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What do they want? A mantra for parenting and my own fool self

I spent yesterday immersed in all the loneliness and fervent belief and highly embarrassing prayers of my high school years. I had a screening for Mortified PDX -- Mortified, in case you've never heard of it, is a series of live readings of poetry, journals and other horrifying writing from one's own teen years -- and I'd spent a half-hour with the producers talking about what, exactly, I wanted as a teen? All afternoon, I sat in the basement and, later, at my dining room table, poring over journals and papers (with perforated edges thanks to our old dot-matrix printer!) and binders full of my deep thoughts and doodlings.

What did I want? I actually had an answer when they asked me at the beginning: I wanted to be popular. See, I knew I seemed popular from the outside -- I was a cheerleader, I ended up as student body president, I was involved in nearly every school organization to some capacity, I was even voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' -- but I didn't get invited to parties and I rarely had much in the way of boyfriends. I had lots of crushes and crushees and dates to the prom two years running -- but it wasn't ever because of my yearbook-worthy couplehood.

Now, I have what I want, even speaking strictly within my high school peer group (and I'm married to one of the guys I crushed on in high school); after our 20th reunion I had lots of old friends come up to me and say how much my soul-baring on my blog, on Facebook, and/or here had resonated with them; I'd become popular by, paradoxically, telling all the embarrassing, true-self-opening stuff I kept to myself in high school. Weird, but true. I'll just go ahead and quote myself from October 23, 1987, 7:51 p.m.: "There is an abundance of things that boggle my mind, including mostly eternity and the universe."

Which brings me to parenting.

Having this storyteller's perspective already ingrained thanks to years of focusing on writing, I came to the realization long ago that the most important question we can ask ourselves about our kids is, "what do they want?" It's useful in the particular -- I've learned that nearly every school crisis my boys end up enmeshed in could have been avoided by first answering that question -- and in the general. Keeping my attention to what my nine-year-old wants (to feel safe; to have friends; to have people in his life who tell him how wonderful he is; to believe himself in his wonderfulness) makes me a lot more patient with the struggles he has. When he's angry, it's because one of his deepest wants have been compromised, and it's hard to punish a kid who lashed out after he thought he lost his dearest friend. It's hard to insist a kid go upstairs on his own when you know he's, rationally or no, terrified of the ghosts that might be lurking in the dark crannies and nooks.

It keeps me patient, too, to read through my 14-year-old writings and think, oh, how like me he is now. My heart goes out to me -- and, through association, to him and the him-to-be. As I wrote sometime in my freshman year, "To sum up my life at this time and point... I guess it would be easier to say that I just love."


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My 6.5 year old WANTS to BE with me. To be attached to me physically, whether healthy or sick, home or away, pleased or angry. She rewards me by being on me, and punishes me the same way. It's so hard to shake off someone from your body when you know it's you that they want, that they sometimes NEED to be touching, in contact with. She wants to be with me instead of school, and wants me to call in sick. She wants to sleep with me in my bed (but is not allowed to and is pretty good about adhering to that boundary). But when she is away from me, she refuses to talk to me on the phone, which is what I want or need. In 6 years, I have never once spoken to the girl on the phone.

I HATED the phone as a child...

I have also yet to sort out what my kid wants/needs, other than some inner balance that I cannot 'give' him.

My kids are still at the age where wants and needs change daily, but I think at the core of everything is feeling loved, secure and accepted, no matter what.

The other day my 5- and 7-year old girls were arguing over who was the most beautiful. I shut it down. I told them they are both beautiful, and that out in the world, they will get enough challenges of what they wear, how they look and what they do. In our family, we compliment each other and love each other no matter what. Then, I made them each say something nice about each other. It just set a different tone between them for the rest of the day.

Another example... My poor little guy just wants to be accepted and liked by his peers. He isn't as outgoing as his sisters, and he doesn't get invited on playdates, etc. The girls both had playdates without him at separate places yesterday. He was so sad, so we snuggled, we talked about how to make him happier, and we have a plan to invite some of the kids he likes here to play. I realized I was neglecting that part of his life, and it is an important part of his self worth at this stage.

I think much of it is being in tune with our kids and recognizing what impacts their confidence, then nurturing that.

This parenting gig is hard, but so rewarding.

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