Friday, November 06, 2009

Making Tough Calls

It's odd how your emotions are amplified by your children. Instead of being a solitary being slogging your way through life, you have these little satellites sending signals your way; when they're happy, you're happy and when they hurt, you hurt.

Our family has had all sorts of things going on lately, Andrew is working long, hard hours to get this company of his off the ground, I'm working long hours myself, we're tightening our belts until we can get a paycheck (it's been two and a half months and counting) and along with all the typical issues you have as parents we've had one particular thing that has us lying awake at night.

Our children have gone to a particular school that we've been happy with (in general) but our 7th grade son this year didn't want to go to middle school there like his sister, he wanted to go to the neighborhood middle school we're zoned for. I wasn't thrilled about him switching but I do believe in allowing children as much of a chance to make their own decisions as is prudent and since he felt so strongly about it I told him if he could pull his grades up we'd let him switch.

He worked like crazy and got straight A's his last semester of 6th grade and we kept our word and transferred him. Our thinking was that while we didn't like the larger, less personal, less academic environment of the new school most of the boys he knew through church went there and since he's a bit of an introvert transferring him might be a good way to introduce him to some good friends.

So we held our breaths and signed the papers. He started in August and it wasn't too long before we started to notice some changes.

First, let me say here that my clinical research shows that junior high is absolutely the vilest time of a person's life. There is nothing like that 7th or 8th grade year to convince a person that the world is out to get them and that anything their parents did to build them up those previous years must have been a complete lie because their life stinks.

So we are up against a cliff as it is but besides the issues of the age we began to see subtle differences--suddenly we were hearing that "only nerds get good grades" and he was coming home asking about words and phrases he'd heard--words you'd hope would be reserved for married people, but who would have the courtesy not to use them--and sporting some very interesting fashion statements. Because you see, instead of the boys he knew from church welcoming him to the school they rejected him. They made fun of his clothes, his hair, called him names and generally made him feel like dirt so that he looked around and found some new friends, friends that have been teaching him all sorts of new attitudes.

It's been subtle--only ten weeks--but already we've seen a change in him and not one we've welcomed. Yes I realize that it is the age of change but still . . . I can only describe it as a dark cloud settling over our son. So we began to examine our options. After searching and talking and even praying we felt strongly that the best thing to do was to take him back to the original school.

The decision was the hardest decision I ever made in my life, hands down. Hard because I know my son and I knew that moving him back would kill him--he would hurt like he'd never hurt before and I worried if it would ruin our relationship. He'd feel betrayed, he'd feel angry and upset and I wondered if making this change wouldn't cause more damage. I kicked myself for ever letting him change schools in the first place, I ranted about the cruelty of the boys who were supposed to have been kind, I went through all the fears and worries but when it came right down to it, I knew that moving him back was the best thing.

Well after we'd come to the decision I wondered if there would even be a spot available for him, there's typically a very long waiting list and you can't just get back in without going through the lottery again but when I called the principal she gave me the last remaining spot they had. He was in. One strangely vacant spot left and he got it.

So then we stewed about when to tell him. We worried and put it off until we knew it had to be done and when we told him I swear I've never ached for any of my children like I did then. I would do anything for him, would sacrifice anything, but to have to sit there and tell him what I knew would hurt so much was horrible.

I know this is stretching on forever but I'm writing it mainly because it's been a week, today was his first day back at the old school, but with seven days under our belts now I've been able to see some valuable lessons from the experience.

1. Observe, interact and love. Not necessarily in that order.
It's not enough to just make sure they're fed, dressed and wearing their seat belts, you can't just assume that everything is fine--especially when we are all so busy in our separate lives. Watching for changes, watching for warning signs, looking for good signs, looking for improvement, looking for hints of problems, just watching is critical. Then with that watching goes the interaction where you talk with them, ask about them, keep those lines open so that when there are problems they'll come to you and you'll know them well enough to recognize when they are in trouble.

It's not spying, it's not distrust, it's being engaged and it shows that you love them, and oddly enough they recognize that it's a sign of love rather than an attempt to annoy if done properly.

2. Kids need reasons.
When we sat down to deliver the bad news it was easy to make one of two mistakes: you can tell your child to do something "because I say so," insisting on obedience for the sake of obedience and the parental authority or, to try to convince them that you're right. You talk too much in an effort to convert them because you can't bear to have them angry at you. Both ways are wrong.

Children need to know why you're making decisions, which of course means that you'd better have thought about your reasons before it comes up, and they need to know why you're taking a certain approach but not so you can be popular.

When we talked with our son we told him our decision. We didn't try to convince him we were right, we figured that was probably a lost cause. Instead, we told him what we were going to do and how it was because of our concerns which we then outlined in as much detail as his age allowed. We expressed a lot of empathy and spent a long time telling him how much we loved him, how it wasn't a punishment but that we loved him enough to want to protect him and help him.

He didn't understand our concerns because, frankly, he hasn't a clue about what is out there, but in the end he was able to accept our decision when we said, "This is going to be hard, we know, we're going to be here to help you through it and we wouldn't do it if we weren't absolutely sure that it would be safer and better. We love you enough to want you safe and this is something where you're not going to see the full picture until you're older. None of us may see the whole picture for a long time and it's going to take faith that it's the right thing to do."

