• Allow Me to Share the Holy Grail of Parenting

    209750_1846076945281_1961977_oAfter 5 kids and 19 years of parenting, I have finally discovered the Holy Grail of parenting. The one thing you need to know in order to lighten your load and teach them to be responsible, thinking, healthy people with good judgment. As early and as often as is safe and feasible, start repeating these words to yourself: “meh. I’m sure they’ll figure it out eventually.”

    Seriously. Try it. It’s a long term strategy, but it works. And it’s much, much, much easier than continually forcing your will on another human being who is clearly lacking in judgment. I know it’s hard to believe, but kids are capable of learning on their own. They do think about things. And it’s much easier for them to admit when they are wrong when they don’t have someone standing over them demanding that they do so.

    If there’s one mistake I made as a mother, it’s that I have a tendency to over-teach. I’m a good teacher and I know a lot, so I mostly missed the downside to this habit. While me providing in-depth, detailed instructions on everything makes it easy for my kids to learn, it also means that they view me as a walking instruction/information dispenser and so have no responsibility to figure anything out on their own. If I’m not available to provide the required instructions, might as well just wait until I am available to deal with the issue.

    Shockingly, the one thing they did figure out for themselves was how to use my teacherly impulses to manipulate me. They all know that I have a Pavlovian response to the sound of a question being asked and will automatically launch into a long-winded (but interesting) answer or story when asked one. Which comes in handy at bedtime, chore time or whenever they want attention from me. It’s entertainment and a diversion tactic all in one! But in the meantime, my 16 year old would claim that the kitchen was a mess because he wasn’t sure where anything went and the world will fall apart if he puts the cake pan in the wrong cabinet.

    I’m still susceptible to “ask mom a question” tactic, but I figure that at worst they’ll end up being good listeners and there aren’t nearly enough of those. However the one thing I wish I would have understood better 19 years ago is how to use a lighter touch in instructing my kids. If I had it to do over again, I would leave more room for my kids to reach their own conclusions, do dumb things and take time to learn some of life’s lessons for themselves.

    I think we underestimate how competent our kids actually are at this process learning how to be human. We forget that they think about what we say and they want to be good so long as it doesn’t mean giving up on having fun. They are capable of self-correction. Maybe not in the moment, but over time. They want to find solutions to their problems. And if you can learn to refrain from stepping in to correct and direct them at every turn, they will figure it out . . . eventually.

    Seriously. My teen even started wearing a jacket to the bus stop. Eventually.

  • When Parents Disagree

    What I’m about to say flies in the face of nearly everything you’ve ever heard on the subject of how to handle disagreements between parents. But it’s my blog and my life and I can do that when I see fit, right? And on the topic of how parents should handle disagreements between them, I have no problem saying that the standard advice is horrid and wrong.

    So, no doubt you have heard many times that while you and your partner may have disagreements when it comes to parenting, it is important that you present a unified front to your kids. Which is, if I may be so bold as to say this, utter bullshit. And if you take it too far, it can be damaging to your kids to boot. Allow I to explain.

    No two people will ever agree on everything. And inevitably when dealing with something as challenging and complex as parenting, sharp disagreements will arise. This is reality. And unless reality is so ugly that it would traumatize your children, you are never doing any favors to your kids when you hide reality from them. At some point they are going to have to head out into the world and find their way. So they need to have some idea of what they will be dealing with and some idea of how they can manage.

    Pretending that you and your spouse are in total agreement when it comes to parenting is nothing more than hiding reality from your children. And it’s totally unnecessary. Continue reading

  • Why the White Dude Crossed the Tracks

    Back when I did prison ministry, we used to have this crazy old white dude who would come in to talk with the boys. He had a ministry working with gangs on the streets of Chicago. He had occasionally even managed to bring high up people representing large, dangerous gangs together to reach agreements which would reduce the levels of conflict, and therefore the levels of violence between them.

    Youth for Christ, a national organization which includes Campus Life, City Life, and Juvenile Justice Mission, provided funding for his ministry by employing him between 1982 through 2008. Which is a really long, long time to be a youth minister. Most burnout within their first decade.

    At the time I was involved with prison ministry, crime had just reached a 20 year high, and the problem was most acute in urban areas like Chicago with high density, segregated housing. There were some places that police avoided patrolling out of fear of being targeted by violence, so his ability to develop relationships and gain trust among the gangs was the subject of a lot of interest.

    He was invited to speak to kids in prisons all over Northern Illinois and served as a youth chaplain for the Cook County Sheriff’s department. He made sure that at every step along the path a vulnerable kid was taking, he was there to tell them about Christ’s love.

