• 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.

  • Parenting Genius

    Honest to goodness, there’s nothing that makes me happier than some good parenting. Those times when you or someone else says something to a kid that is honest and real and makes the world a little more manageable for them to navigate. The things that they’ll repeat to themselves when they need some wisdom or encouragement or a kick in the pants later.

    If the world worked the way it should, the news would include highlights of parenting genius that anonymous parents spouted off that day rather than reports about celebrities boinking and abandoning each other. But I suppose the logistics of such a thing would be a nightmare. Which is why we all know that J Lo and Casper just broke up, but have no clue that this afternoon a woman down the street said things that helped her child be less afraid of dying one day.

    This is why I’m a big fan of Shit My Dad Says. I think I mentioned it once before, but for those who missed it, Shit My Dad Says is the creation of a writer with a sharp eye about his great, foul mouthed dad. It’s funny and wise and much more profound than anything with that much swearing and crude humor has a right to be. His father is a parenting genius, if you ask me.

    Anyhow, GQ has a Shit My Dad Says post up for Father’s Day that I loved and wanted to pass on to y’all. The dad talks like I do if I’m not careful, so there’s lots of swearing involved. But if you mind that, you probably aren’t reading my blog. Anyhow, the context is that the son froze up during a big baseball game and lost the game for his team:

    My dad walked down two rows from the metal stands and tossed a soda he was drinking in the garbage. He headed toward the parking lot a hundred feet away and I followed him in silence until we got to the car.

    “You pitched well,” he said.

    “I lost the game for us,” I said, then burst into one of those cries where all available tears and mucous shoot out of your eyes and nose at once.

    “Now hold on,” he said.

    “Don’t try and tell me I didn’t lose the game for us,” I said, as a snot bubble formed in both nostrils.

    “Shit, I was there son. That ball flew out of your hand like you were setting a fuckin’ dove free. You got no argument here.”

    “Then what are you gonna say? I know it’s just a game, okay?” I said, trying to calm my heaving breaths.

    “What I was gonna say was, your coach is full of shit. It ain’t ‘just a game.’ This is a big goddamn deal,” he said, leaning his back up against the passenger door.

    Continue reading

  • Jesus_with_children

    Suffer Us Little Children

    What parent doesn’t want to be a better parent to their kids?

    And what Christian doesn’t desperately wish to be truly humble? (OK, almost no Christian actually wants any such thing, but play along with me here.)

    What if I told you that I have the secret to attaining these two highly desirable goals all in one fell swoop? Well, I’d become a viral sensation and finally be discovered and recognized as the spiritual genius I am, of course!

    Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Ah. Sorry, sometimes I just need a good laugh. (You may not find me so amusing, but from time to time I crack myself up. It always makes me happy to know that someone thinks I’m funny.)

    Anyhow, in all seriousness, somewhere along the line I picked up a spiritual habit that actually does humble me far more than I want to be humbled. And it does make me a better, more compassionate parent. And I will share it with y’all in case any of you are stupid brave enough to want to follow in my footsteps and enjoy the horrible joyous spiritual misery benefits. (I’m feeling really up on life today. Can you tell?)

    It goes back to something Jesus said:

    “[Jesus] called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Now, the bible is filled with references to God as father. Which would make us children. But it’s often not a particularly helpful concept because we tend to want God the Father to be a grandiose, super hero version of dad rather than a real dad.

    So we think that being dad, God is supposed to protect us from all harm. Which, as anyone who has ever watched Finding Nemo knows, doesn’t actually work in real life. And we want God to be the dad who makes sure his kids have everything they need. Which is no doubt what the father of every child who has ever gone to bed hungry wants as well. We want God to move heaven and earth, changing time and the rules of life itself if that’s what it takes to make things all better. Even though heaven, earth, time and life itself all work the way they do because God made them work that way, presumably for good reasons.

    The truth is that we don’t actually want God the Father. We want God the personal body guard/Santa Claus/magician.

    In real life, dads do provide and protect, to the best of their ability. But mostly they tell you to stop jumping on the couch. They spin you in circles and tickle you and make fart jokes. They refuse to give into your temper tantrums and tell you to wait your turn and share with your sister. They teach you how life works and strategies for coping with its difficulties. They tell you stories and give advice and keep your secrets.

    Once you understand this, Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children takes on a whole new flavor. In fact, what I’ve learned is that when God is not responding to me the way I think he should, it’s because he’s dealing with me like a real father. And I’m acting like a real child. Which is hard to see when I think I’m the righteous heroine in distress and God’s supposed to be my father cum super hero/Santa Claus/magician.

    For example, this spring, I realized that my ongoing anger at God was very much like when my kids would attempt to bend me to their will by throwing the world’s biggest temper tantrum. And that much of my time in the desert was basically God using my own super easy, super effective parenting trick on me. He was just standing by, waiting out my hurt and anger so we could both start to move forward.

