"But Mom! It's not fair! I don't want to help Henry put his zippy jammies on! You ALWAYS ask me to do things! Claire NEVER has to do anything for you!", shouted my oldest son from upstairs.
I'm sure Claire would have completely agreed with her older brother, except she was too busy clearing the table for me...or at least I was busy trying to coax her to do so.
It was the second week of school and I was trying hard to get my four kids back into a nightly routine that included homework, dinner, baths, reading and bed at a somewhat reasonable hour. I was just about to pretend not to hear the complaint when he started in again.
"You know what else isn't fair? Claire only has a tiny bit of homework. This year I have two math worksheets, my reading log AND writing every night. By the time I finish I NEVER have time to do what I want to do. It's not fair!"
As I was listening to the words, "time to do what I want to do," my mind wandered off the whining tirade of superlatives to a vision of myself sipping a glass of red wine and starting the new fall scarf I wanted to knit. Hmm... should I use the Malabrigo sock or the Handmaiden silk I purchased at the yarn festival? My youngest started to climb the stairs and I was forced back into responsible parenting.
As I was rescuing my marooned toddler from her perilous position on the stairs, I shouted back up at him, "She is ONLY in first grade you are in fourth grade this year. When you were in first grade you had the same teacher which means guess what - the same homework."
"Humpf! It's still not fair," he said as he glowered down at me from the top of the stairs.
"Let me fill you in on a little secret buddy," I said in a calmer tone. "As you get older you will have more responsibilities, but more responsibilities equals more privileges too."
He quickly shot back, "Well I don't see any more privileges. I do the same things they do every night. We go to bed at the same time. I don't get to do anything that they don't. All I see is more responsibility. Show me the privileges."
Crap. I guess he did have a point. I hate when I'm caught off guard in parenting. Although, at this point I should be used to the feeling. I struggled to think of a retort, but just managed to throw the parenting wild card, "Well, we'll talk about it later. Help your brother and stop complaining."
As each school year starts, I revisit the balance of responsibility and privilege for the kids. Even if it's not intentional, this is naturally the time when we start new routines, incorporating the increased responsibilities of school and the change in privileges among their peers.
As a part of this, I remind myself of one of the main goals of parenting: to raise responsible, independent citizens. Eventually, if my husband and I have done our job right (and with lots of grace thrown in), our kids, while hopefully wanting to be around us, will be able to handle their own responsibilities as adults and not depend on us for their basic needs. So how do we get there?
This is one of the many reasons I've come to understand that parenting is more of an art than a science. I wish it was more of a science. If only there was a book to tell me exactly when I should no longer check every part of my son's homework, when my daughter is ready to handle a week at summer camp or what age I should let my son walk around the neighborhood alone with his buddies.
There are general guidelines, but they are just that. Each child matures at his/her own pace and so as a parent, I must rely on my intuition to know when to expect more from my kids and when to grant more independence. I'm also finding that my intuition is better informed the more I'm in tune with my kids, which makes working on my personal relationships with each one of them very important.
Later that night, when I was tucking my son into bed, a perfect time to connect with them individually, I revisited our earlier discussion. I asked him what privilege he wanted to have. He told me that he wanted to stay up longer than his younger siblings. That way, he could draw in bed or do other things that he didn't get to do now that he had more homework. I told him he could stay up an extra half hour, as long as I could count on him to be a responsible fourth grader. We talked about what I would expect him to do and agreed to give it a go.
The first couple of weeks have gone well. When he starts to slip back to the ways of a third grader, I just mention that I won't show him the privilege unless he shows me a responsible fourth grader. In retrospect this one was a relatively easy one. At least he wasn't asking for the keys to the car. Well, not yet!
I know that in the future letting the rope out for each of the kids will only get harder. I will just have to trust that the hard work of building a strong relationship with them now will pay off in the future as we inevitably make mistakes together on the path to responsible, independent adulthood.