    The man’s name was Gordon and he looked like a comedy version of a used car sales man. Wore ill fitting and mismatched business clothes. Had a BAD comb over. He was in his late fifties when I met him. But I was 18 at the time, so he could have been my grandpa. If my grandpa were a used car sales man in the early 80s. Gordon had a way of talking that was slightly disjointed, but jokey enough that he kept his audience engaged. He came off as a bit of a fool, really.

    But it was all very deliberate. Continue reading

  • Raising Moral Kids Pt. 3

    Let’s say that you take your young child to a friend’s house and while she is there, she breaks a toy. Would you prefer that she:

    A. Bring you the toy, ask for help fixing it and apologize for breaking the toy.

    Or

    B. Hide the toy so no one will know that she broke it?

    Let me give you a minute to think about this one . . . . OK, I’m psychic so I already know that your answer is A. You’d rather have a kid who admits her error, apologizes, tries to correct her error and will ask for help to do so. You’d also rather have a kid who didn’t lie to you, didn’t hide from you and was able to admit when she is wrong. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

    It just so happens that we know what the difference is between a kid who hides a toy they broke and one who takes responsibility for it:

    Parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders. ~ Raising a Moral Child, NYT

    The difference between a kid who admits error and a kid who avoids it is the difference between guilt and shame. While sometimes you will hear people talking about healthy shame, the truth is that shame is often really toxic. We will do just about anything to avoid it. Including hiding our errors, lying, engaging in destructive self-soothing behaviors, mistreating others and ourselves. People will go to their graves never knowing a moment of real peace or love rather than facing their shame.

    Clearly shame is part of the normal repertoire of human emotions, but way more often than not, we experience it in really unhealthy ways. Too many parents encourage shame in their kids as a way to control them. Even parents who know better will unknowingly create shame in their children. According to current thinking, based on pretty much every human’s experience, shame is what you get when a caregiver uses anger, fear, ridicule or contempt in an attempt to control their child’s behavior. Continue reading

  • Raising Moral Kids Pt. 2

    So, I started telling y’all about an interesting article on what research can tell us about raising moral kids. Today’s take-away from that article has to do with the role of positive re-enforcement in creating moral children. But first, a quick word about positive re-enforcement. Back when I was in college, in the very first education class I took, the very first lesson we got on classroom management was this: punishment is the least effective tool in your disciplinary toolbox. So it should be the tool of last resort, not your go-to when things got rough.

    There was plenty of research to back this claim up as well as the fact that exemplary teachers report that this is their experience as well. By far, the most effective tool you have is praising what a kid gets right. Everyone wants approval. It’s human nature. If you show approval of the sort of behavior you want from your kids, they will engage in more of that behavior because it now has a very positive association for them. It reminds them of something about themselves that they can feel good about.

    Of course, then you have nimrods like the man who is principal of our local middle school. I once had a conversation with him that, I swear to you, went like this:

    Me: Mr. Nimrod Idiot, Sir, as I am sure you are aware, since it’s the first lesson they teach on classroom management, punishment is the least effective form of discipline. I am concerned that the only discipline tool being used to address the tiniest of infractions involving my dear innocent child is punishment. The child has being punished for a wide variety of infractions, including, but not limited to: trying to take a plastic bottle he brought from home out of the lunch room so he could continue reusing it, being late for class because the janitor hasn’t managed to get the lock on his locker fixed and you won’t assign him a new one and laughing at a joke I made when he called from the office to ask me a question. I would like to discuss alternative ways of helping my child to conform to the school’s expectations which do not depend on punishing him continually.

    Principal Nimrod: Yes, you are correct, we do know from research and experience that punishment is the least effective form of discipline. However, we just believe that if we continually confront and punish students when they step out of line, they will eventually get tired of it and exert some self-discipline to change their behavior.

    OK, I didn’t actually call him Mr. Nimrod Idiot, that’s just what I call him in my head, but seriously – that’s nearly word-for-word what he said. And that’s why I think I need to go pray for him some more.

    Anyways, positive re-enforcement is a tried and true tactic, but it turns out that there’s a small caveat; you can do it wrong. Continue reading

  • Raising Moral Kids, Pt 1

    I thought this was a great article in the NYT about what researchers have to say about raising moral kids. A lot of it is stuff we all know is true (but hope we can find a way around). So it’s interesting to learn that some of our old parenting gems aren’t just theoretically true, but that they’ve been proven true as well. Which is particularly comforting for some of us who went against the grain, did these things and discovered that raising a good person doesn’t automatically turn them into leaders of industry. Those are two different skills sets, it turns out.