    And it makes me appreciate how much God puts up with from me. How rarely he chastises me for my anger and instead offers comfort and understanding. He bends down to my height and listens to my howls of pain and outrage and tells me I’m going to be OK. Then when I won’t be comforted, he withdraws a little to wait until I’m ready.

    But he never mocks me. He doesn’t tell me to shut up and show some appreciation for everything he does for me. He never holds the things I say in anger against me. He doesn’t walk away in disgust. He doesn’t yell at me or tell me to pull myself together and grow up. He doesn’t get angry at me for not showing proper respect. He just loves me through it until I figure things out for myself.

    Realizing how much pain I am in when I throw my spiritual little kid temper tantrums, forces me to look at my children’s temper tantrums with much more compassion. I can see how ridiculous they are sometimes being. But even when they know they’re being kind of ridiculous, they are in so much pain that they just can’t help themselves.

    So I do for them what God does for me. I don’t mock, ridicule or yell at them. I offer comfort and if they won’t take it, I just stand by and wait it out. I understand that as annoying as a temper tantrum throwing little kid is, it’s much worse to be in that much distress.

    Right now I’m in a period of waiting. My life is a disaster. Beyond repair, so far as I can tell. Yet I’ve had multiple people who I trust pass on messages telling me that it’s just a matter of time. God has very good plans for me. But he’s working on his own schedule and he’s not going to deviate from it, even though it’s painful for me.

    This is very frustrating because every time I get upset and beg God to step in and help me and I get angry about my life, I am forcibly reminded of how my kids pester me when I tell them to wait. How they will come to me multiple times a day demanding to know why it’s not their birthday yet. Or asking, “are you ready yet?” over and over. Or wanting to know when their stomach flu will pass.

    Frankly, my kids’ inability to wait irritates me like nothing else. Realizing that I’m in the same boat and that the waiting is unbearably painful both humbles me and gives me new compassion for my kids. I’m not sure I’ve really understood before how much I’m asking from them when I tell them to wait. Which has forced me to be more judicious about when I elevate my priorities over theirs and how long I ask them to wait.

    It also makes me more cognizant of the burden of their trust. I cannot ask them to wait patiently if I cannot be trusted to do what I’ve said I will. I’ve learned to make very, very few promises or commitments with my kids. It drives them nuts, but then when I say I will do something, they can have full confidence that it will happen, no matter how long it takes.

    I don’t honestly like the idea that my problems, which from a human perspective are not small, are so small in the eyes of God. It makes me feel less than. No one likes to feel less than. Like a lot of us, if you tell me that my problems are childish or my pain is caused by my immaturity, I feel angry and humiliated.

    But this reveals a flaw in my thinking; God is not a man who would look on a child’s problems as foolish and inconsequential. The harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. He’s not the sort of parent who demands that his child takes his perspective for their own. He respects our limits and doesn’t treat us with disrespect because we are not as mature, powerful and capable as he is. God asks us to be humble, but never, ever, ever wants us to be humiliated by our status as children.

    We’re children. We have children’s problems. What Love knows, that we too often do not, is that children’s problems are real. The fact that we, from our vantage point as adults see them as foolish and unworthy of care or concern comes from our lack as parents. Yes, sometimes our kids frustrate us and sometimes the gap between their distress and the magnitude of the actual problem makes us laugh. But we should never shame them or humiliate them for seeing things from a child’s perspective.

    Part of what I have learned from humbling myself enough to see that I really am like a child to God who really is like a father is how much is required of us as parents. We speak of child’s problems as if they are small, foolish things. But as I said, the harm done to a child can stay with them for a lifetime. And too often parents minimize the harm done to their children because they are unwilling to be strong, brave and sacrificial enough to help them.

    Think of all the children who are abused by parents who believe they have the right (if not the obligation) to inflict pain on them for their own good, when really the parents are just too immature and out of control to handle the demands of parenting. Or the kids who seek help only to be turned away by adults who are unwilling to risk ruining a reputation or threaten a comfortable family dynamic. Or all the kids who are hurting and in trouble who get met with “tough love” or ignored by adults who want the child to carry all of the burdens placed on them rather than facing their own failures or disrupting long existing ideas about how things are done.

    Then think of what God did for his hurting children on the cross.

    When God asks us to humble ourselves to be little children, he’s not trying to humiliate us. He’s asking us to give him the chance to be the sort of parent that we actually need. To be the parent who is trustworthy and won’t turn away in our time of need. To be the parent who comforts rather than shames us. To be the parent who takes our hurts seriously rather than mocking them. To be the parent who lifts our burdens rather than telling us to buck up under them.

    Which all sounds nice, but there’s a great deal at stake here. You see, it’s very hard to parent when you were never parented well yourself. No matter how much you love your children, when your back’s against the wall, your automatic response will come out of your brokeness rather than your love.

    Children are vulnerable. It’s easy to hurt them without ever meaning to. And if you are unwilling to humble yourself, to allow God to parent you and show you the way, you may cause harm that can’t be undone in this lifetime. Which is why Jesus ended his words about becoming like little children with a promise and a warning for us:

    “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

  • 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

  • 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