountable for my manipulation, to truly understand the words.
No mother is perfect. No child either. We put forth our best effort in the moment, using the skills we have learned and the knowledge we have received. We can raise children or we can groom a path. One will likely culminate with a responsible adult emanating the values they were taught, and the other will leave you with dirty hands.
In this month of May I wish all my fellow manipulators a Happy Mother’s Day. May your efforts of the last year be rewarded with unconditional love and at least one full night of sleep.