Saturday, July 19, 2008

Arbitrarily Speaking

I had a couple of moments with the girls over the last few weeks that have lingered in my mind, mainly because they sort of build on each other and reinforce the importance of something I think is a pretty good standing goal, especially as it relates to parenting - avoiding arbitrary decisions/rulings that seem to come out of nowhere, without appropriate justification or reason.

The first one happened at a large party that featured a face painter. Of course within a few minutes of arriving we were standing in line with the girls, who each got some kind of colorful creation painted on one of their cheeks. As parents, we particularly love our kids' affinity for an activity that typically requires the application of glitter-based paint within a millimeter or two of an eye, but I digress.

Later on, Madison said she wanted to go back to the face painting pavilion to adorn the other cheek, and I walked over with her. We stood there for at least 10 minutes while the artist worked her magic on two kids who were ahead of us, no one behind.

Just as she was wrapping up with the subject directly in front of us, a few children approached and crowded the table area. As Madison excitedly positioned herself in the now-vacant chair, the woman took one look at her half-painted face and said sorry, she was going to have to wait until the kids who hadn't gotten any artwork yet were taken care of before she could add to her earlier creation. Our 7-year-old is a "rules" child, so after shooting me a blank and slightly startled look of disappointment she quickly surrendered her spot, which was eagerly filled by one of the other kids. I glared menacingly at the woman for a moment, but she could not have cared less, and rather than argue the point we moved on from the area and did not return.

I could absolutely understand where she was coming from, from the standpoint of trying to extend the face-painting goodness to as many subjects as possible, but it still seemed jarring and not quite right for her to have furthered this noble agenda by turning away a little girl who had stood in front of her for several minutes, patiently waiting her turn and anticipating service through a system (time investment = reward) she had already experienced, only to be thwarted by an unexpected turn of events.

Fast forward about a week, we're in Vermont and enjoying the attractions at the Bromley Mountain family Adventure Park. At one point it's just me and Ava, and she wanders off to the 24-foot rock climbing wall, which - to my utter amazement - she scales in about 30 seconds, ringing a bell on the top that we then learn qualifies her for a cool little Bromley sticker.

She's into the sticker, she's proud of it, and after a cold drink we're back at the wall, which she climbs again, resulting in another sticker. We then move on to the alpine slide for a few runs, but before long our 5-year-old is flying up the side of the wall again, in search of that bell and another prized souvenir.

As Ava hits the ground after her latest triumph, the teenage attendant (a new one) asks - in a tone that has a "qualifying" feel to it - "have you gotten any stickers so far today?"

"Yes," Ava responds, "I already got two stickers!"

Oh man, here it comes, I'm thinking to myself. Here comes the notification of some new "rule" we didn't know about... some maximum allowable sticker quota or something that is going to cause my happy and triumphant daughter to wander out of this attraction disappointed, cold water dumped unexpectedly all over her achievement.

Before I can interject or assert my presence in the moment, this youthful authority figure, crouching down and looking up at Ava as she frees her from the safety harness, says, "Well, this is going to be your last sticker today, OK?"

Ava agrees, nods, understands, is happy with the outcome. And it struck me how easy - and justifiable - it would have been for this person to have instead delivered some version of, "sorry, you're not going to be getting a sticker for that last climb, because you already have a couple and we need to make sure we have enough for other kids, OK? Move along now please..." Just like the face painting situation - there would have been a perfectly reasonable and understandable rationale behind that kind of verdict, but its sudden and seemingly arbitrary implementation would have been a real downer, and instead this park staffer, who must have been all of 16, found a way to respond to the situation by making a clear and reasonable agreement that everyone was happy with.

We don't do a lot of advice or counsel here... this blog is mostly about celebrating moments, but these two recent events have really driven home for me a basic objective that I want to keep in mind - namely the importance of avoiding the arbitrary, or at least the unexpected, and making sure our girls - to the greatest extent possible - have everything they need to understand the decisions and actions that affect them. I want them to be able to build expectations from a pattern of behavior that is consistent and clear. And that idea actually seems seems pretty applicable across all relationships and personal interaction, even those that don't involve face paint or rock walls.


Blogger Cat said...


1:18 PM  
Blogger alisha said...

I love this blog and read it all the time. I am glad that you are back to posting. I have missed it a little bit. Reading your uplifting take on the adventures of parenting always brings a smile to my face. I have added a link to your blog on the blogroll of my blog. I hope that is ok with you. Take care and keeping posting.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Sally said...

This is something I think about all the time. I am a pretty liberal person and often feel I am saying no or making arbitrary decisions about my child because I think I should not because I want to. I might have to go off and do some thinking about what I want the outcome to be and work out how to achieve. NOt sure if that is the answer but thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am a regular reader too and really enjoy your thoughts and adventures.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, very much enjoy your posts (enough to also put you on my blog list) and agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts here. Thanks for the read. :-)

11:08 PM  
Blogger Heather of the EO said...

I totally didn't even ask if it was okay to link you. Sorry. More readers = yay, right?

Thank you for this post. I appreciate having these thoughts under my parenting hat.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a pretty liberal person and often feel I am saying no or making arbitrary decisions about my child because I think I should not because I want to. I might have to go off and do some thinking about what I want the outcome to be and work out how to achieve. NOt sure if that is the answer but thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am a regular reader too and really enjoy your thoughts and adventures.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

She did not scale that wall. No. Inconceivable I couldn't climb that freakin' wall till I was like 10!! Maybe they've made it easier.. and what's this sticker nonsense I never got -or should've but, didn't get- a sticker. Well, it sounds like you guys had a lot of fun at Bromley we might be going back soon so I'll try and get my self a sticker too. -And see if theirs a limit or if they were just jealous of Ava's skill-


2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great blog, keep it up

6:55 PM  
Blogger jodi said...

How you are raising your girls is how we raised our boys, now 18 and 20. Avoiding arbitrary decisions makes for more confident children and a much less stressful family life. (Comparing my childhood to theirs.) It allows them to make good decisions and have confidence in their decisions because the reasons have been explained over the years and the reasons make sense. It also opens up dialogue between parent and child.

7:08 AM  

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