• 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

  • hope1

    Wrestling Hope

    “Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: ‘Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.’” Jurgen Moltmann

    I’ve wrestled a lot with hope in the last few years. Mostly to try and send it away. “Hope deferred makes a heart sick.” I’ve had enough of being sick. But allowing oneself to venture into hell is a dangerous thing as well. I know – I’ve wandered into hell more than once as of late and couldn’t muster the strength to find my way back out.

    I’ve taken to resisting comfort. I’ve fallen for it too many times before. I’ve read the words of scripture and their promises that God will not abandon me or let me fall. My heart has leapt at them only to find that holding onto comfort is like holding onto water as it slips out between your fingers. And God is no where to be seen but my failure is all around me. Better not to let myself try to grab hold any more.

    I’ve gazed at the cross with its promise of redemption after suffering. But Jesus’ suffering lasted for a weekend and mine is lasting for years. Jesus’ suffering was probably greater than mine, but it’s not a competition. My neighbor’s broken leg doesn’t make my broken heart hurt any less. I’d say I just want my suffering to end, but the damage has already been done. What difference does it make now?

    And then I realize that it is an evil thing I’m fighting with which bids me to remain in hell and refuse comfort as too little too late and far too quickly gone. Continue reading

  • Trotter children are immediately identifiable by their curly hair

    Do Your Kids Know Their Own Story?

    I’m having some trouble writing at the moment, so in honor of my daughter Olivia’s 3rd birthday, here’s a repeat which ends with the story of how Olivia came to be – aside from the obvious, of course. (At the time this was written, my husband and I were separated. We’re back together now. For those of you following along at home.)

    Each of my children has a story we tell them about some way in which their lives have mattered.  I believe that it’s one thing to tell a kid they are important and that they matter, but it’s something of a gift to them to be able to tell them how they have mattered.  Then they’re not just a lowly child floating out in the world with no real base or purpose to start with.  It grounds the message that they have value in their real world.  It’s concrete evidence for them that just because they exist, the world is a different, better place. Continue reading

  • family dinner

    Jesus Saved Our Christmas Dinner

    We have a seating problem in our home. Well, two of them actually. The first is that our chairs don’t match and the folding chairs have all lost their stuffing. It’s not very Martha Stewart-ish. Or comfortable. The second is that I have 3 girls under the age of 8. Who all have very strong opinions about where they ought to sit at dinner. And those opinions change nightly. (Yes, yes, I know – each person should have their own seat that they sit in every night. Please, feel free to show up at my house for dinner each night to execute that plan. I’d be mighty appreciative and the best of luck to ya.)

    I almost had the whole thing fixed this summer when I got the idea to have the kids basically draw straws. I marked the tips of 5 sticks with a color. Each color corresponded to a spot at the table. The color of the stick you drew told you which spot you would sit in. The only trouble was the 2 year old hadn’t actually agreed to and didn’t care to understand this plan. So if she wanted to sit in a spot one of her sisters had pulled a stick for, all hell broke lose. If I managed to get the baby to chose a spot first, she would often simply change her mind part-way through. So whatever. We’re back to our nightly game of “who’s going to sit where and who’s going to be upset about it?” It doesn’t happen every night, but often enough. In fact, on occasion a child will even storm off and refuse to eat when a settlement to their liking is not reached. Depending on what we’re having for dinner that night this can be a good thing because, you know – more for me. But not for Christmas dinner. So when my most emotional, dramatic daughter stormed off right before Christmas dinner due to a seating dispute, I figured I ought to go and fetch her. Continue reading