The Texture Of Things

This Week in Buzzwords: Empowerment

July 8th, 2008

Yesterday morning the tot and I were on a timeline. We reached the point on the clock when I needed to get into the shower, but I faced a potential problem. I had neglected to intercept the upcoming television show. (The tot and I have a deal: she can watch a show while I shower as long as she has pottied and is generally amiable, and such.) As soon as I saw the story’s set up, I knew this episode would be too emotional for her, but I was unable to convince her that another show would be better. She was determined to watch this particular episode – the story of a young Hispanic girl and her primate sidekick as they struggle through obstacles to return a sad, fallen star to its home.

I knew what would happen if I didn’t come up with something – she would come barrelling in to my bathroom crying, wanting me to get out and change the channel, and that so totally wasn’t happening because every fortnight or so Mama’s gotta shave, ya know?

Now, I often struggle with on-the-spot problem solving, but I saw that I needed to come up with something. The only thing I could think of was that she needed to be in charge of finding another show when this one went inevitably bad. But how to do this in absentia?

Ah, the “LAST” button. Good ol’ Lasty. How could I forget you?

I skimmed the descriptions of the other shows, located one that was more or less safe, and changed the channel there and back. Then I showed her the remote and we spent a quick moment sounding out and reading the word “LAST”. Fortunately the LAST button is easy to find on our remote. I explained how it would take her to the other show if she decided she didn’t want to watch the current show any longer. (She’s had enough experience sitting on and activating other buttons on the remote that I trusted she understood the pointing and pressing aspects involved.) When she seemed to either understand or want me gone or both, I reminded her where she could find me if she needed me, and I was off to sharpen and employ the blades.

For the record, I didn’t actually expect it to work, especially on the first try, but it was worth a go.

Imagine my delight at being nearly done in the shower when in came the tot, not crying but cheering for herself at her great accomplishment. “Mama! Mama! I’m watching [Safe Show Title]! [Insert plot description here]!”

Holy crap. What a lovely shower for me, what a lovely take-charge moment for the tot.

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I wanted to put that story here for a couple of reasons. The first is because I hope for it to be a reminder that my assessment of the tot as “usually sensitive” is based on a pattern of behavior. It’s not like that show is particularly scary or sad or violent; the tot’s threshold just seems to be set a little lower than other kids her age. That’s fine because it’s who she is. So, “sensitive” is not a label she needs to know. When I’m talking to her or about her in public, I try to use less permanent wording, like “Are you feeling shy?” or “When you’re ready you can go play with so-and-so on the teeter-totter.” That said, when it comes down to it, she tends to be a cautious, sometimes reluctant child. (And let’s be honest here, the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, and all. I am also sensitive, so whether it is her inherent nature or learned behavior or a blend is not an answerable question. It simply is, so we just live as we are.)

The second is because I also want to remember a related story from my composition classroom that I might otherwise forget.

I tell this story as a part of the idea generation phase of an expository writing assignment called “Explaining an Abstract Concept.” My students usually have a hard time coming up with an idea – I think the word “abstract” confuses them. Add to that the instruction that they must explain one way of understanding the abstract concept in concrete terms and they feel like tarring and feathering me tomorrow at high noon. So we try to come up with abstract words and then we try to talk through examples of experiences that lead us to certain ways of seeing the terms. Their initial ideas are almost always too complicated and not nearly concrete enough, so I offer them a story about how my daughter (the tot) taught me about what it means to have or not have power.

HG and I agreed early on that we were going to restrict the tot’s early access to the remote controls. How we came to this, I don’t know, but it made sense to us and we were happy with that. The tot, however, reached an age (14 months, maybe?) when she became driven to get ahold of the remote. What she wanted to do with it, I cannot say, but she wanted it soooooo much.

HG and I found ourselves pressured by (especially) our mothers to either let the tot have it or to provide the tot with one that was okay to play with. My mother even went out of her way to ask my extended family members if anyone had one from an old TV set that they didn’t have anymore, specifically so she could give it to the tot.

Something about this didn’t set right with me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew I did not want it: no, I didn’t care if it had no batteries; no, I didn’t care if any potential choking hazard buttons had been removed – the tot simply would not be allowed to have access to a remote control until she was older.

I found myself one evening at school, getting ready to teach my night class and sharing my frustration with a colleague, who had just had her second child four months before I had the tot. When I got to the part about my puzzlement over what my hunch was trying to tell me, she laughed a big, out loud laugh.

“It’s because you know it won’t work anyway!”

I stared, blankly I’m sure.

“Well, it would work for a while,” she said, “until your daughter realizes that it doesn’t do anything. If it has no power (batteries or buttons), then it has no power.”

I continued to stare, blankly I’m sure.

“Why else would she want the remote to begin with?”

Of course. At fourteen months, she had no idea what the remote control did; she only cared about what it stood for: power. And what else is a toddler after but power?

What else are any of us after but power?

As I drove home that night after class, I thought about power – the power in my home, the power in my family (immediate and extended), the power in my world. I remembered what one of my earliest graduate professors had said about power – that it’s transient, it shifts, it’s like energy in that it changes shape and location but is never destroyed.

In the beginning of our family, HG and I held most of the power. (Not all of it, though. A newborn has a lot of power, if you think about it. We offer it up to a baby when we agree to feed on demand, when we begrudgingly stay awake with a little one in the wee hours of the night, and so on.) We made the rules about what she could play with, about when we would leave the house or stay in, about what food was offered, about what she wore, etc. Most of these things she didn’t have an opinion on for a long time, and her drive to get the remote was the emergence of her desire to have a say in the decisions that governed her life.

I realized something that I often forget since that night. If we are going to raise a child to feel comfortable in her own skin, in her world, we have to be aware of the way power shifts between us. We have to be reasonable about letting her have power when the time is right, or close to right, like yesterday. And the shift can come in steps and stages. She’s not going to go from being a kid with little to no power and/or little to no desire for power to an adult prepared to wield it if she doesn’t have some practice first. Letting her practice, get it right and mess it up is a cornerstone of parenting.

Needless to say, of course, is that releasing power is hard, even when you know it’s the right thing to do. It wasn’t hard to hand the tot the remote yesterday, though, because she was more than ready and I was finally there, too. When she figures out how to change it from the Weather Channel to anime or teenage soap operas, well, that’ll be the real test, won’t it?

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