When the foal is born, his mama positions herself between the other zebras and him so she can imprint him with her stripes. Pressing her unique fingerprint into his awareness is a necessary precaution fir those moments when a lion leaps from the grass. During the ensuing melee, the baby can zero in on the correct adult.
I wonder, though, if she is also memorizing him. It is hard to tell from pure observation if mares also imprint during those first moments. Mama zebras do not say “What beautiful stripes!” You do not see them clapping their hooves together and crowing, “You look so nice with that design. Awesome!” They are more dignified in the scrutiny of their young. The pattern is itself. Her foal, himself. Zebras do not waste their time taking the measure of the being. Seeing is the only act that matters.
Maybe it is time to bring a little Serengeti to our house.
Bug pads into my room on weekends just after sunrise, singing, “Good moaning, Mommy!” In his rumpled, happy daze, he climbs between the sheets with me. We read through his schoolwork from the week. I unfold a page covered in dots. “Tell me about this,” I say.
“It’s a marauders map. See? There is the Gryffindor common room, here are my footsteps, and Zee’s are there. . . “
“Oh. You drew footsteps.”
“Yep. And rain. Here, this is lightning,” he points.
Next is a picture of bunnies with an arithmetic problem in thick scrawl. I read it. “Two plus eight equals. . . ?”
“Ten. See? And there are two bunnies there. And that’s the Easter Bunny’s house.”
“I see dots inside.”
“Those are all his Easter eggs.”
We go through like this, a dozen papers in all. I am learning to quiet the impulse to declare the things “great” or “cool” or “well done.” I simply ask, “What is this?” I describe what I see, or ask Bug to explain to me what he sees.
Part of the game change around here is to begin mirroring my kid without judgment. This involves stilling the urge to assess his actions in any way, either positively or negatively. No more tepid, knee-jerk praise. “Good job” has overstayed its welcome. I send it packing, along with “awesome” and “nice work.” My preferences and my assessments need not be factors in my son’s pursuits. What matters first is what is happening, and second, the thing that follows. My job now is to put names to these occurrences and help the kiddo link chains of events. He and I can work through correlation and causation. As I help him see and reflect, I aim to let go of judgment’s illusion of control.
This approach to parenting may be so cock-eyed that it will backfire on me. Without giving my son a pat on the back for appropriate behavior, how will he be able to navigate the complicated choices before him? I do not have a clear answer to this. All I have is a sense that it is time for me to right the balance. My capacity to be critical and demanding is so well-honed, I tend to cut off parts of people who venture too close. Bug is never going to suffer as a result of my lazy discipline. The standards I lug around are exacting enough, thank you very much. It is time for Bug to tend to the cultivation of his own.
Let’s be honest. Bestowing and withholding praise are both well-meaning (if ill-conceived) attempts to shape my son to believe what I believe and like what I like. As most kids do, he is apt to learn both to crave my approval and recoil from it. Both are dangerous motivators. Do I really want Bug to be at the mercy of my capricious tastes and mercurial moods? Surely, I do not want to set my son up to swing between chasing down his parents’ admiration and rebelling against it. I want to protect him from, not make him susceptible to, peer pressure, charm, the controlling impulses of the more self-assured, and abuse. I am all too familiar with the tendency of approval -seeking children to grow into acceptance-hungry adults, clutching at wisps of praise as insubstantial as sugar floss in a sweaty grip.
Self-reliance and self-awareness are muscles requiring a steady buildup over time. My kid has to decide for himself how he will read the landscape. As he grows more independent and spends more time away from the brood, he needs the wherewithal to calibrate his own moral compass. Have I taught him to see clearly? Does he know how to assess his own developing stripes, to read his own moods and feelings, to sense in his own gut what is right and wrong?
Here comes the zebra, wandering back into the frame. She pauses to graze. One eye is on the distant field, keeping that tiny foal in her sites.
Her approach is worth a shot. I step back. I gaze at my offspring gazing back at me. He is both of me and separate from me. I release him to the grasses, surrender my grip, and just pay attention.
-“You put your shirt on by yourself.”
-“You threw a fork and it hurt mommy. I shouted. Now your body is curled up. Your face looks like this.”
-“You shared your grapes with that little girl, and she is playing with you.”
I only need to confirm what is already occurring, and try to help Bug’s developing brain consider his state of being. I can help him orient towards his own body and mind, the impact his actions are having, and the (possible) cause and effect of each choice. I can do all of this without pinning on the gold medal. By simply mirroring my son, rewards intrinsic to his behaviors resolve into view.
I believe in my child. I am actually learning to trust him. This is our journey together. As I resist the urge to judge, I allow Bug to watch and learn from my actions, speak his own perceptions, and draw his own conclusions. I also allow him to really see me, and to notice me noticing him.
When someone bears witness to our story, it lives more fully than it ever could when it is swimming inside of us. Because of this, the gift of attention confers both energy and serenity. I want Bug to be seen and known, exactly as he is in this moment. I want my son to hear his experience called back to him across the wide open spaces. I want him to see my pattern and know I am here, always, to help him orient himself. We hold each other, yes. Also, we are free to follow the unique angle of the wind to the source that calls us.