    Anyhow, the article covered a lot of ground, but I have a take-away I wanted to pass on today and one more for tomorrow. And one more the day after that. I decided that two 2000 word posts in one day might be a bit much, so I’m splitting it up.

    Besides, it’s an important topic. I genuinely believe that the way we raise our kids is what will ultimately change the world. For my part, I believe that raising kind, caring, moral children should be just as important as raising kids who can get into college. Or who can still find her purity ring to wear home from college. More important, really. But if we believe that, we have to live it. So, here’s today’s research-supported bit of parenting wisdom:

    Your kids will do what you do, not what you say.

    I know, crazy, right? Who knew? It’s not like every single one of us is walking around feeling guilty as hell knowing that our kids will inevitably struggle with many of the same imperfections as we do. And that I am completely helpless to stop it because I am simply not capable of being perfect enough to keep it from happening. So I lie to myself and think, “they’ll take my advice rather than following my instructions. After all, why would they want to end up like me? That’s got to be a powerful deterrent, right?”. . . Or maybe that’s just me. It’s probably just me.

    Anyway, the good news is that what you do right has more power than you probably realized. Continue reading

  • My Amazing Discipline Trick!

    One of these days, I’ll have to tell you about my oldest son Noah. He was really something. Even my mom didn’t want to watch him. And she had 9 kids. But that’s a kind of long story for another day. Suffice it to say he was challenging.

    One of the things which made Noah particularly difficult is that he simply wasn’t responsive to punishment. He wasn’t vulnerable to any sort of trickery. “Flattery will get you no where” may well have been his first complete sentence. Time out was me dealing with a two hour fight and I’m sorry, you don’t get to just make me miserable for two hours straight like that. Day after day. Just . . . nothing I tried really worked. He was getting better over time, but good Lord, at the rate we were going he was going to be having temper tantrums on his honeymoon.

    I think it was while reading some book on positive parenting that I came across the idea which actually worked. And it’s the discipline trick I’ve turned to almost exclusively with all my other kids. Because it works. AND it teaches them skills that they need to be good, healthy people. But it’s so simple, you might think I’m crazy. Continue reading

  • Great Power and Petty Beligerance

    Yesterday, I wrote about how the changing role and nature of authority in our lives demands that we change the way we parent our kids. Which is why my first rule of parenting is to raise good men and women, not good children.

    Of course, as the existence of our prison system and the IRS demonstrate, authority still exists. Our kids do need to know how to submit to some authority other than their own. Even when they disagree with it. So it’s not that I’ve give up all authority over my children. Especially with five kids, there’s no way our family could function!

    Which leads to my second rule of parenting: great powers do not respond to petty belligerence. Especially in Christians circles, a great deal of weight is placed on establishing and maintaining the near absolute authority of the parents. The idea seems to be that the parent’s authority is under constant threat from rebellious children. Therefor, resistance to a parent’s authority must be dealt with as the threat it is.

    I think this is ridiculous. I’m in charge. I know I’m in charge. My kids know I’m in charge. I don’t need to waste my time proving to them that I’m in charge. Nor do I need to force them to continually reassure me that they still recognize my authority. Great powers can tolerate protests, complaints, petitions for change and challenges without fear. Only insecure powers feel that they must respond to and crush every petty belligerency.

    A great deal of conflict, stress, resentment and drama is created in families by parents who take their kids behavior as a threat to their authority. It’s a very ugly dynamic that I’ve seen lead to terrible parenting and destroyed relationships. And it’s completely and totally unnecessary.

    I refuse to take my child’s behavior that personally. They behave the ways they do for their own reasons, not to see if they can knock me off my throne. Even when they are deliberately testing boundaries, it’s no threat. And I let them know that. If they go too far, I will put a stop to it, but otherwise, they enjoy a great deal of freedom. And they are allowed to renegotiate the boundaries from time to time. I’m in charge. I can decide to move boundaries if I see fit.

    Because of this, my children trust me. They know that I’m not engaged in senseless power struggles with them when I do put my foot down. They know that I will show respect for them even if they do not show respect for me, because I’m not nearly as childish as they are. They know that I will remain in control even when they do not. They know I can be trusted to listen to their concerns and deal fairly with them.

    So, the next time you are in conflict with your children, stop and make sure than an unwarrented concern for maintaining power isn’t driving you. Maybe get a t-shirt made to remind yourself, “Great powers are not threatened by petty belligerence”. You’re a great power in a secure position and none of you have anything to prove on that front.