He didn't understand why we were worried but he did know we loved him and he trusted us enough to take it on faith that we were doing what we thought was best.

3. Tackle of problems early on--don't procrastinate and hope they'll go away.
While Andrew and I worried about what to do we kept coming back to the fact that while it was going to be a nasty thing to deal with it was much better to do it now than to wait six months, a year, two years and have it confirmed that we should have done something.

I looked at our options. If we left him at the school and let him ride it out he might be fine. He could make it through and never have any damage BUT . . . the signs seemed to indicate there was at least a certain amount of danger so why risk it? Why take the chance and wait until the problem was big enough that we couldn't deal with it? The pain he'd experience now would be nothing compared to what it could be--it's like vaccinating your children. Yes, a shot hurts, yes there is a tiny amount of danger associated with it, but the risks and pain of getting polio, diphtheria or measles are so much greater than the risk and pain of the shot.

4. There can be positive outcomes from painful experiences.
Yesterday I asked him how he was feeling--on a scale of one to ten, ten being you've just scored the winning touchdown and are being carried off the field on shoulders and one being you've just been run over by a truck. He said that Monday night he was a one but then by Tuesday morning up to two and by Thursday he was a five or six. He's had dips here and there but it's getting better.

To speak frankly, one of the things we're trying to teach him is how to deal with bad times in life--like losing your job?--and if he can find the spiritual strength to get through this then that's a good lesson. I know it's early but already I can see hints that he's been finding that peace and strength that comes from faith and prayer.

Also, like with many trials, it's a chance for the family to rally around. He may feel he has no friends, he may hate going to school or feel like the world is against him but if he can come home and feel that he's safe, that here he has friends who will do anything for him and love him that can keep him going. He's seen how his brother and sisters are being nice to him to try and help him through this, how they're giving him the last slice of pizza at dinner.

The point is, that when one of us is hurting then the rest of us are there to help and comfort. Even under the best circumstances the friends he makes in junior high will most likely never be in his life later on but his family? We'll be here forever. So if this little bit of hurt strengthens our family relationships that's not a bad thing.

5. Don't be afraid to make the hard calls. It's what you're paid to do.
I've known people who say that children should be able to make all their own choices. I disagree. Instead, it is my job as a mother to teach them to make their own choices by allowing them agency in limited, steadily increasing amounts toward the goal of independence and wisdom but until they're old enough to make all of their own decisions there are many things that it is my job to decide.

We allowed our son to decide if he wanted to transfer schools at the beginning because there was no reason at the time why that would be a bad idea. But once the warnings were there it was our job to step in and make the tough call to transfer back that he couldn't make for himself. His part of the decision came when he realized that he had to decide how he was going to handle this--was he going to throw a fit? Get angry? Hold a grudge? Or was he going to let us help him through this, to make the best of things and trust his parents?

It's easy to be so afraid of the confrontation that you chicken out and the tough calls never get made but if you don't make them, who will?


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Raejean said...

I'm impressed that you changed him back to his original school. I wish I would have stepped in and overruled more of my oldest child's decisions more often.

Anonymous said...

I told my middle-school teacher husband about your post. He's at a neighborhood school, not a lottery school, and he said, "Man, did they do the right thing. Kudos to them!"

We both felt very strongly that you weren't being overprotective or any of the other "overs" that some other parents might claim - you were being prudent and just the right amount of protective.

I'm really sorry that the church kids were so lousy to your son. We're a different religion, but I'm sure many kids in our church community would have been just as bad. Their families are so immersed in the secular world that they are "religious in name only".

You are absolutely right that we parents are here to make the tough calls for our kids. It's not about us, and it's not about being popular parents, and it is so not about being a "cool best friend" to our kids. Keep up the good fight!


Reno said...

Wow- powerful post. And in my opinion- very good parenting.

Katie Rose said...

This is so true, being a good parent means making hard decisions that won't make you popular. I don't relish the things we will face as my children get older. Hopefully he will start thriving soon and come to be glad of the switch sooner rather than later.

Scribbit said...

If you're confused--this an old post (as you can see from the date) I'm not sure why but when I fixed something on it and republished it, while it stayed in the archives where it belonged, Feedburner picked it up as a new post and published it. Stupid Feedburner. It grabs my posts in less than 15 seconds--never when I need it!

Oh well.

America Jane said...

I went through the same thing once, except I was the child in the story. I was angry at my mother when she first moved me out of a truly horrible school, but it did not take long at all for me to feel gratitude for what she'd done. I couldn't see for myself the negative changes in my attitude until I got away from it. Now as a mother the kind of school my children attend is so important to me. Good job making the tough call and being willing to be unpopular with your son. We need more parenting like that.

Mommaluvy said...

You did the right thing. I "was" your son in the seventh grade. And my life went down hill fast. He was not on a good path.

I wish my parents had done what you did. Its easier at his age to moan and complain. But its very hard to be using your twenties to clean up your teen age mess :(. Not to mention all the stuff you can never really erase from your mind.

Krista said...

Yeah, I was a bit confused too... especially when the link at the bottom was for a Write-Away contest! ;)
So, how's it working out a year later?