31 August 2009

What's appropriate about it?

We (the ubiquitous we) overuse phrases. Especially ones that surface in pop psychology. Especially those pop psychology terms that have to do with parenting.

Well, I take issue (shocking, i know) with one I've been hearing a lot.

Age Appropriate Behavior.
I'd like to change it to...

Age Expected Behavior.
(Wonder how i go about changing the national language surrounding certain issues? Call the New York Times?)

There are lots of behaviors that are, in fact, age appropriate. Like a five year old playing house with her dolls. Or a two year old crashing trains into each other. Or a twenty five year old having a glass of wine at the end of a long day of dealing with age-appropriate behaviors.

But then there are the others. These are the behaviors that are, in fact, not appropriate for any aged person to exhibit. Like a five year old slinging her watercolor water all over the kitchen table. Or a two year old throwing himself in the floor at Kroger because you won't buy the mnms. Or a twenty five year old having six vodka tonics at the end of a long day of dealing with various behaviors.

These behaviors are not appropriate. Appropriate is a normative term. It denotes value. The value that it describes is that something is 'okay' - something that is not to be corrected. The ol' Merriam Webster says it means 'especially suitable or compatible' and that the most appropriate synonym is 'fitting.'

My mother nods approval at appropriate dress.
My father edits sentences so that they use appropriate language.
My husband teaches appropriate finger position on a flute.
I (try to) serve meals with appropriate balance of food groups, spices, etc.

We celebrate the appropriate. We encourage it. We cultivate it.

I have been noticing this because people keep telling me that my son's behavior is 'age appropriate.'

I appreciate the desire to give him some leeway - and i appreciate the motivation behind telling me this - which is, i think and hope, wanting me not to worry that I have a child on my hands who will, in fact, be crying when his sister leaves him when he's 20. Or saying "no" to every question asked of him when he's mad on his 13th birthday. Or climbing to the tops of water towers at 16. (okay, so the latter is definitely possible).

I do hope he 'grows out of' many of these behaviors. But, after being around a lot of children most of the day every day for the past year, I am here to tell you that if a parent waits for a child to grow out of 'age-appropriate' behavior, he or she may wait a while.


Because as parents, we are supposed to grow our children.

Grow is both a transitive and an intransitive verb. Which means that, yes, a tomato plant grows. But a person also can grow a tomato plant. Grow can very well take a direct object. And when it does, says M-W, it means 'to promote the development of'.

When one looks at a weak, fruitless seedling tomato plant, one does not say to himself, "i hope that plant grows out of that." No, we say, "What can I do to grow that plant into a fruitbearing, strong, mature state?"

So, I'd like to change the phrase to Age Expected. Because we expect our two year old to throw tantrums, but we don't celebrate it, cultivate it, teach it. And we are not supposed to condone it.

We don't lose sleep, because, it is, in fact, expected that at this age, he'll misbehave in many different ways. We expect it. But we expect it to change. And, this is key, we expect to be instrumental in that change. Because if you don't water a tomato plant, it will not grow.

If you don't correct a child, he will not grow.

You cannot pray him out of it, hope him out of it, or stick your head in the sand and wait him out of it. You can try all those things, but unless you are incredibly lucky, they won't work.

You must grow him - lovingly, tenderly, and most of all, intentionally - out of these behaviors.

So, I'm glad for those friends, family and strangers in Kroger who keep telling me that it is "age appropriate" for my child to act a fool. Because I think what most of them mean is that what he is doing is expected at this point along the journey.

But as I look around, I cannot help but wonder if many of the behavior problems we see at all ages these days have something to do with this normative term creeping in. If you say something is appropriate, and you define appropriate with its most oft-used and correct definition, you might start to believe that throwing banana slices across your highchair tray to try to land them in the measuring-cup-drawer is something we should cheer, or at the very least just ignore and clean up, rather than something at which we should smile out of the corner of our mouths and then correct - perhaps by redirecting our children to throw pennies at a jar on the kitchen floor.

Or when he jumps up on the shelves-in-progress in your den wearing nothing but his newborn brother's hat, you'll laugh, take a picture, and then say "You are NOT allowed to climb on the furniture, even before its finished being built."

I want my children to be appropriate. I expect them to fail at many turns, just like I do every day. They are not a complete work, just as I am not.

I hope I am learning to say, "Sweetheart, that is not appropriate," knowing all the while that it's perfectly expected.

1 comment:

  1. If I could "like" this post with a thumbs up, I would, but as you know, I am far to cool for the "like" button. But I am glad you have come to this realization, and I think it is one on which the majority of society misses out. Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child and that is why these behaviors are expected although not appropriate.