  • Raise Good Adults, Not Good Kids

    I read a story a while back about an anthropologist who was studying some tribal group in New Guinea. He noticed that everyone had at least one odd shaped, irregular scar. When he asked what the scars were from, he was told that they were from falling into a fire as a very young child.

    You see, this tribe believed that all humans, including children, have a right and a responsibility for making their own choices. So when a young child would get too close to the fire, that was their choice and no one had a right to stop them from making it. Of course, the judgment of children is generally less than stellar, so inevitably, each child eventually fell into the fire. At that point, the adults or older children would quickly pull them out. If someone needs help, you help them after all. The end result was that everyone had a scar from the experience and everyone learned at a young age to be careful around the fire.

    While allowing a small child to fall into a fire without trying to stop or warn them is inconceivable to probably all of us, it struck me when I read this that there was great wisdom in this story.

    We live in a time when the challenge for us as parents is raising our kids to live in a world where they have almost complete freedom. Not so long ago, various institutions held a lot of sway over our lives. People generally trusted the church, community norms, the government, schools, employers and even the media to show them right from wrong. In that kind of world, teaching your children to obey authority, starting with your own, was of primary importance.

    Today, authority just aint what it used to be. First of all, authority has been completely discredited for most of us. Our churches, government, schools, employers and media have all been shown to be corrupt, self-dealing, untruthful and untrustworthy. There are those who would like to see the institutions and their authority rebuilt.

    However, it seems unlikely that people who have experienced what it is like to make their own choices and create their own norms free from the expectations and pressures of authority will go back to submitting to any institution. And given the problems amply demonstrated by human history of people engaging in the worst sorts of evil at the behest of the powers and social norms that be, this is probably a good thing.

    The destruction of authority does, however, create a problem for parents. When all of a person’s life was going to be spent submitting to authority, it made sense for parents to raise their kids to be compliant and obedient. But the reality of the world our children will go into when they leave our homes practically demands that we raise our children differently than we did in the past. Continue reading

  • banshee2

    Screaming Like A Banshee, How Not To

    Once upon a time, self-mastery/self-control was a highly valued trait for a Christian to have. Unfortunately, what passed for self-mastery was too often little more than repression and denial. Of course, neither repression or denial are held in very high esteem these days (and for good reason!). But the downfall of repression and denial has in turn lead to the virtue of self-mastery being downgraded from a highly sought after virtue to barely an after-thought in the Christian life.

    The reason that self-mastery has traditionally been held in such high regard among Christians, is because it is held in high regard by scripture. 2 Peter 1 connects self-control with partaking of God’s divine nature, for example. Self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:232 Timothy 1:7 lists self-control alongside power and love as the result of God’s spirit. Proverbs 25:28 says that a person without self-control is like a city whose walls have been breached. When Paul was imprisoned by Felix, he taught “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” when asked to preach on faith in Jesus. I could go on, but the point is that even though we’ve rightly tossed out the practice of repression and denial, we ought to cling to and work to develop self-mastery as part of our Christian faith.

    So . . . the question becomes how to cultivate self-control once repression and denial are no longer desirable tools. It just so happens that self-control is something I have spent a lot of time helping my children to develop over the years. Unfortunately for me (and everyone’s eardrums), self-control didn’t come naturally to any of my children. In fact, it often felt like trying to teach a fish to walk. At the moment, it’s my middle daughter who is receiving intensive tutoring on the subject. She’s the one, if you recall, would rather miss a meal than compromise on where to sit at dinner and who responds to a light swat on the rear with shrieks of “help, I need immediate medical attention!” So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But progress is being made.

    What I do have going for me is 18 years of experience teaching decidedly uninterested, unreasonable and hysterical children the fine art of self-control. And so I figured I would share this week’s lesson with y’all as well. Just in case it might help someone.

    The first step I’m teaching Miss-screams-a-lot is to start by simply identifying how she is feeling. Like all of us, this child has a feeling, comes up with reasons to justify that feeling and then believes that those reasons are the cause of her misery. Thus we are treated to a barrage of “she did this and he did that and they’re being mean to me and everyone’s always mean to me and I’m sick of it” several times a day which no amount of reasoning can do anything to stop. We’ve talked about this before – we like to think that we react for perfectly good reasons, but the reality is that we react and then come up with perfectly good reasons to justify it. By starting with the feeling, rather than the provocation, we addressing the actual cause for the lack of self-control. Continue reading