Monday, September 25, 2006

Peer Pressure Parenting

A recent incident involving my son and a friend of his made me realize how far I’ve let my boundaries be pushed by other parents. All the discussions I’ve had with my kids about peer pressure should have been directed at myself. I have been so worried about fitting in, not making waves, being accepted as a lesbian; I’ve let my own values be pushed around.

Somehow, someway, in my thought process, I believed that if I was liked and respected in this suburban neighborhood, my kids would have life easier. I already feel guilty about having given them a title of ‘other’ as kids of lesbian parents. They have two moms. Started life with a sperm bank syringe and a basil body temperature chart, not the kind of intercourse described, barely, in school sex education classes. Of course, there is an advantage when describing where babies usually came from- my boys all shrieked at the penis in the vagina thought. “EW! Who would want to do that?” Clearly, not me. I just shrugged and said, someday it might not seem so icky.

My kids' story isn’t like most of their friends. I try to console myself by remembering being adopted was often viewed as an exotic beginning by my childhood peers but it never made me feel different. Lucky, but not different. I still had a mother and father. I could still sit with my difference and never have to tell a soul. My boys do not share the same invisibility. Two moms show up at the school functions, two moms take turns dropping them off at school, two moms volunteer for field trips. And to top it off, two dads, too. We love being a part of their lives and couldn’t imagine parenting any other way.

Which brings me back to the problem of another parent’s ‘style,’ and my painful reluctance to call her on it. My middle son has a friend who I believe is struggling with boundaries, respect and being able to follow rules, to say the least. Mostly, I think my son’s desire not to make anyone unhappy (in true middle child fashion) has led to a complicated friendship. The mother of the other child often asks for play dates after school while everyone is standing around, letting the kids play on the structure for a while before taking them home. At their house, there are almost no rules, kids do as they please, with very little, if any supervision. I do not like my son there. From the first time I went into the home, I felt a strong reaction to the lack of any boundaries. Her children voiced their disapproval of her in loud voices and often kicked her for good measure. As if nothing had happened, she would move on, ignoring the insult, the physical attack. I struggled to stay quiet- they weren’t my kids. I should have stuck to my instincts, not let my kid go back over and waited for the invitations to stop. But it wasn’t that simple.

Aside from her parenting style, I generally liked the other mother. And she was so supportive of me, of my family, of my kids. She supported gay marriage rights. She never blinked at our difference. I felt like I owed it to her not to blink at her difference from me. Who am I to tell anyone how to parent? Some people think my kids should be taken away from me simply because I am a lesbian. Who am I to judge? And I placed my child in her care, over and over again, even though it made me uncomfortable. I kept thinking I was being overly protective. My son knew not to ride bikes helmet-less in the middle of the road. He knew he wasn’t to wander thought the neighborhood without an adult. Even though her kids did that stuff, he wouldn’t.

But he did. I would catch him on my way to pick him up and he would swear he wouldn't do it again. Promise.

You may think I stopped sending my son there, but I didn’t. My own fear about being mean, about being judgmental, was really about the fear of being an outsider. I didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t want to say no. I was afraid of being shut out.

I’d like to think I did this all for my kids but in truth, I did it for myself. I avoided confrontation. I avoided being ostracized. I felt powerless and instead of doing something about it, I simply convinced myself I could be a good influence on the other boy. In the meantime, my son struggles with his friendship to this boy. “He doesn’t like it when I talk to my other friends. He starts shouting and making weird noises. I don’t like it.” I urge him to tell the other boy. “He’s all like in love with me all the time,” my son shrugs uncomfortably. He doesn’t like sloppy love, long hugs, or confinement in anything. He’s a wonderful spirit built like a tank. He wants to move and go with no one holding onto his shirttail. Tell him you like all your friends, I suggest. Invite him to play along but don’t feel like you only have to play with him. He agrees to give it a try.

The play date requests continue and I turn some down. Then comes the guilt. “My son was crying today because your son wouldn’t play with him.” The boy is curled next to his mother, at last not kicking her, with a tear stained face. I feel terrible. The tears evoke sympathy in me. “He won’t play with me!” he cries to me. That must be hard, I respond, I’m sorry. The mother asks me to tell my son to stop it, to play with her son. They are best friends, she says. I try to ignore the mother and ask the son if he has a hard time when others want to join the game. “They’re stupid!” he shouts. I think they’re his friends, too. The boy shoves his mother and runs off, alone, to his house.

My boundaries are in shambles- I don’t believe everyone has to be nice all the time. I don’t believe friends are always friends for life. And I can’t believe I just let some kid shout at me. The other mother lets me know it’s up to me to fix this and she’s horrified at how terrible my son is being.

Did I walk away then? No. My son was firm and the boy eventually gave in and let others play, as long as he could have a lot of special time with mine. Which meant more play dates.

I just learned more unsupervised, unsafe behavior has been going on. The house, I said to my son, is in permanent time out.

He was relieved.

I’m left here wondering what happened to my ability to say no? Why wasn’t I more concerned with my own child’s safety than my own sense of peer pressure? Why was I so obsessed with conformity and acceptance that I let my values, my beliefs, and my principles, be completely overrun? And more importantly, how do I get my voice back? This time, not for me. It really has to be for my kids.


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