The routine unfolded like it always does. We watched television together, probably something on the Disney channel. We shuttled everyone to the bathroom, then corralled them all to their beds and tucked them in by asking about the favorite parts of their day.
We were surprised, then, to be convening, all five of us, in the middle of the night, in the pitch dark with our beds shaking. All the kids ran into our bedroom, one of them losing balance, running into the wall and screaming.
It had all stopped by the time I was standing up, touching them in the dark and announcing to them what was going on. “It was an earthquake, and it’s all over. We’re all okay,” I said. Everybody grabbed their sleeping bags, dragged them into our bedroom, and we camped out for the next hour looking up news accounts and calmly pointing out when an aftershock followed.
Within the next five hours, my husband and I found ourselves dissecting the night’s event with other parents. With kids running around, periodically interrupting and interjecting, parents took turns describing how the earthquake had unfolded in each of our households. What we were really discussing, as always, though, was how our children reacted, and in turn, how we dealt with those reactions.
There’s a dance that goes on with parents of kids who are the same age. We’re sipping wine and stopping now and again to chastise our children as they run around us, but what’s really going on is an exploration into parenting styles. We’re subtly boasting about our own effective techniques, getting ideas on how to do things better, or simply looking for examples of parenting that we feel is worse than our own so that we can talk about it when we get home.
One parent remarked that her child slept through the entire earthquake and it was a matter-of-fact announcement over breakfast in a manner similar to “wasn’t it sure hot yesterday?”
Another set of parents ran to their child’s bedroom, comforted her and spent the next hour answering questions and reassuring their daughter that the danger was over, there was no way it could hurt them or their home, and that they would be there to protect her.
There I stood, wine glass and cracker in hand, waiting to shake up the earthquake conversation with a pronouncement that I was sure would be a stark contrast.
“After things settled down, I told my kids that I felt the danger had passed, and we were fortunate to all be safe, but I couldn’t guarantee them that it wouldn’t happen again in the future,” I said.
“You’re the cynical parent,” one of the dads remarked.
“Or an honest one,” I said.
The conversation moved on to workout routines and school schedules and highway construction that had been inconveniencing our commutes.
I thought about our difference in parenting styles later that evening. I took the opportunity to teach a lesson that I thought would help my kids approach future problems maturely and wisely. I chose to help them understand that they are vulnerable to things in life that their parents aren’t in charge of.
This is the harshest lesson in life, and one that as adults, we continue to learn our entire lives. Things happen that we can’t control, and they often make no sense. Parenting is all about answering questions. It’s about teaching how things work, showing cause and effect starting with basic lessons like, “if you don’t say please, you won’t get more.” Then as time goes on, children begin to see that there are plenty of times that kids push their way in line and don’t say please and they still get more. As the saying goes, “life isn’t always fair,” and it sometimes doesn’t make sense.
We don’t get to pick how and when our kids start to see there are things in the world that can’t be controlled and can’t be explained. An earthquake that rattles nerves and disrupts sleep, but doesn’t damage a home or ruin a business, is a comparatively gentle way to learn that there are aspects of life subject to luck, chance and fate.
I’m an old school parent in most respects. Even though I’m in earthquake country now, my parenting style is rooted in long nights getting through funnel cloud sightings, lightning, thunder and snow squalls with zero visibility. I try to answer questions honestly and admit what I don’t know—which is a lot.
I don’t know if my approach is the best. Several nights after the earth shook, two of the three kids were still nervous about sleeping alone and were waking up frequently thinking their beds were shaking. I could just bring them in our bedroom, and we’d all get more sleep, I thought to myself. But, no, I decided to cut through the fear the hard way—by consistently sticking to our nighttime ritual and helping them have the courage to go to bed, not with the reassurance that they won’t wake up to shaking, but with an understanding that, while I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, I could help them to recognize what it was and teach them how to react.
I even explained to them that accomplishing new things often means going through tough patches. I told them how the first time they wet their pants, their father wanted to quit potty training and go completely back to diapers. I told them how the first three weeks we fed them solid food, it took so long and was such a mess, this time, both their father and I wanted to go back to bottles. I also told them that taking their pacifiers away shook our house worse than the earthquake, and if we hadn’t toughed it out, they’d have buck teeth right now and wouldn’t be able to talk properly.
I am a cynical parent. But I’m also a tough one who tries to tackle problems head on. It will be a few more years until I find out whether my approach worked, and I may just find out that it worked with one of my kids, but not another. Until then, it will give the other wine-sipping, cracker-eating parents something to talk about.